Even if we were all wise, all discerning, all venerable, all knowledgeable in Torah – it would still be a commandment for us to tell of the departure from Egypt. For whoever tells of the departure from Egypt at length is praiseworthy.*

“The exodus from Egypt is a focal point of ancient Israelite religion. Virtually every kind of religious literature in the Hebrew Bible--prose narrative, liturgical poetry, didactic prose, and prophecy--celebrates the exodus as a foundational event. Israelite ritual, law, and ethics are often grounded in the precedent and memory of the exodus,” according to Ronald Hendel, writing in The Exodus in Biblical Memory. “In the Decalogue, Yahweh identifies himself as the one ‘who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage’ (Exodus 20:2 ; Deuteronomy 5:6). In the covenantal language of this passage and many others, the deliverance from Egypt is the main historical warrant for the religious bond between Yahweh and Israel; it is the gracious act of the great lord for his people on which rests the superstructure of Israelite belief and practice. In some texts (and featured prominently in the Passover Haggadah), the historical distance of the exodus event is drawn into the present by the elastic quality of genealogical time.”

In every generation one must regard oneself as having personally gone out from Egypt. As it is said, “You must tell your child on that day, ‘(All this) is because of what the LORD did for me when I left Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8). The Blessed Holy One did not redeem only our ancestors, He redeemed us too along with them.*

Every spring, in Jewish homes around the world, the Passover seder (Jewish ritual feast that celebrates the beginning of this holiday) both commemorates and reenacts the ancient journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, from slavery to freedom. Just as each participant imaginatively experiences the miraculous deliverance of centuries ago, so the old tale of captivity, servitude and rescue has become a timeless symbol of liberation from all misfortune and oppression.

This year we are slaves; next year may we be free.*

In its existential actuality, the Exodus, more than any other event of the Hebrew Bible, embodies William Faulkner's adage: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

*from the Passover Haggadah

Content: Thomas E. Levy, Distinguished Professor, Department of Anthropology and Judaic Studies Program, UCSD; and William Propp, Professor, Department of History and Judaic Studies Program, UCSD

"Moses with the Ten Commandments," Rembrandt (1659), oil on canvas (Source: Google Art Project)