Pesach All Year: Unexpected Mitzvot of Remembering Egypt
It doesn’t take much education to know Jews are supposed to remember the Exodus—we have the holiday of Pesach, which includes specific obligations to remind us of the events, such as telling the story at length Seder night, and avoiding leavened bread and eating matzah for seven days. Shabbat and the other major holidays also specifically commemorate the Exodus; and we have Zechirat Yetziat Mitzrayim, a twice-daily obligation to recall the Exodus in Shema.
With the Seder done, we can ask ourselves whether and how our efforts spread to the rest of our lives. In the coming days, I will review commandments the Torah connects to the Exodus when it seems unnecessary. On Baba Metzia 61b, Rava already pointed out three such mitzvot, wondering why the Torah links the usury prohibitions, the commandment to wear tzitzit, and the obligation of accurate weights and measures to the Exodus.
We’ll get to his answer, but I start by pointing out that we can ask that question more systematically—in all mitzvot other than the obvious ones, when and why does the Torah mention Egypt? What does that tell us about the role this event is supposed to play in our lives?
The first example makes a point about our relationship with Hashem that I think is often missed. In the first of the Aseret haDibberot, the Ten Pronouncements we heard at Sinai, Hashem introduces Himself, as it were, with the words, “I am the Lord your God, Who took you out of Egypt out of the land of slavery.”
Why make that the reference point—isn’t it more significant that Hashem created the Universe? The obvious but important answer is that the Torah is purposely making the Exodus central to how we think of Hashem. While Hashem is Creator of the Universe (vital to other faith issues, such as the belief in miracles), for Jews, He is—more importantly-- He Who took us out of Egypt.
Rashi writes that the taking out is the sufficient cause of our eternal obligation to obey Hashem completely. We don’t keep the Torah because the universe’s Creator commands it, we do it out of a sense of personal and national debt, extending back to Egypt.
Experience Is Better Than Reports, and What an Experience
Two later commentators, R. Yehudah b. Eliezer of the early 14th century and Kli Yakar in the sixteenth, assumed Hashem referred to the Exodus because it was more immediate, in that these Jews had themselves seen it. Our relationship with Hashem isn’t with a distant or aloof Creator, it’s an answer to the call of the Protector Who took us out of slavery and oppression.
Ramban and Rambam agree that this first Pronouncement establishes a mitzvah. Just as a Jew has to say Kiddush on Shabbat, fulfill the commandment to know Torah and teach it to his sons, remember the Exodus story, and more, there is a specific obligation on all Jews, male or female, to know and believe in the Redeemer Who took us from Egypt.
Since it is a word used loosely today, I note that Ramban gives a basic definition of the God this commandment requires us to serve. The God Jews must believe in, Ramban says, pre-exists the world (and thus is “able” to abrogate the laws of Nature, not just manipulate them), created the world intentionally and deliberately (not as some involuntary outpouring, as Aristotle seems to assume), and is involved with the world, as shown by choosing the Jewish people, extricating them from Egypt with great miracles, forming a lasting covenant with them.
Sforno echoes some of this. For he and Ramban, the Exodus was an historical demonstration of Hashem’s presence and power, done intentionally to teach an eternal lesson. All who saw the Exodus were supposed to have had their doubts erased, forever, on issues that some people today try to dismiss as philosophical nuances.
A Life of Servitude to Hashem
Samson Raphael Hirsch, writing in the 19th century, takes that another step, his first line as relevant today as when he wrote it. This Pronouncement isn’t interested in whether to believe, he says, because Judaism doesn’t look for a philosophical declaration of faith, even faith in a particular version of Hashem (such as one vs. many).
The key point of Jewish faith, and of this Pronouncement, is that the one and unitary Hashem is my Hashem, Who shaped and formed me, set me up with certain obligations, and continues to be involved in the course of my life. The Exodus taught that what happens to Jews, from Egypt forward, is in some sense directly from Hashem. That personal connection is what this statement of Jewish faith means to stress.
Hirsch’s words have more than a whiff of a reaction to the clockwork universe suggested by Newtonian physics, and the random evolution posited by Darwin. We could take all that out, though, and still have an important point of Jewish religiosity—while many of us get caught up in the yes/no question of God’s existence, R. Hirsch is reminding us that that wasn’t supposed to be an issue, because our memory of Egypt, which we are tasked with keeping alive, made clear that the right question is “what does the Hashem with Whom I have a relationship going back to Egypt most want me to do?”
The Necessity of the Exodus
An aggadic section of Shabbat 85b brings these points together thought-provokingly. The Gemara tells of Moshe ascending to receive the Torah, to find the angels protesting Hashem’s giving such a holy vessel to such unworthy recipients. Moshe is called to respond, and he notes the mention of the Exodus in the first Pronouncement, and asks the angels, “Were you slaves to Par’oh? Were you redeemed by Hashem? Then for what do you need the Torah?”
That last question stimulatingly implies that the value of Torah depends on having been in Egypt and been taken out. As if—similar to R. Hirsch— we aren’t required to act certain ways because Hashem created the world, we’re required to act those ways because Hashem saved us from Egypt. For unsaved angels, Torah is irrelevant.
As an important aside, I point out that Ramban understands there to also be a Biblical prohibition against forgetting Hashem, Who took us out of Egypt.
Not bad for a start on seeing where the Exodus plays a role beyond the narrow confines of Pesach and related observances. Where else is it important?
Tefillin, a Two-Purposed Mitzvah
The Torah speaks about tefillin four times, once in each of the four Biblical sections we include in the boxes we wear on our arms and heads. Two of those are in the first paragraphs of Shema, where tefillin is mentioned as a written reminder of Torah and mitzvot generally.
Shemot 13 mentions tefillin twice in the context of the Paschal sacrifice and the offering of first-borns to Hashem. In each case, the discussion closes by saying that we should keep as a sign on our arms and heads, that Hashem took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.
The first instance, 13;9, leaves some room to read as being about Torah in general. Ramban explains that placing the memory of the Exodus on our arms and heads reminds us of what Hashem did for us, stimulating us to always have Torah and mitzvot in our mouths.
In line with his discussion of the first Pronouncement, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch sees tefillin as a symbol of our acknowledgement that we have to cede our existence and all our desires to Hashem, with all our hearts, and have to pass that message to our children as well.
The mentions of the Exodus in the context of tefillin thus seem to locate our awareness of Torah and mitzvot in the experience of the Exodus. Sure, tefillin are about remembering Torah in general, mitzvot in general, and our obligation to keep of them. But the verses in chapter 13 tell us that one of the ways tefillin draws our attention to those big ideas is by focusing us on what we might err into thinking of as a small idea, the Exodus.
We say the verse that connects tzitzit to the Exodus twice a day. Bach to Orach Chayyim 8 suggests that the Torah’s saying we wear them “so that” we remember the Exodus led Tur to assert a need for added focused intent when performing the obligation. We should pay attention to all mitzvot, but Tur specifies it here; Bach believed that Tur does so wherever the Torah identifies a purpose for a mitzvah, adding a necessary element to our focus in performing it.
That would mean that, for tzitzit, a central goal of the wearing is to keep us in mind of the Exodus. All day, as a Jew looks at his garments and notices strings attached, it should remind him of the Exodus.
Sifrei¸the Midrash Halachah to Bamidbar (halachically authoritative in the absence of contradictory Talmudic evidence) offers etymologies for two tzitzit-related terms that conspicuously tie them to the Exodus. First, R. Shimon b. Elazar asks why the color of the non-white string is called techelet, answering that it’s because the Egyptians’ first-born נתכלו, were diminished. Alternatively, it’s because the Egyptians themselves כלו, were destroyed, at the Sea.
Then Sifrei moves on to why they’re called tzitzit and relates it to Hashem’s peeking inside the Jews’ homes in Egypt, based on Shir haShirim 2;8-9, which speaks of the beloved (Hashem) looking through the windows, peeking, הציץ, through the lattices.
In other words, this Sifrei reads the two main words that characterize this garment as putting us back in the Egypt experience, one as a reminder of Hashem’s destroying our enemies, either through their first born or all of them, the other as a reminder of Hashem’s watching over us, always alert to our need for assistance and/or salvation.
With just three mitzvot, and twenty to come, I think we can see that there’s more to the role the Exodus plays in our Jewish lives than we sometimes remember to remember.