2015-04-01 / Religion Column

The Exodus from Egypt is our living heritage

Community Chaplain

My favorite biblical verse for Passover comes from the Eighth Century BCE prophet, Amos (Chap. 9, Verse 7). He was a humble farmer, who, upon seeing the injustice of his day, traveled to the Shrine in Beth El, to preach against those who oppressed the poor and weak. He challenged his audience to give meaning to their history by living ethical lives or fade into obscurity, as have other people, as he taught:

“Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,

O people of Israel? says the Lord.

Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?”

Amos’ words remind us that from God’s perspective there is nothing special about the Jews. According to Amos, our ancestors, who lived in the center of the ancient Mediterranean world, were no closer to God than the Ethiopians, who lived at the edge of creation, and the Exodus from Egypt was just another human migration. By challenging his contemporaries’ sense of self-importance, the prophet preached that what brought them closer to God were the ethical directives they drew from their history rather than any sense of God’s favor.

Amos understood that the Exodus from Egypt was more than an historical occurrence. He and his audience cherished the epic story as our people’s founding narrative. It was and has remained the source of meaning and purpose for the Jewish people. Over the generations, we found the wisdom and insights into Jewish life and existence we needed in this ancient tale. The story of the Exodus is not a static monument to the past but the living creation of a people who never cease recreating themselves.

Built on a set of events in the distant past whose details are already hidden by the Biblical accounts, the story of the Exodus always played a central role in our people’s self-understanding. The tribes of Israel tied their heroes to the great events and people of the narrative. They understood their struggles for freedom in light of the Exodus. During the centuries when the Israelite nation was split into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, the memory of the Exodus from Egypt cemented a sense of unity. Addressing our ancestors lost in exile in Babylon, our prophets cast their vision of the return to the Land of Israel as a new Exodus. Over time, the story of the redemption of our people from Egyptian bondage grew into the hope for a final redemption. We looked forward for a time when all tyrants would be overthrown, the people of Israel restored to our homeland, and all people living as one family, and celebrating God’s love.

As Amos understood, the great ethical insights of our people are tied to the story of the Exodus. Some appeared at an early stage, such as the commandment to care for the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Others emerged later, such as the insight that we need to honor and respect all people, even our enemies, for they, too, are created in the likeness and image of God.

We continue to learn humility from the Exodus by remembering our humble origins. The directive to eat the unleavened bread, the food of the poor, connects us with all the impoverished, hungry and enslaved over time and space.

The story reminds us that we are not alone in the struggle for freedom. Even in dreadful situations, there are people like the Egyptian midwives who are ready to confront the powerful. When we see how others respond to our story, we learn that there are many others who share our dream for freedom.

For the Jewish people, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is not a piece of ancient history; it is our living heritage. As Amos understood so long ago, its significance lies not in its historical details but in the liberating moral lessons every generation draws from the story. This year, may we be enriched by our retelling the story, and in retelling enrich it with the new ethical awareness. .

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