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.

In the early phases of Moshe and Ahron’s mission, they were God’s agents to Paroh. But at some point, they had to become agents of the Jewish people as well. That is the point of the first mitzva – Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon.

Rav Hirsch teaches the deep symbolism that belies the mitzva, far beyond a calculation of the calendar dates.

Rosh Chodesh literally means “beginning of renewals”. There were signs and miracles to try and persuade the Egyptians, and there would be a perpetual sign for the Jewish people as well. Rosh Chodesh was to be the recurring sign that would call for ever fresh rejuvenation out of the night and darkness, immunising the people from the corruption they’d find themselves immersed in, from Egypt to everywhere else.

The procedure for calling it is human-centric – it requires multiple witnesses, and multiple judges to form a court. For simple declarations, one of each is enough, but more is required for cases concerning relationships. Rosh Chodesh is not an astronomical phenomenon; it is solely dependent on human criteria. It is the court as representatives of the Jewish people that decide when it is or is not Rosh Chodesh.

The Chagim are all based on when Rosh Chodesh is. Rosh Chodesh is called a מועד, which means a designated meeting time. The מועדים are designated times for a meeting between God and the Jewish people. The meeting is voluntary between both sides, which is the timing is only general, with latitude on our part; the meeting will be by mutual choice.

It is for this reason that this is the first mitzva communicated to the Jewish people as a whole; the mitzva that binds the relationship between the Jewish people, Moshe, and God.

The natural phenomena are not the reason. Rather, as each time the moon reunites with the sun, receiving new light, the Jewish people too can find their way back, no matter where they may be, or what darkness they find themselves in. The natural phenomena are the symbol.

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.

Having delivered word of a fair few plagues already, Moshe is told to go see Paroh again, and the reason he is given is quite bizarre:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה: כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ -Hashem said to Moshe, “Go see Paroh, because I’ve hardened his heart”. (10:1)

What is the cause and effect in the instruction? Why is the fact Moshe is sent related to Hashem hardening his heart?

The Sfas Emes explains that Paroh’s heart was hardened, meaning his resolve was given the endurance to withstand the plagues. This was the challenge Moshe was sent to address.

The Sfas Emes teaches that every Jew must know that every hurdle and obstacle they will ever face in life is a challenge straight from God. It is precisely because God is testing you that you must rise to the occasion. When a כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ is placed before us, is precisely when we receive the instruction of בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה.

There are interesting explanations of how the Plague of Darkness actually took place. On one hand, R’ Avraham Iben Ezra learns that it was a fog so tremendously thick that it extinguished any fire lit within it. He writes that he himself saw experienced such a phenomenon many times near the ocean. Yet the Torah Temima understands that the plague meant that the Egyptians were stricken with severe cataracts. The Vilna Goan explains that darkness is not like we commonly tend to think of as simply the absence of light, but rather a creation in its own right. Hashem however set up the light/dark relationship in such a way that light always wins in a “fight” with darkness. By this makkah, though, that relationship was reversed.

Rabbeinu Bachaiyei (Bo 10:21) seems to learn a pshat somewhere in the middle. He quotes the Medrash Shemos Rabba (14:1-3) detailing and expounding upon this plague. He mentions the tangibility of the darkness; this darkness was not just the absence of light. Rather, it was an existence in itself that had substance. So thick was it, that during the last three days of the six day duration of this plague, no Egyptian could move a muscle and was frozen in place. (Ralbag writes that Hashem sealed the Egyptians’ noses and mouths. They could not breathe for three days. That they did not die was a miracle. He did this because had the Egyptians breathed in this new, thick dark air, they surely would have died. Being kept alive without breathing for this time was a source of tremendous suffering for them.) Klal Yisrael, however, had plenty of light, not only in Goshen but even when they entered the Egyptian houses to search for valuables.n

Rabbeinu Bachaiyei explains the nature of this particular darkness. In order for the eye to see light, the light must travel from its source through the air into the eye. This is similar to hearing; the sound waves travel from the source to one’s ear. In other words, air is the medium through which light travels. During the first three days of the plague of darkness, Hashem “sealed” the pathways of the air from allowing passage of light. In the absence of the ability for light to get through the air automatically turns dark. For the last three days, Hashem thickened this dark air so much so that the weight of it did not allow them to move. This was not the case for Klal Yisrael; Hashem did not close the passageways of air for them. They were able to see freely and could go where they pleased.

In understanding this Rabbeinu Bachaiyei, it would seem that one would need to clarify his words as follows. We cannot say that all the air particles in any specific Egyptians house were sealed off to light. For if so, how could the Jew entering to search for valuables be able to see? On the other hand, to say that the air particles were open to light would mean that the Egyptians would be able to see! One must say that the plague of darkness how we tend to envision it. It wasn’t that the land of Egypt was completely dark. Rather, the air particles immediately and in closest proximity to the individual Egyptian were the ones that were sealed off from light (for the first three days, after which this very air became heavy enough to hinder any movement). It was as if every Egyptian had a heavy, dark shell around his body. But during the day, the land of Egypt itself was as bright as any other country.

One could comment, however, that according to this the Plague of Darkness effected the Jews as well. Being that the air directly surrounding the Egyptians did not allow light to pass through, all that a Jew saw in looking at an Egyptian was a thick human-shaped black cloud. The Jew would not have been able to see through due to the sealed air. If, for example, the Jew would want to know the identity of the Egyptian whose house he had entered by looking at him, he would not be able to (and those Jews who were able to tell specific Egyptians about the whereabouts of their valuables would have had to have know their identities by other means)! Possibly one could suggest that the air around the Egyptian worked like one-way glass; one side can see through while the other side can’t. The Jews could see the Egyptians while the Egyptians could not see out. The problem with this might be that if the light could not get in to the Egyptians, then it would not be reflecting back towards the Jews to enable them to see the Egyptians.

The easiest pshat in Rabbeinu Bachayei might therefore be that the air was open for the Jews and closed for the Egyptians. Though this may not make sense in our minds (as we asked above), we can safely throw up our hands and say, “Who is so wise to understand Hashem’s ways!” So writes the Alshich (10:21-23). The Ramban at the end of Parsha Bo explains that all the miracles preformed in Egypt were a testimonial for generations of there being really no such thing as nature, rather everything is Hashem’s doing. The miracles there were a wakeup call to this. After writing this, I found in the Medrash Tehilim (aka Sochar Tov 22:2) exactly this idea. “In the way the world works, can a man light a fire and say, ‘Ploni who is my friend shall benefit from this light, but Ploni who is my enemy will not’?! Rather everyone benefits together. Yet Hashem is not this way. He can shine light to one and place darkness on another.”