What was it like to be an Israelite in Egypt? They were slaves whose time was not their own, humans who were burdened by human beasts, mastered by men who would keep alive the women but destroy male babies. Worked from birth to death, for 210 years. To be an Israelite in Egypt was to be a hero. How so?
Moses saw the palace; everyone else saw the tar pits, the kapo’s whip, the daily drudge, the endless tasks, the burdens designed to make Israel a nation of beasts. Yet, we became a kingdom of priests.
In ancient Egypt, both boys and girls wanted to have fun. Pharaoh wanted the Israelite women, starting with Sarah. Hagar is called “the Egyptian” because, coming from Egypt, her pedigree is suspect; God alone knows the mistaken identity of her biological father and God did not care to share this factoid with the world.
Abraham made a family based on value, not pleasure. Israel went to Egypt as twelve families, as a community of shared ethnicity, speech, dress, and identity.
When Israel left Egypt, they had skills. Israel was able to:
- finish wood
- work with metal
- play music
- build a tabernacle
- work with and tan hides
- organize into a polity
- produce ink
- read and write
Those slaves appeared to be civilized in the wilderness? How did this civilizing happen?
Our ancestors did not see themselves as slaves. They felt that they ought to be free; they were mentally emancipated even though the Egyptians ruled them by force. And because our ancestors were so mentally independent, they defied the rule that might is right, that the fate of working in pits is carved in stone.
Like the church going Afro-Americans who dress up on Sunday, acting like the world they wish to win, like our ancestors from Europe and East Baltimore, who raised themselves in class to the Druid Hill Park and to the up scale Park Heights and uppity upper Park Heights, the model of Egypt was alive. They learned from Egypt while still there; they may have worked with their hands and carried burdens on their backs, but their eyes were opened not bemoaning the present or nostalgizing the past; they dreamt and created their future.
They did not wait for handouts or entitlements; they lent their hands to help, and they worked hard and created a new world.
My father-in-law was cheated out of his youth by the Second World War. During the week he labored like a plebe; on the Shabbat he ate and dressed like a patrician. He always dreamed.
My father built a business. He dreamt of a better neighborhood, of closing the store on Shabbat. His son closes stores on Shabbat. We are told to dream and tell the story so that hopes become facts, dreams shape reality, and reality itself undergoes change.
Why is the night of Passover different from all other nights? Because on that night we tell the tale of the past in order to dream and forge our future.
Today, we are slaves. Tomorrow we are free men. Today, we may still be in exile; tomorrow we may be masters of our destiny.
While our parents and grandparents were wearing the military clothes of Poland and America, tomorrow our children and grandchildren will have Hebrew uniforms, where the shirts and shoes are as holy as the cap.
On the other nights of the year, we speak English, Yiddish, Russian and Polish. On this night we are able to dream in Hebrew.
On the other nights of our exile, we built Pithom and Rameses, Paris and Portland, Munich and Miami, Boston and Baltimore. On this night in our history, we build Ashdod and Ashkelon, Tel Hai and Tel Aviv, Be’er Sheva and B’nai Beraq. On all the other nights of our exile, we were in exile because our minds were free and our bodies were enslaved. On this night in our history, we can go on a jet plane and on eagles’ wings and come home to the Jewish homeland. We never lost our hope, because we remembered to remember those who trained us not to forget. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and we were slaves to the Pharaohs of history. Our ancestors taught us to remember, to remember to come home. For those who can, let Israel be a reality; for those who cannot, keep dreaming. For if you will it dreams come true.
Last 10 posts by Rabbi Alan Yuter
- May Women Run for Public Office? - May 19th, 2013
- Sucking the Life out of God’s Law: A response to a blog post, “Metzitzah and the Halachic Process” - May 12th, 2013
- The Political Modesty of Rabbi Eliezer Melammed - May 5th, 2013
- The Israeli Draft of Women: What is Orthodox Judaism Anyway? - April 29th, 2013
- The Law of Preserving Life according to the Two Forms of Orthodox Judaism - April 21st, 2013
- The Narrative of Abraham and Efron: A Clash of Two Cultures - April 14th, 2013
- Rambam and Drafting Yeshiva Students - April 8th, 2013
- How not to Observe Sukkot - March 31st, 2013
- On Truth in Packaging - March 24th, 2013
- Ko’ah de-Heteira ‘Adif – Orthodox rabbis ought to be strict about being lenient - March 17th, 2013