Does Judaism have a creed, a set of core beliefs that all do or should profess? Answers from practicing Jews vary: “No.” “Shema – God is One.” “Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith.” My own answer: “The Exodus happened, and it is happening now.”
In synagogue, we spend 80% of the year reading the Exodus story from the Torah. In Biblical law, Exodus is given as the reason for many mitzvot (commandments), including intergenerational connection, recognizing God, observing Shabbat, feeding the hungry, and welcoming the stranger.
Our recollection of the Exodus is so powerful, medieval philosopher Judah HaLevi said it proves the authenticity of Jewish religion. The story leads to a vivid spiritual experience, even many generations removed from the original telling.
The Exodus is a powerful motif in preaching. The Haggadah (Passover liturgy) tells the story of Rabbi Akiva and friends, who, during their revolt against the oppressive Roman Empire (132-138 CE), stayed up all night discussing their “Exodus.” Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, a Hasidic teacher in the Warsaw Ghetto (1940), said the mistaken despair of the Israelites in Egypt helped him both understand and overcome his own.
Each spring, at the Passover Seder, Jews gather in small and large groups to re-tell the Exodus. Most follow the fixed order of the ritual, with its symbolic foods and blessings. And most go beyond the words of the Haggadah, exploring the story’s contemporary relevance, raising questions about Judaism, and inventing playful learning activities for children. This annual blossoming of creativity honours a key teaching of the rabbis who founded modern Judaism: All individuals should regard themselves as if they personally had left Egypt.
So, it’s no wonder that as we read from the Torah about the last three plagues and the first few steps to freedom, we see our own time. Still, I was surprised to revisit my own reflections from years past and see just how profoundly contemporary Parshat Bo (this week’s reading) is! Check these reflections out here and add your own thoughts on the relevance of the Exodus in the comments!
Image: from the synagogue at Dura-Europus