A LIGHTHEARTED LOOK AT WHAT HAPPENED BACK IN EGYPT
By Rabbi Manis Friedman
To understand the real meaning of Passover, we must start by discussing what made Pharaoh such an important villain. If Pharaoh was just some demented slave driver, the Torah wouldn’t have to tell the whole story about what he did. The Torah would just say, “There was an evil king, we got rid of him, let’s eat.” But Pharaoh, both as a historical figure and as a psychological archetype, is someone who the Torah thinks is worthy of study.
We can understand this by briefly analyzing the Kabbalistic explanation for why G-d made the world. Kabballah explains that G-d created a physical world and then asked us to use the ordinary materials of life to make a home, a dwelling place for Him on earth, and to do His will in the lowest realm of creation—in our money, food, and clothing, in everything that we do. In other words, the Infinite wants a home that is built in the finite, by the finite.
Pharaoh considered himself G-d, so he chooses a people and tells them “Build me a home from the lowest materials.” When Moses told Pharaoh that the Jews would stop building cities for him, Pharaoh asked him what he would do instead. Moses said that it was time for the people to go serve G-d in the wilderness. Pharaoh’s response was “What? You want to go out into the desert to find G-d? That is so irresponsible. It’s dangerous. If I let you go, you’re all going to die, or come running back. Leaving your work to hang out and be spiritual in the desert is crazy.”
Egypt was the most advanced civilization on earth. They were the future, and Pharaoh wanted the Jews to be part of it. Having the Jews, especially Moses who grew up in the palace, abandoning the plan really bothered Pharaoh.
Of course, after a couple of plagues Pharaoh said, “Alright already! Take a minyan and do your thing.” Moses said, “No, not a minyan. Everybody’s coming.” Pharaoh said, “You’re crazier than I thought…and you’re not going.” Some plagues later Pharaoh said, “Enough! What do you need for your desert holiday?” Moses said, “We need our sheep and cattle, plus some of yours.” Pharaoh said, “You’re out of your mind.”
Pharaoh sort of had a point. His basic argument, his objection, although with a cruel twist, was rational. “How can you abandon productivity and go make yourself useless by doing weird things in the middle of nowhere?” It makes sense.
Of course, it’s over 3,300 years later now that we can look back and see the results. Egypt is a mummy, a relic. The great ancient Egyptian civilization is gone, while the Jewish people who went wandering in the desert are still making waves in every area of life.
But Pharaoh’s mistake was thinking the Jews wanted to wander out to find G-d. If that were the case, Pharaoh would have been right, making no sense to abandon civilization to go wait for some divine calling in the desert. But eventually, Pharaoh realized that it was not the Jews looking for G-d; it was G-d guiding the people to Him. Once he realized that, he said, “Well, why didn’t you say so? If that’s the case, you have to go now!” And he threw them out. Of course he later changed his mind, but at least for one moment, Pharaoh understood that G-d was looking for the Jewish people.
This is the lesson of Passover. The Jewish story is not about people searching for spiritual liberation. It’s about us responding to G-d’s desire that we be His people.
If we don’t convey this understanding of Passover, then it really doesn’t warrant eight days every year for the past 3324 years. We need to rediscover the powerful and contemporary significance of “G-d took us out of Egypt,” which is different from saying, “We left Egypt.” We didn’t leave. G-d took us. And that’s what Passover is about.
If you look at the words of the Torah quoted in the Haggadah, you’ll see that this is really the message. G-d says, “I came down to Egypt to take you to be Mine. Not a messenger, not an angel, but I Myself.” This means that we left Egypt not because we wanted to, not because it was our idea. In fact, we didn’t really leave so much as we were removed. The Exodus was not our initiative and it wasn’t precipitated by our strength.
The Haggadah also puzzlingly says that “if G-d hadn’t taken us out of Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would still be slaves.” Why is this? Pharaoh dies eventually, and evil superpowers collapse. If we’re here today and Pharaoh is a mummy, then why would we still be slaves? Even if G-d had never taken us out of Egypt, Pharaoh would be gone anyway. But that’s exactly the point. If we had outlasted Pharaoh on our own, then it wouldn’t be that G-d took us out of slavery. And that is what Passover is about, that G-d himself took us out, His initiative, His plan, His strength.
Once we know what to look for, it’s all there in the Haggadah. And this is the story we need to tell our children, friends, the world, and ourselves. We’re not looking for G-d. We’re responding to the fact that G-d is looking for us.