- The Foundation of the Jewish People
Rabbi Reuven Mann
The foundation of the system of Judaism is the Exodus, which emancipated the Jews from the enslavement of Pharoh. It is a Mitzvah to remember the Exodus twice a day which is accomplished in reciting the third paragraph of the Shema. However on the night of Pesach we must do more than merely make reference to the fact that G-d redeemed us from Egypt. We must engage in extensive recitation of the entire narrative pertaining to the Exodus story. The Rambam says in Laws of Chametz and Matza, Chapter 7, Halacha 1: "It is a positive commandment of the Torah to tell stories of the miracles and wonders that were done for our forefathers in Egypt, on the night of the fifteenth of Nissan-as it says: "Remember this day that you exited from Egypt." (Exodus 13,3)
We must pay careful attention to the words of the Rambam. Why does he emphasize that one must discuss the miracles and wonders which were done for us in Egypt? He should simply have said that we should recite the story of the Exodus. Of course in doing so we would make mention of the miracles because they are part of the story. The Rambam is conveying that the essence of the story is the super-natural phenomena which occurred. The whole objective of the recounting is to cause us to focus on the miracles that G-d wrought. The question arises: Why is the miraculous element of the story of such paramount importance?
We read in the Ten Commandments: Exodus 20:2 "I Am the L-d your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slavery."
This Pasuk incorporate's two commands. 1) to believe in the existence of the Creator and 2) to accept Him as our G-d. The historical event which forms the basis of our obligation to serve G-d is the Exodus. Many commentators have pointed to the fact that, great as the Exodus was, the creation of the universe seems to be even more consequential to our relationship to G-d. Thus they ask, why doesn't it say "I am the L-d your G-d who created Heaven and Earth."?
In his commentary on the Ten Commandments, the Ramban states: (Ramban's Commentary on the Torah-Exodus 20:2)
"I AM THE ETERNAL THY G-D. This Divine utterance constitutes a positive commandment. He said, I am the Eternal, thus teaching and commanding them that they should know and believe that the Eternal exist and that He is G-d to them. That is to say, there exist an Eternal Being through Whom everything has come into existence by His will and power, and He is G-d to them, who are obligated to worship him. He said, Who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, because his taking them out from there was evidence establishing the existence and will of G-d, for it was with his knowledge and providence that we came out from there. The exodus is also evidence for the creation of the world, for assuming the eternity of the universe [which precludes a Master of the universe Who is in control of it], it would follow that nothing could be changed from its nature. And it is also evidence for G-d's infinite power, and His infinite power is an indication of the Unity". as He said, that thou [i.e. Pharoh] mayest know that there is none like Me on the earth".
According to Nachmanides there is something unique about the Exodus which renders it more instructive than creation. From time immemoreal people have asked: What is the ultimate cause of the world in which we live or, put another way; What is the ultimate reality? There were many philosophers who believed in the eternity of the universe. This essentially means that the world has no cause. It exists because it has to exist. According to this view there is nothing beyond the laws of nature and the notion of miracles must be dismissed. Historically most philosophers denied this idea and maintained that the Universe did not come into being by itself but had to have a cause. They held that the natural order with its infinite wisdom owes its existence to a Supreme Being who is the cause of all that exists. Judaism of course agrees with the philosophers who maintain that the Universe owes its existence to G-d. However the key area in which we differ is the question of the relationship of G-d to the Universe. Thinkers such as Aristotle and Einstein believed in G-d but denied that He intervenes in human affairs or retains a relationship with man. They maintained that the Universe is a necessary result of G-d's very existence and as G-d is unchangeable so is the world. They also rejected the idea of miracles. The foundation of Judaism is our belief that G-d is eternal and nothing exists beside Him. (He is our L-d there is none else). His relationship to the world is that of the Creator to the created. He brought the world into existence from nothingness (ex nihilo) not because of any extraneous compulsion but purely because of His inscrutable Will. He established the Universe, and the laws of nature by which it operates in accordance with His will. He retains complete control over the Universe and can alter the natural order, and perform miracles in order to achieve His objective in creation. All of the beliefs and practices of Judaism, such as free will, reward and punishment, the efficacy of prayer, etc. are based on this understanding of G-d's absolute power and mastery of His creation. We can now understand the significance of the events surrounding the Exodus. The miracles which completely overturned the natural order demonstrated that there is a Supreme Being who created the world and can make any alterations at Will.
Let us review the basic lessons which are contained in the words: "I am the L-d thy G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slavery"
A) The Universe is not eternal. B) G-d alone is eternal and created the world (ex nihilo-from nothing). C) G-d retains total control over the entire course of human history. D) G-d created the world for a moral purpose which is rooted in the rejection of evil. i.e. idolatry and the affirmation of the true creator of heaven and earth. Equally important is the point that He intervened in the course of human history to rescue a particular people who were to become His nation. This demonstrates that G-d created mankind for a moral purpose which can only be achieved through adherence to the mitzvos, moral imperatives and truths that are contained in His Torah.
It is therefore important to remember that the Jews have a special place in G-d's scheme of things. The Exodus is not just an abstract historical event. It happened to us and gave us our national character and mission. As the Ramban says (ibid.): "This is the intent of the expression, Who brought thee out, since they are the ones who know and are witnesses to all these things".
He further states in his Commentary on the Torah-Exodus 13:16: "...And because the Holy One, blessed be He, will not make signs and wonders in every generation for the eyes of some wicked man or heretic, He therefore commanded us that we should always make a memorial or sign of that which we have seen with our eyes, and that we should transmit the matter to our children, and their children to their children, to the generations to come. And He placed great emphasis on it, as is indicated by the fact that one is liable to extinction for eating leavened bread on the Passover, and for abandoning the Passover offering, [i.e., not taking part in the slaughtering thereof]. He has further required of us that we inscribe upon our arms and between our eyes all that we have seen in the way of signs and wonders, and to inscribe it yet upon the doorposts of the houses, and that we remember it by recital in the morning and the evening...[He further required] that we make a sukkah every year and many other commandments like them which are a memorial to the exodus from Egypt. All these commandments are designed for the purpose that in all generations we should have testimonies to the wonders so that they should not be forgotten and so that the heretic should not be able to open his lips to deny the belief in the existence of G-d. He who buys a Mezuzah for one zuz [a silver coin] and affixes it to his doorpost and has the proper intent of heart on its content, has already admitted the creation of the world, the Creators knowledge and His providence, and also his belief in prophecy as well as in fundamental principals of the Torah, besides admitting that the mercy of the Creator is very great upon them that do His will, since He brought us forth from that bondage to freedom and to great honor on the account of the merit of our fathers who delighted in the fear of His name".
In conclusion, we can now understand why the Rambam places such emphasis on recounting the miracles which took place in Egypt. They contain profound teachings about creation, G-d's ongoing relationship to the world and the special role that the Jewish people play in His plan for mankind. May this Passover be a time of reflection on the foundations of Jewish existence and renewed aspiration to achieve the purpose for which we were created.