Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Redemption - Geula
To dedicate this lesson

The Exodus And Us


Rabbi Berel Wein

The sections of the Torah that we are reading these weeks concern themselves with the well known but ever insightful story of the enslavement and subsequent exodus of the Jewish people in long ago Egypt. Jewish tradition has taught us that the narratives that appear in the Torah are not to be viewed as merely a recital of past events. Rather they stand as indicators and guideposts for the Jewish people’s story throughout all ages and generations. Thus the story of the Jews in Egypt was always subjected to intensive intellectual analysis and insightful commentary. The rabbis and scholars of Israel looked for the particular markers strewn throughout the narrative of the Torah that would shed light on later events in the story of the Jewish people - especially as they pertained to the long and bitter exile after the destruction of the Second Temple. This attitude towards the biblical narrative allowed it to come alive and be a current guide to events rather than merely remaining a record of ancient and sometimes boring facts. The Torah knows no limits to its timelessness and relevance. It is up to every Jew to ferret out the particular messages that speak to one’s time and place, generally and particularly. That is what was meant by the rabbis of the Mishna when they stated the basic axiom of Judaism that the study of Torah supersedes all other goals in the Jewish world. For the study of Torah in depth and with analysis remains the mentor and guide for Jews throughout all generations and circumstances.

What were the motives that drove the Pharaoh and Egypt to persecute the Jews? The Torah grants us some insights. Firstly, Joseph died. As long as he lived there was a sense of appreciation and even adoration for the man who saved Egypt from the destruction of the great famine and established it as the mightiest power of the time. But not only Joseph died, that whole generation, Jew and Egyptian also passed from the scene. In later generations no one remembered Joseph, no one remembered the famine, just as in our time few people now yet remember the Great Depression or even the horrors of World War II. Many Israeli students know nothing about the history of the creation of the State of Israel and thus have doubts about our legitimate claim to the Land of Israel. It is all now only dry facts in history books. And therefore it was almost natural that a Pharaoh would arise "who knew not Joseph." He did not realize how the Jewish people entered Egypt, of what benefit they were to Egypt and what their presence in the country represented in historical and spiritual terms. And new rulers always come to power with "new" agendas of their own to solve age old problems of human existence and social and national life. When their agendas come a cropper and all of the great theories are useless in the face of the harsh realities of society and governing it is natural to look for a scapegoat for that failure. The stranger, the Jew, has always provided that convenient scapegoat. The new rulers of the twentieth century, Stalin and Hitler exploited this to the fullest. The Moslem world till today explains all of its ills and shortcomings on the existence of Israel and the Jews. Thus many parts of the Exodus story repeat themselves today in our lives.

The Torah tells us that the Jews became numerous - a visible and sizeable and recognizable minority living in the midst of Egypt. People and states are intrinsically xenophobic; they do not tolerate minorities gracefully and well. Present day Israel is struggling with such problems and attitudes. So are most of the countries of Europe and the rest of the world. There were too many Jews around for Egyptian sensitivities. And "the land was full of them." They no longer lived in the ghetto of Goshen but moved everywhere in Egypt. Wherever one went one saw a Jew. Hitler’s complaint when living in Vienna was that he always saw Jews on the streets of that city. This sad story has been repeated in almost every country where Jews settled in the time of our exile. Many Jews in Egyptian society attempted to escape Egyptian persecution by assimilating into general Egyptian society. But Pharaoh like Hitler and the Moslem world made it a racial thing, a blemish that could not be erased by even four generations of assimilation. Midrash teaches us that most of those Jews died in Egypt without being part of the Exodus. That is also in my opinion a warning lesson for our times as well.
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