The Israelite freedom from Egyptian slavery is the liberation story of Western civilization. African-American slaves and later citizens living under Jim Crow mapped their journey to the Israelites journey. Liberation theology is the paradigm theology of everyone who would be free – who seek freedom whether from literal bondage or in emotional and spiritual life.
Yet often we forget that our enslaved ancestors' Biblical journey from bondage to liberation began not at the Sea of Reeds, not at the literal release from Egypt, not with the Ten Plagues, and not even with the Burning Bush.
It began far earlier, in the most unlikely of places.
Shemot 5784 (2024)
The Book of Genesis ends and the Book of Exodus opens. Our book of beginnings, from Creation to humanity to history to ancestry, culminates in a tribe who settled in Egypt after the unlikely prime minister of Egypt, Joseph son of Jacob and Rachel, saves Egypt and his family tribe from an unearthly famine.
Now the Book of Exodus opens. By its end we'll be a free people of Israelites, the Children of Israel, in eternal Covenant with a Nameless God dwelling among us. Before that we'll build a Mishkan / dwelling place to focus the Presence. We'll stand together at Sinai to receive Ten Commandments and promptly start breaking them. We'll be rescued at the Sea of Reeds, finally free of a vicious Pharaoh. We'll be liberated from Egyptian bondage by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, by awesome powers, by the signs and wonders of Ten Plagues.
But first, in this week's opening portion of the Book of Exodus, the Children of Israel dwelling in Egypt meet a new Pharaoh "who knew not Joseph" (Ex. 1:8). He enslaved them brutally and ruthlessly (Ex. 1:9-14), condemning every male baby among Israel to die (Ex. 1:16) and decreeing that every live boy will be thrown into the Nile (Ex. 1:22). A beautiful baby boy from the Tribe of Levi is floated down the Nile in a basket. Pharaoh's sister takes him out of the Nile and adopts him as her son (Ex. 2:1-10).
Thus was Moses born and entered into the Court of Pharaoh as nephew of the King of Egypt. (For folks learning in SoulSpa with me on Saturday mornings, this bit might sound familiar as another Noah story: the future depended on salvation from an ark atop flowing water.)
It doesn't go well. Pharaoh doesn't know this God ... and penalizes the Israelites by making them gather their own straw to make the bricks of bondage (Ex. 5:1-10).
We, as Jews, are commanded to retell this story – and relive it – every year. We are to regard ourselves as if we ourselves – not our spiritual ancestors but each of us – came up from Egypt (Ex. 13:8). Each year we are to feel ourselves enslaved, so that each year we are freed anew.
So, fellow slaves, you know the lash of the taskmaster's whip. You know the frightful sting of antisemitism. You know the suffering of the world. When will it end? When will freedom come, at long last?
We must ask this question every year, and yearn for the answer so much that we ourselves will experience a liberation anew.
So we ask: when did the liberation begin in the Exodus story? Did liberation come first when the Sea of Reeds miraculously split so we could escape Pharaoh's fast approaching army? Did it begin when Pharaoh finally heeded God's demand that Moses spoke, "Let My people go"? Did it begin during the Ten Plagues? Did it begin with the Burning Bush at which God spoke to Moses and sent him to free the Children of Israel?
No. Our liberation began earlier, in the most unlikely of moments, with a key lesson to teach us about our own journeys.
R. Shalom Noah Berezovsky, who died in the year 2000, famously taught that the liberation began when our enslaved spiritual ancestors first groaned under the bondage: After Moses fled into the desert and had a family of his own (Gen. 2:23–25):
וַיְהִי֩ בַיָּמִ֨ים הָֽרַבִּ֜ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיָּ֙מָת֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֵּאָנְח֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָ֖ה וַיִּזְעָ֑קוּ וַתַּ֧עַל שַׁוְעָתָ֛ם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָֽה׃ וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃ וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱלֹהִֽים׃
Long after, the king of Egypt died. The Children of Israel groaned under the bondage and cried out: their cry rose up to God from bondage. God heard their groaning, and God recalled the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God saw the Children of Israel, and God knew.
And then "God knew" that the people were ready to move beyond bondage into an eternal partnership that would become the Covenant. By our enslaved ancestors' cry heard 'round the world, "God knew" that they could be freed, for liberation already had begun within them even if they didn't yet know it. Only then did God send a messenger in a Burning Bush to attract Moses' eye – and the rest of the liberation followed.
Thus begins Judaism's spiritual spring in a few weeks, when we "see" tree sap rising up, lifting spring in its sweetness. And so too begins the liberation from bondage, when we first stir enough to individuate ourselves from the status quo. Both are journeys of utter audacity, unreasonable, invisible and yet totally real.
So get ready to throw off winter's shackles, the straitjacket of doom, the familiarity of despair. It begins with the smallest move. It begins now.