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Bo: The Point of the Exodus

Exodus 10:1–12: 16

Nothing God does in the whole Bible is as self-consciously over-the-top as the Exodus. This week's reading shares the most intense moment thus far in the lives of the already harried Israelite slaves. They have endured years under the terror of the whip, witnessed the sudden arrival of a brazen leader prepared to challenge the gods themselves, and seen nine plagues decimate the only world they have ever known. Now they are told to pack their bags and get ready for the tenth and worst plague of all, after which they are to launch themselves into a wilderness as alien and forbidding as outer space.

God, however, is not just trying to take the Hebrews out of Egypt. In the thick of it all, He informs them that there is something more to the Exodus than His overwhelming show of force. There is a lesson here, and not just to Pharaoh, whose heart gets hardened for the sole aim of ensuring that he "will know I am the Lord"—but to future generations of Israelites as well, "that you may tell in the ears of your son, and of your son's son, what things I have done in Egypt." Nor are these lessons to be derived after the fact; they are part and parcel of the miracle itself. They are the point.

Part of the point, of course, is religious. Through God's intervention in their own personal lives, the Israelites, too, will "know" that He is the Lord, and that only He—rather than the invented gods of Egypt, rather than Pharaoh himself—is worthy of worship. The Exodus thus establishes that there is a higher truth, a God Whom no man can see, much less craft; that in our worship we connect with the very origins of the universe; and that God's intervention in human history on behalf of the good is an ideal to emulate.

But there's another element as well: a social element. Over and over again this week, the Israelites are told that the paschal lamb, the unleavened bread, and the other Passover observances are intended to include not only Israelites by blood but also any foreigner who commits himself to the same covenant of God. "One Torah shall be to him that is homeborn, and to the stranger that sojourns among you."

In these passages, Judaism reveals itself to be, at its very core, both deeply nationalistic and deeply universal. Despite its origins in Abraham and the other patriarchs, the new nation will be grounded less on ancestry than on ideals. Only people who accept the Israelite covenant—symbolized by circumcision—can be part of Israel's redemption; but anyone who accepts it is automatically included. Central to the Exodus, in other words, is the possibility of becoming an Israelite, and with it the rejection of any natural right of the blood-children of Israel over and above the right that flows from the free choice of God's adherents.

Throughout the Torah, indeed, we are given affirmations of this idea. In Genesis, again and again, the later-born are preferred over the first-born—Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Rachel over Leah, Judah over Reuben, Ephraim over Menasseh. Later on, Levites collectively take the place of first-born Israelites in presiding over the sacrifices to God. The favor of God, we learn, never comes through nature, only through His choice and our merit.

To the same end, the Torah repeatedly invokes the Exodus in the form of a commandment: to remember that "you were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt." The lesson of this memory: never to assume God's automatic preference of Israelites over others, but rather to treat those who join the tribe in full equality to those born into it. "Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt."

This repudiation of racism is, alongside the affirmation of nationhood, one of the defining pillars of the Jewish faith. It affirms one sort of particularism—a community of ideas and ideals—even as it rejects the particularism of blood that has defined so much of human society to our own day. As such, it sets the stage for living human communities grounded in constitutional ideals rather than in ethnic or racial identity. It also sets the stage for a universal vision later spelled out by the prophets: the embrace by all humanity of the biblical good.

What a shame that so many today, among them some supporters of Judaism as well as its opponents, so often seem to miss the point of the Exodus.

David Hazony is author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, recently published by Scribner.



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