Never Forget: A Story of Liberation

Parashat Sh’mot, Exodus 1:1–6:1

David Friedman, UMJC rabbi, Jerusalem

This week’s parasha is the beginning of the story of Israel’s redemption. When we finished the book of Bereisheet (Genesis), Jacob and his descendants were in Egypt. They were cared for by the royal family, and prospered in a time of economic woes. The book of Sh’mot (Exodus) describes a new situation, and our parasha opens with this description of a long period of darkness for the people of Israel:

A new king arose in Egypt, one who did not know about Yosef.

So he said to his people, ‘Look, the people of Israel are numerous and more influential than we are! Let’s devise a wise policy towards them, or they will become even more numerous and influential; so that when a war breaks out, they will join those who hate us, will fight against us, and leave the land.

So they appointed tax officials for them (for Israel), to oppress them with backbreaking work; thus they built the store cities of Pitom and Ramses for Pharaoh. . . . And there was distress because of (what was happening with) Israel.

Then Egypt enslaved Israel harshly. (Ex. 1:8–11, 12b–13)

We are unsure as to which Pharaonic dynasty this may have been. Some scholars guess that they were the Hyksos dynasty, with their origins not in Egypt, but further east. Others maintain that it was indeed a native Egyptian dynasty that began a new policy toward the “foreign” monotheistic descendants of Jacob. Regardless, this is a very common type of time period in the overall history of the Jewish people. It is looked at almost as a pattern for our ensuing history, and for our future. The main message is something like this: “Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with us. . .” Even though the Jewish people have had to go headlong into long periods of persecution, untold suffering and anxiety, as in Egypt, the same God who freed our ancestors from there will continue to follow that pattern. The suffering is real, and exists. But the deliverance is very real, too.

One of my early memories of life is listening to Jewish Holocaust survivors tell their stories to my parents in my boyhood home. For eight years from the end of World War II, my parents helped pursue Nazi war criminals in Germany, so after they returned to the USA they opened their home to survivors of the Shoah. With much shouting, crying and pain, these victims of the Nazi reign of terror unburdened themselves on my parents’ shoulders. Their pain was real, their agony so deep that it frightened me to hear it as a child. Yet, there they were, alive, with their new families, able to live their lives as free people, and as Jews. It was like a short version of the beginning of the book of Exodus. First there was untold suffering and slavery, then a powerful freedom. My father, of blessed memory, told me that about half of these victims became strong believers in God because of their sufferings; the other half abandoned belief in God because of their sufferings. In the Shoah, the Nazis tried to commit genocide against us. Pharaoh attempted the same in his murder of Israel’s baby boys:

So when Hebrew women give birth, look at the two birthing rocks, and if it is a son, kill him; if it is a daughter, let her live. (1:16)

Pharaoh re-issued that order a little bit later:

And so Pharaoh commanded all of his people, saying: “Every boy that is born, throw him into the Nile, but every girl will live.” (1:22)

The slavery in Egypt was the beginning of a God-ordained liberation that has given hope to the Jewish people for millennia. Still today we honor God for this act that happened some 3,400 years ago; we collectively remember it in an intimate family setting once a year at Passover.

As we read through Exodus, let us keep in mind the great importance of the liberation from Egypt, as an eternal pattern, as an expression of God’s heart toward his people, and as a challenge to all of us to be brave in serving God, as Moses was. I try to remind myself and my family of God’s liberating power with an annual visit to Auschwitz. There, we remember the liberation that God provided from the more recent attempt at genocide against us.

This past week, while in Berlin, we witnessed the flag of Israel being projected onto the Brandenburg Gate, coloring it, as an act of honoring Israeli terror victims from this past week’s attack in Jerusalem. It was the first time ever that Israel’s flag was “put onto” the Brandenburg Gate.

Our portion, Sh’mot, can serve as a reminder, as visiting Auschwitz and Berlin does for me. Parashat Sh’mot yearly reminds us that God is our Liberator from all forms of slavery and all forms of anti-Semitism. Our ancestors’ slavery, and the anti-Semitism that many of us will suffer during our own lives, are meant to be barriers to us from fulfilling our national destiny to which God has called us (cf. Ex. 19:5-6, Deut. 4:5-9, Zech. 8:23 and Isaiah 19:20-25). Calling upon him is never out of date; the entire book of Exodus will further affirm this message to all of us:

Then the tribes of Israel groaned because of their slave labor, and they cried out. So their cries for help, due to their slave labors, came up before God. And God heard and acted upon their groaning; then He remembered His covenant with Avraham, Isaac and Yakov.

So God saw the people of Israel, and God knew (all about their situation). (Ex. 2:23-25)

All biblical passages translated by Rabbi David Friedman.

Monique Beadle