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Pesach 2004 / 5764 - Let My People Go, But Only For a Little While

06.04.2004 by

One of the things I have always wondered about the Passover story is this: What would have happened if Pharaoh had not hardened his heart - and God hadn't subsequently hardened it even more - and had acquiesced to Moshe's request? Moshe initially was not asking for that much: let the Jewish people go out of Egypt for a few days so that they could worship their God. The reason given for the need to leave Egypt is that the sacrifices which were demanded by God were abhorrent to the Egyptians - the lamb was holy to them, and the Israelites had to sacrifice lambs. Essentially, Moshe was asking Pharaoh to turn his empire into a pluralistic one, one which would have recognized that the customs of the Jews and the Egyptians are different from one another, but can co-exist.

The Egypt which Moshe is imagining when he makes his request is an interesting, and quite contemporary one; a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural empire, which should be able to contain within it differing, even conflicting customs and cultures, peacefully and respectfully. If we look at the beginning of the Exodus narrative, we see that it was precisely these issues of clashing cultures which were at the root of the enslavement of the Jewish people. Pharaoh was suspicious of the growing Jewish minority among his people. The Israelites, who originally, in the days of Joseph and his brothers, were welcomed by Egypt as clever, helpful and useful, became untrustworthy once they became a significant part of the population - "they will multiply... and join our enemies, and fight us...". It would seem that Egypt was unable to accept the cultural and ethnic differences between themselves and the Jews as a large group, a nation. Seen as totally other, as not really Egyptian, and therefore threatening, the Jews were quickly reduced to slaves, oppressed, and murdered on a large scale ("throw every new-born male baby into the river").

Perhaps we should see Moshe's request for religious and cultural autonomy as a willingness to remain Egyptian subjects, if only Egypt could accept them on their own terms. It is Pharaoh's failure to rise to this challenge and embrace the limited form of multi-culturalism which Moshe asks for which forces the hand of God, and leaves Him no choice but to fight and punish the Egyptians, take the Israelites out of their land, and choose a relatively divisive, narrow, nationalist solution to the problem: if Egypt will not grant them their basic rights, they will leave Egypt and found a political entity that will, the nation-state of Israel. One could argue that the Exodus narrative sees the choice of leaving Egypt and returning to the Land of Israel as second- best; Moshe should be taken at his word when he initially only requests the right to worship freely. If that right had been granted, if Pharaoh could have agreed to a free, pluralistic, multi-cultural Egypt, there would be no need for the Jews to leave it.

If my reading of this narrative is correct, then the message is clear: nationalism is a necessary evil. We live in a totalitarian, Egypt-like world; suspicious of the 'other', unwilling to allow minorities to live as they see fit, which insists that one deserves to be free, in fact to live, only if one conforms to the national norm. In such a world, every cultural grouping, in order to be free, has no choice but to create and maintain its own home, its own socio-political system. The people of Israel were willing to live in an Egypt that recognized the individual's right to live and worship as he or she saw fit; this is what Moshe asked for. It was only when that right was brutally denied that creating a separate nation-state of Israel became a necessity. It may well be that the Torah wants us to understand that the Egyptian mind-set is a universal one, and that nation-states are therefore always necessary to guarantee each people's right to its particular culture and belief system. But it is also possible that the Torah, by having Moshe challenge the Egyptian Empire to grant the Jewish people their religious and civil rights, thereby making Egypt a free country, is pointing the way to a different, better sort of world, which remains an ideal to be strived for.

Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Pesach Summary


Pesach commemorates the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. We remember the birth of the Jewish nation on Passover with a seven-day holiday (eight in the Diaspora), which begins with the Seder - a festive meal during which we retell the story of the exodus and describe how God freed us from slavery to become His people, receive His Torah, and live in His chosen land, Israel. During the holiday we eat unleavened bread - matza - to remember both the cheap, crummy bread we were fed as slaves, as well as the speed with which we left Egypt - no time for our dough to rise - and we refrain from eating any form of leavened bread.

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