Shabbat Bo: Lessons from the Exodus

January 18, 2024 by Jeremy Rosen
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There are two themes amongst the many in this week’s Torah that stand out as being particularly relevant at this moment in time.

The first one is how the Egyptians reacted to the Israelites. Although the antagonism towards Israel came from the top, in fact, the general population seems to have been much more friendly and positive towards the Israelites. It was the servants of Pharaoh who turned to him first and said that there was a problem, and he should let the people go ( Exodus 10:7 ). And a significant group of disaffected Egyptians, the Eyrev Rav, left Egypt with them (Exodus 12:38).

After the plagues were over and Pharaoh agreed to let them go, the Egyptians were happy to give them silver, gold, and garments. The text says that the people looked favourably upon the Israelites (Exodus 12:36). The language used is ambiguous as to whether they were pressured to give or whether they willingly gave. Nevertheless, the phrase that they looked favourably on the children of Israel does say something about the attitude of the ordinary Egyptian in the street. Not unlike South Africa, where ANC political leadership is loathed by its own citizens, who are much more favourably inclined towards Israel and Jews.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a)  records a mythical encounter between Alexander the Great coming through the Middle East and the various enemies of the Jews approaching him with their complaints against the Jews. A bit like the International Court ( nothing much has changed). Whether it was the Africans claiming descent from the Canaanites ( another current theme) and claiming the land as theirs or the Ishmaelites claiming they were unfairly deprived of Abraham’s heritage (ironic, no?). The Egyptians claimed that the Israelites stole all their gold and silver money when they left and were demanding compensation.

The Jewish response was led by a very modest, humble scholar called Gevia ben Pasisa, the hunchback. He pointed out that the claims they all made were based on biblical texts. But the very same biblical sources gave Israel as much right to the land, if not more so, and deserved compensation for their suffering at the hands of others that outweighed the complaint.

How amazing that the idea that Israel’s possession of its land was challenged from Greek times on. And if compensation was an issue in our day and age it should apply to compensation to those Jews who were driven out of Arab lands, as much as the Palestinians who lost their homes.

The second familiar from the Passover Seder,  is the importance of remembering what happened both in the positive sense to be grateful for our freedom, and at the same time, also to remember that others suffered at our expense, remembering, not with malice but to be positive.  In Exodus Chapter 12 verse 26, you have the famous phrase “It will come to pass when your children ask you what this celebration is about you will say that it is because God passed over our houses when he plagued the Egyptians and gave us our freedom.” The idea of teaching one’s children is repeated in Exodus Chapter 13:8 “You should teach your son that this was why God took us out of Egypt.” Four times this is mentioned in connection with Pesach and is the origin of four sons on the Seder night asking the four questions. Similarly, in the Shemah, we repeat morning and evening. The crucial, repeated line is that “you must teach your children” and make sure that they carry on the tradition.
It is one of the saddest aspects of Jewish life that throughout history so many Jews either turned against the religion or tried to escape from it.

A very significant proportion of Jews living in the diaspora have joined the campaign against the right of the Jews to have a homeland. In most cases, it is because they simply know nothing about Judaism. They never received a proper Jewish education or the beauty of our tradition. They were never taught Jewish history. It is surprising, therefore, that they see no reason to assert a Jewish identity and, on the contrary, have more in common with the prevailing social and intellectual fashions than they do with their own heritage. Even in Israel, most Israelis are woefully ignorant of Jewish traditions and history. At least they have the language but most of the diaspora do not.

To defend ourselves physically and mentally, we need to ensure educationally that our children know our history, know what and how to respond,  and know why they should be proud to be Jewish.

Exodus 10:1-13:16.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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