Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
The Torah portion called Bo, described the last plagues that God visited upon Egypt before Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go. The narrative was spell-binding and momentous. It highlighted the glory of God and diminished the arrogance of Pharaoh who thought he was a god. From the beginning when Moses and Aron’s declared before Pharaoh, “Let My people go!” to the bitter end, Pharaoh displayed an unwavering commitment to his self-serving cause.
At the beginning, God sent plagues and Pharaoh hardened his heart against them. As the plagues continued, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It progressed as Pharaoh’s stubbornness intensified and his heart became like stone — lacking wisdom, believing only himself, and suffering from pride. Not even the death of the first-born of Egypt, including his own son, made a difference to him. He thought that all was his until even he was destroyed.
Four-hundred and thirty years of bondage crushed the Israelites’ spirit. They barely knew God, and initially failed to respond to Moses. Though they did depart Egypt and cross the Reed Sea, it would be years before they and the next generation would shake off the misery of slavery and reclaim their faith in God. The tragedy of slavery’s deep and ugly wounds is often seen in the drawn faces and physical scars of broken bodies. But, the deepest wounds of all can be emotional and spiritual; they steal a person’s hope in one’s self and in humanity. Later generations that are born without scars will have to learn about their ancestors’ travails; otherwise, the reasons for their ancestors’ desperate and hope-filled redemption will be forever lost, and the lessons for living that those trials revealed in humanity’s hope for freedom will be forgotten.
In Exodus 32, the incident of the Golden Calf proved that for some the yoke of slavery and the requirements of faith were overwhelming. They failed to throw off the yoke and to embrace the requirements of faith; but, those who were able and chose to follow God and Moses, made a contribution to us by not failing to tell their story. It enabled them to move closer to higher ideals and greater religious hopes; it prevented them from falling back to a time and place when men believed they were gods and the downtrodden and sycophants fell under their spell. But, memory is short among those who don’t participate in retelling the story of the Exodus, or who never claimed it as their own. And, no amount of history can make an impression on the human soul like the act of memory retold annually around a Seder table to children who are taught to see themselves as if they had marched through the Reed Sea at the hand of Moses and the word of God.
In Judaism, memory is a rich value. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, who wrote about memory and history in his book, “Zakhor” (1996), explains that Jews didn’t excel at history, at recording dates, times and details. They excelled at memory, preserving the meaning of what happened in their past. The “monument” to the Israelites’ redemption from Egypt isn’t found in a statue along the Reed Sea, even if it could have been well-preserved; it’s always been in the Haggadah, the story of our people’s trials and tribulations. Though it’s a difficult story, it’s from such beginnings that we emerged ready for the possibility of something much greater, more enduring, and more sacred.
No Jew, whether he was an ancient king, a governor, a congressmen, or prime minister, has ever claimed to be more than a man. Arrogance can stifle wisdom and egotism can diminish insight of any man, but a Jew who was redeemed from Egypt and experienced revelation at Sinai, will never go back to Egypt nor let anyone else know that place and time ever again. The historicity of the Exodus will be studied and researched for years to come; but, the memory of the Exodus will be told from generation to generation for all those who must remember it, too.
Pharaoh, his son, his family and his courtiers perished in the Sea. At Passover, we reduce the wine in our cups to diminish the joy of our freedom, which came at their expense. But, God’s plan for peace-loving and God-revering people will always leave room on dry land for us to walk safely to a place that is “flowing with milk and honey,” and the hopes born of free men, women and children.