One of the wonderful things about studying the Torah is that it can be understood on so many different levels. This is especially true of the Exodus story. It can be seen as a straightforward narrative of Israelite slaves being liberated by God’s power but we can also think about it in a more personal way, as the Passover Haggadah instructs us to do when it states, “In every generation, each one of us must see ourselves as if we, personally, went forth from Egypt.” In Hebrew, the word translated as “Egypt” literally means “place of constriction.” While we may not be physically confined, we all must work to free ourselves from those tight or stuck places which hinder the freedom of our spirits.
The Exodus story also raises difficult, complex questions about human nature and the use of power. One of the most troubling is the narrative’s repeated assertion that, just as Pharaoh is ready to free the Israelites, God hardens his heart so that the human ruler once again refuses. As a result, additional plagues bring more devastation and suffering to the Egyptian people and their land. For many of our ancestors, who themselves experienced oppression, this obstinacy and its consequences seemed appropriate to the enemies of the Jewish people. But for many contemporary Jews, it is hard to accept that such escalation reflects well on God’s nature.
One way to respond to this problem is to object to God’s behavior. From Abraham to Tevye, we have the example of generations of Jews who have argued with God. Another, more traditional approach, is to see the story as really being about God’s supreme power. The purpose of the contest with Pharaoh is to make abundantly clear the fact that freedom is not to be given or withheld at the whim of any earthly sovereign but is due to the unique power of the Creator.
I also like to think that this aspect of the story is meant to be a lesson about the difference between acting out of the constricted space of selfishness and acting on the expansive viewpoint of liberation. Pharaoh brings about more suffering because he is only motivated by self-interest. In contrast, Moses, Aaron and Miriam are leaders who understand the value of freedom and the desire to use it to create a better life for their whole people. We all remain enslaved when we can’t see beyond our own, individual situation. In the words of our prayer book, “When will redemption come? When we grant everyone what we claim for ourselves.”
–Rabbi Drorah Setel