Pesach and its Moral Imperative

par Yamin Levy, Rabbi
Yamin Levy

Yamin Levy, Rabbi

The holy day of Pesach is so fundamental to the Jewish religious theological and spiritual experience it is difficult to decide where one begins to discuss the nature, meaning and resonance of the festival. The Exodus is mentioned a myriad of times throughout the TaNakh, including biblical poetry, and is linked to numerous commandments. This is not simply a historical note – it heralds the birth of the Jewish nation and becomes imprinted in the collective memory of the people which in turn is legislated as a Mitzvah to continuously remember the day we left Egypt:

« You shall not eat upon it Hametz; seven days shall you eat upon it Matzot, the bread of affliction because in haste you left the land of Egypt so that you will remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life » (Devarim 16:3)

The Exodus from Egypt becomes the universal symbol of human suffering throughout the ages and what we, as a people do with that memory is an expression of Jewish philosophy, Jewish theology and basic Jewish values. The great revolution of monotheism was not simply substituting polytheism for the belief in one God. Serving Hashem involves abiding by the ethical and moral norms He demands of us. The Torah links the Exodus from Egypt to basic ethical and moral duties we have toward our fellow human beings. The message in remembering and reenacting our suffering in Egypt is not meaningless, on the contrary it is full of meaning that we might use to better ourselves and our community and our world creatively and nobly.

Remembering the Exodus humbles the heart and keeps us loyal to God:

But your heart may then grow haughty, and you may forget God your Lord who brought you out of the house of bondage that was Egypt (Devarim 8:14)

On numerous occasions the Torah links our bondage in Egypt to the fact that the Jewish people have a moral imperative to be compassionate of the stranger and the less fortunate

You shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this thing. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back and take it; it shall be left for the stranger, the orphan and the widow, so that the Lord, your God, will bless you in all that you do…. (Devarim 24:18-19)

This experience is imprinted into the national memory of the Jewish people and is a constant reminder of their obligation towards those less fortunate. The Torah makes a point to be very specific about whom the Jewish people must show a special degree of compassion. An aspect of the Shabbath for example, becomes a weekly expression of empathy towards the servant and maidservant as a result of the Exodus from Egypt:

« And the seventh day is Shabbath unto the Lord your God; You shall perform no labor – neither you, nor your son or daughter, or your manservant or maidservant, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your animals, or the stranger who is in your gate in order that your servant and maidservant may rest like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord your God commands you to observe the Shabbath day. » (Devarim 5:13-14)

One must be especially sensitive to the plight of the stranger in our midst:

« If a stranger should live among you in your land, you shall not wrong him. A stranger who lives with you shall be like one who is born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. » (Vayikra 19:33-36; also Shemoth 22:20; 23:9)

The Torah expects one to treats their Hebrew servants with dignity and humanity because of our experience as slaves in the land of Egypt:

« And if your brother who is with you grows poor and he is sold to you do not cause him to serve as a bondman. He shall be like a hired servant and a sojourner with you; until the jubilee year shall he serve with you. And then he shall depart from you, he and his children and return to his family and to the inheritance of his forefathers shall he return. For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt, they shall not be sold as bondmen. You shall not rule over him with rigor, but you shall fear your God. » (Vayikra 25:39-43; also Vayikra 25:55)

When a servant finishes his or her indentured service the Torah commands that they be set free with gifts and money so they can get back on their feet. Here too the Torah links this concern for the indentured servant to the national memory of the Exodus.

« If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman is sold to you, then he shall serve you for six years and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you – you shall not send him empty-handed. You shall surely furnish him from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your vineyard; of that which the Lord your God has blessed you shall you give him. And you shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; Therefore, I command you this thing today. » (Devarim 15:12-15)

How a Jewish society treats the weak becomes a defining value in governance. The Torah does not mince words when it discusses how the widow, the orphan and the stranger must be looked after.

« You shall not pervert the justice of the stranger or the orphan, nor shall you take a widow’s garment as a pledge. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord you God redeemed you from there, therefore I command you to observe this thing. » (Devarim 24:17-18)

In the same vain but in much harsher terms the Torah states:

« You shall not taunt or oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not oppress the widow or the orphan. If you dare cause them pain – for if they cry out to Me, I shall surely hear their cry. My wrath shall blaze, and I will kill you by the sword and you wives will be widows and your children orphans. » (Shemoth 22:20-23)

God has no tolerance for the oppression of the weak especially when those victimizing the frail were themselves once the victims of tranny and taskmasters. God will personally intervene on behalf of the widow, orphan and stranger as He did on behalf of the Jewish people in Egypt.

It is no surprise that the Exodus from Egypt becomes a primary theme of the Kohen Gadol’s speech to the military prior to war. In order to encourage the soldiers not to fear the enemy the Torah instructs the Kohen to say to them:

« When you go out to war against your enemy and you see horses, and chariots, a nation more numerous that you – do not fear them, for the Lord your God is with you; He brought you up from the land of Egypt » (Devarim 20:1)

Moses also invoked the miraculous Exodus from Egypt when encouraging the people prior to their conquest of the land of Israel.

« If you say in your heart, ‘These nations are more numerous than we are; how can we take possession of them? You shall not fear them. Remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all of Egypt; the great trials which your eyes saw, and the signs and wonders and strong hand and outstretched arm with which the Lord your God brought you out. So shall the Lord your God do to all of the nations whom you fear. » (Devarim 7:17-19; see also Devarim 1:29-30)

The Exodus from Egypt is, for the Jewish people, a pivotal experience invoked by prophets, Kings, rabbis, fathers, mothers and grandparents throughout our history reminding us of God’s providence, reward and punishment, chosen-ness, the eternity of our covenant with God and our moral responsibilities in the world created by God.