Parshat Va’era: Stories Happen to People That Tell Them

The story of the exodus from Egypt is a thrilling and epic tale – a weak and enslaved nation triumphs over the reigning global power of the ancient world. Though some might argue that the weak-defeating-mighty motif is a trifle hackneyed, to do so would be akin to accusing Shakespeare of being full of clichés. Graphically told and packed with the supernatural, the story of the exodus is at times humorous, for instance in the plague of frogs, and at times frightening, like a sea that turns to blood or days of absolute crushing darkness. And just when it seems like every effect has been squeezed to the max, the biggest one of them all takes place – the splitting of the sea.

The story’s setting also contributes to its captivating nature; it takes place not in some obscure or mundane country but in a land of magic and mystery, of Pharaohs and mummies, magicians and pyramids. The blend of background, plot and effects kindles the imagination. Small wonder that the movies that have been made about the exodus, from Cecil DeMille’s The Ten Commandments to DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt, were all blockbuster successes.

It’s lucky that this is the case! After all, this is the foundational event in the creation of the People of Israel, a story which has been told and retold for over three thousand years. We are obligated to remember it every single day, and every year on Passover night we retell the whole story. Since it must be so frequently revisited, then all the better that it should be a story that captures the imagination. But is it purely luck?

As it turns out, this was the intent all along. In the beginning of our Parsha, as the Torah unfolds Israel’s founding story, G-d reveals to Moshe that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart and that Pharaoh will refuse to free the Israelites despite the plagues that G-d inflicts upon Egypt. But why does G-d harden Pharoah’s heart?

As a child I always thought that the reason for hardening Pharaoh’s heart was in order to punish him, but the verses themselves provide a different reason altogether: “In order that you should tell it your son and to your grandson what I afflicted upon Egypt” (Shmot 10:2). It wasn’t enough just to release Israel from bondage; Hashem wanted to create a captivating story that would be told for all generations, and He had to take away Pharaoh’s free will to do so.

A Story About a Story

The author Paul Austor said, “stories only happen to people who tell them.” Apparently stories happen to nations that tell them too. The exodus from Egypt happened the way it did so that there would be a story to tell, and the fact that Am Yisrael has continued to tell that story throughout history has in turn given rise to new stories, as each generation reads the present in the light of the past, and through that forms its identity. As the Mishna says, “in every generation and generation, a person must view himself as if he personally left Egypt” (Pesachim 10:5). Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of England, once said that Am Yisrael is not a nation that has a story; The exodus is a story that has a nation.

Throughout history people have drawn on the story of the exodus for inspiration. In recent times, for example, this could be seen in the protests for the release of the Jews of Soviet Russia, which were always accompanied by cries of “let my people go!” The exodus was also a central theme in the struggle for civil rights led by Martin Luther King. But the story made its impact not only on movements but also on individuals. My own family would not exist if not for the inspiration of the story of leaving Egypt.

My wife’s grandfather, Israel prize winner Professor Akiva Earnest Simon z”l, a descendant of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, was born in Germany to an assimilated Jewish family. He didn’t even know he was Jewish until he turned seven. He grew up as German child in every respect, and Judaism represented a nominal aspect of his identity. With the outbreak of World War I, Simon joined the German army where he met with a cruel and brutal anti-Semitism. His encounter with his German brothers-in-arms was the first sign that his future involvement in German life would come to change.

Reconstruction of Holy Temple in JerusalemOne evening he was told that the Jewish soldiers were celebrating the Passover Seder, a ceremony with which he had no familiarity whatsoever. He decided to join, and toward the end of the seder, several members stood up and passionately declared “next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem!” When he asked the person next to him why they were standing, he was told, “Those people are Zionists. They want to emphasize that Jews should live in Eretz Yisrael.” “At that moment my life changed,” Simon would tell for many years following, “slowly slowly, I too stood up, and I thought, ‘I want to be a Jew, I want to be a Zionist, I want to live in Israel!’” As soon as he got out of the army he began learning Torah, keeping mitzvot, and studying Hebrew. After a few years realized his dream and made Aliyah.

Egyptian Immortality vs. Jewish Immortality

I once heard Jonathan Sacks speak about two nations in the ancient world that strove for and successfully achieved immortality. The Egyptians achieved immortality through the construction of “magnificent monuments to withstand the winds of time” – the pyramids which to this day grace the Egyptian desert with their majesty. The children of Israel also found their way to immortality, though in a very different way. In his first address to the nation, before the people had even left Egypt, Moshe already entreats them to relate to their children all that they saw. Since then every generation has carried out Moshe’s will and the Jewish tradition is handed down as a living legacy between parents and children. This is the immortality of Am Yisrael.

Sphinx and pyramids in GizaDuring one of our visits to my parents in the United States, my wife Michal took our children to the ancient Egypt exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As soon as they entered the exhibit, the youngest of the pack ran over and sat down in between the massive paws of a large sculpture of the sphinx. Naturally, from that moment on, the exhibit guard, a large and hefty fellow, accompanied my wife and children throughout the exhibit, closely watching their every move and escorting them wherever they went. Michal lowered her voice to explain to the children about the statues and ancient Egyptian cultures, out of fear of further disturbing the guard, but he only came closer and closer. As they left the Egyptian branch, the guard approached them and asked in amazement, “is that Hebrew your children are speaking?”

The guard, who was a devout Christian, was well acquainted with the story of the exodus, but he was shocked to discover that so many centuries later he was meeting a Jewish family from the land of Israel whose children actually speak in the language of the bible, the same language that their ancestors spoke when they made their way from Egypt to Israel for the first time. Israel’s triumph over Egypt is clearly apparent – the eternity of Egypt is preserved in glass cabinets in museums, while the eternity of the Jewish People lives and thrives.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir.

Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen
Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.

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