The Exodus story is plain on its face that just as much as the Jewish People must understand there is a God and there are consequences, Egypt must also know and understand.

In the story of Jewish redemption, why is it important for Egypt to know that God is God?

When the entire Egyptian army was drowning in the waves of the Red Sea and the Jews were celebrating their escape, God didn’t celebrate – “Will the angels sing while my creations drown?!”

Egypt was pagan and polytheistic, and the plagues were an exhibition on monotheism, demonstrating a higher unified force controlling all the underlying elements that Egypt deified. The plagues were all delivered using media the Egyptians well understood – they worshipped nature, and nature turned on them.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe shrewdly noted that שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ אֶל־הַגּוֹיִם is only on אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעוּךָ. The Torah’s vision, from it’s earliest moments, is not just that the Jews have a national redemption; the utopian future we hope for is one where all will recognize God. While the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his followers have certainly taken outreach to it’s furthest conceivable limits, it is worth dwelling on the principle.

The Torah is not a pathway to personal joy and reward just for us. When the Torah is properly lived, it is supposed to influence and impact the people and world around us.

When the Torah narrates Moshe’s interactions with Paroh, the Torah describes how at various points in the story, God hardens Paroh’s heart, or Paroh does it himself.

By doing so, the story just dragged out.

The Seforno offers a compelling close reading.

There are two verbs the Torah uses to describe Paroh’s heart: heaviness and strength – כבד / חזק. Being strong is not a bad thing! For the first seven plagues – all uses of כבד are in reference to Paroh acting in such a way. Where Hashem acts directly, there is only חיזוק – Hashem gave him the strength to continue.

The key to understanding the Exodus story is to consider the end goal. It wouldn’t be hard to flatten Egypt with the proverbial lightning bolt, and it wouldn’t be hard to just airlift the Jews out. But instead, lots of other things happened that weren’t reducible to the goals of a defeated Egypt and a free Jewish People.

The story is very clear why, and it slips right under the radar. Hashem explicitly states the purpose of what is to come to Moshe, foreshadowing the first plague:

וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה, בִּנְטֹתִי אֶת-יָדִי עַל-מִצְרָיִם; וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִתּוֹכָם – Egypt will know that I am the Lord, when I stretch My hand over Egypt, and take the Jews away from them. (7:17)

Having been conspicuously absent in the story up to now, Hashem wants to be recognized.

Having read this story a few times, our minds glaze over because we know it too well. At this point in the story, no one knows what God can do. Not Moshe, and certainly not Paroh. Even the Jewish People only knew they were descended from Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov; and that they believed in the One God of their ancestors. But that’s really it – no one knew God had actual power; no one had ever seen or heard of a miracle. Arguably, there hadn’t been a miracle since the Flood. So not without good reason, Paroh mocked Moshe:

מִי ה אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ לְשַׁלַּח אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַעְתִּי אֶת־ה וְגַם אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחַ – Who is this Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go?! I don’t know this Lord, and I won’t let Israel go! (5:2)

So when God flexed a strong and outstretched arm on Egypt, people would rightly be terrified. So Paroh needed strength – חיזוק. He could not free the Jews for the wrong reason; it could not be because Egypt was being toyed with. He needed strength to comprehend the nature of what he was facing.

After the 7th plague, the task is seemingly complete; and Paroh concedes, completely:

יִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה, וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, חָטָאתִי הַפָּעַם: ה, הַצַּדִּיק, וַאֲנִי וְעַמִּי, הָרְשָׁעִים. הַעְתִּירוּ, אֶל-ה, וְרַב, מִהְיֹת קֹלֹת אֱלֹהִים וּבָרָד; וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה אֶתְכֶם, וְלֹא תֹסִפוּן לַעֲמֹד – Paroh sent for Moshe and Ahron, and said to them, “Now I have sinned. Hashem is righteous; my people and I are guilty. Beg the Lord to bring an end to this flaming hail; I will free you; you will be here no longer…” (9:27,28)

Mission accomplished, and Egypt has been educated. With three more plagues to come, Hashem tells Moshe the student to be educated has changed:

וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת-אֹתֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בָם; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי-אֲנִי ה – So that you tell over to your sons and daughters how I toyed with Egypt, with my wonders that I cast on them, and you will know that I am the Lord. (10:2)

Now it is about the Jews.

The Jews needed to understand what Hashem would do for them. It was understandably mind-bending for them to comprehend what was taking place, and they fought a life of miraculous redemption the rest of their days. But even if that generation wouldn’t see it, their children would.

God cares about the slaves. God cares about the victims. God cares about us all. And God will do something about it.

Jews have a daily duty to recall the Exodus.

The theme of the Exodus is ever present in various daily prayers and blessings; it seems like everything we do is another זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. It is so pervasive to so many commands and rituals, to the extent that we could almost miss the point entirely.

It is important to understand first principles because they are the foundational concepts that pervade the systems built upon them. So what do we mean when we say that we remember that God took the Jews out of Egypt?

Simply put, it’s not the history of the that we have to recall; it’s that every single last one of us is worthy of God’s unconditional love.

If we unpack the story, the Jews in Egypt weren’t saved because they were so good or so special, but quite the opposite.

The Zohar imagines the angels arguing whether or not God should save the Jews, and the argument against intervention was that “these are idol-worshippers, and so are these!”

When Moshe told the Jews to set aside and take one sheep per family, the Midrash says that “set aside” meant setting aside their idols, before taking the sheep for the mitzvah.

When even Moshe, already well on his way to Jewish leadership, saw Yisro’s daughters getting bullied and got involved in the fracas to protect them, the onlookers mistook him for just another Egyptian!

Moreover, the generation that left Egypt and stood at Sinai fought Moshe the rest of their lives, begging to go back to Egypt, and was ultimately doomed to wander and die in the wilderness.

The Zohar goes so far as to say that the Jews were on the 49th level of spiritual malaise; just one notch off rock bottom, the point of no return. Rav Kook notes that this adds a certain dimension to the imagery of God’s outstretched arm – it was a forceful intervention, an emergency rescue of a nation that had stumbled and was about fall off a cliff – בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה.

That is to say that on a fundamental level, the Jews didn’t deserve to be rescued at all.

And yet crucially, as R’ Chaim Kanievsky notes, God responded to their cries all the same – וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ.

The Divrei Chaim notes that the very first Commandment is no command at all; God “introduces” himself as the God who took us out of Egypt – אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים. We might not deserve redemption, yet God redeems us all the same. It’s not a command – it is something that simply just is, whoever and wherever we are.

R’ Tzadok haKohen writes that to remember Egypt is to remember God’s first declarative sentence; our God rescues people from Egypt, whoever they are.

The Ropshitzer quipped that תְּחִלָּה לְמִקְרָאֵי קדֶשׁ זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם – the first step towards holiness is remembering that the same Exodus that rescued people from the abyss once before could be just a moment away.

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, God’s redemption is not contingent on our worthiness.

That’s our daily duty. To remind yourself that the first principle of Judaism from which everything follows is that you are worthy.

The Torah emphasizes repeatedly that we have the capacity and agency to choose how we live and act. With good reason, Maimonides flags free will as a foundational principle. If we are predestined to be righteous or wicked, we are not morally responsible, and if we are not morally responsible, then there can be no justice, reward, or punishment.

Throughout the story of Egypt, God says that He has hardened Paroh’s heart, and resists overtures to free the Jews. But if God had hardened his heart, Paroh’s free will was compromised; how could he then be punished?

Maimonides exposition of free will allows a person the possibility to do so something so egregious that repentance and making amends is foreclosed, and the person can no longer turn back from the path they have gone down. So by enslaving, torturing, and murdering the Jewish People, justice required that Paroh be prevented from making amends.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests this is fairly intuitive – we can become prisoners of our own pride. Paroh had obstinately made himself blind and deaf to his peoples suffering, to the point where his adviser please fell on deaf ears:

הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם – Do you not see Egypt is already lost? (10:7)

The Midrash warns us that sin is like a passing visitor; then a houseguest who overstays their welcome, and before long, it’s master of the house.

It is not difficult to imagine someone becoming so entrenched in their world view that they get tunnel vision and can’t change their course.

As much as we celebrate the prospect of freedom, it is something we must consciously choose for ourselves.

The story of Egypt begins by setting the scene of a nation oppressed and enslaved. The story then tells Moshe’s backstory, but with terse details.

He interceded when an Egyptian enforcer bullied a Jew, killing him. He interceded when two Jews were fighting each other. He interceded when some local shepherds bullied Yisro’s daughters. The Midrash says that the burning bush event happened when he followed a thirsty lost lamb. These cryptic inclusions are instructive about why he was selected. The common denominator between the stories subtly conveys the qualities a good leader possesses.

The Meshech Chochma notes that in all these incidents, Moshe demonstrated his care to for the weak, and his willingness to intervene in other people’s problems. Moshe was someone who would risk himself to take action for another.

The burning bush story says the reasons he could be a leader:

וירא ה’ כי סר לראות ויקרא אליו אלוקים מתוך הסנה – Hashem saw that he had turned to look, and God called to him from within the thorn bush. (3:4)

This is the very first time God speaks to him. This is when Moshe receives his mission. Moshe would need to become the ultimate leader. The quality he had was that he could “turn and look” – כי סר לראות.

Moshe was a natural helper, a complete giver, he wanted nothing for himself in return. Protecting the weak and helpless, with genuine self-sacrifice is the defining quality of a great leader. This is the type of person the Jews needed to take them from the depths of slavery to the apex of greatness.

A true leader must be ready to sacrifice everything for his people.

What could change in your circles if you lead a bit more?

The books of the Torah transition into each other, beginning new phases in the Jewish people’s development.

The book of Shemos is known as Sefer HaGeula – the Book of Redemption, or Exodus, named for how the Jewish people achieved liberty and independence, culminating in Sinai. But only the first quarter addresses this. The remainder addresses the Mishkan and its requirement.

What does the Mishkan have to do with redemption the book is named after?

The Ramban explains that the book measures the full spectrum of redemption. Redemption of the body is incomplete without redemption of the soul. The nation only had a purpose once the Torah was given a home among the community, and the community could carry the Torah into their lives.

The conclusion of Bereishis concludes with the same theme.

The Ksav Sofer explains that Yaakov descendants bless their children to be like Efraim and Menashe, who were excellent Jews worthy of being considered as if they were Yakov’s own, while simultaneously aiding Yosef with the administration of Egypt’s government.

The story of Bereishis ends in the rise of the Jew in both spiritual and earthly pursuits on a personal level, and the story of Shemos extends that to the national scale.

The Torah does not introduce us to Moshe as an adult, ready to save the Jewish people. The Torah tells us of his birth and adoption by the Egyptian royal family.

Moshe’s childhood contains subtle descriptions of his nature that resulted in his eventual leadership. It is clear throughout that although brought up in the palace, he was aware that he was a Jew:

וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו – It came to pass in those days. Moshe grew up, and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens. He saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers (2:11).

He recognised the slaves as his brothers, which distressed him. His kin were suffering, but he was a prince of Egypt!

When he came across an Egyptian bully abusing a Jew, it was too much to ignore:

וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ בַּחוֹל – He looked this way and that way, and saw that there was no-one; he attacked the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (2:12)

He made the decision to stand with his people and killed the Egyptian. An outlaw, he committed a crime against the people and land that had raised and nurtured him.

R’ Nathan Lopez Cardozo explains how this pasuk is also true of Moshe’s internal conflict. He was a walking contradiction; Egyptian and Jew, yet neither as well! He looked within, this way and that way, and saw that there was no-one. So he left the Egyptian inside him in the sand, rejecting Egyptian culture and values.

This all fits into the picture we have of Moshe before he became a leader. He was someone who would put his neck on the line for others.

That’s leadership takes.