“Remember the Alamo!” was the rallying cry, urging Texans in 1836 to join the army and exact revenge on the Mexican army for the Battle of the Alamo, where every last soldier, including those who surrendered, were massacred. The campaign succeeded, and shortly thereafter the Mexican army was defeated by a bitterly determined group of Texans.
Remembrance is an important part of a nation’s identity. The historical narrative builds a mythology and a shared sense of history among members of a nation. These days we focus a great deal on the divisiveness of identity, highlighting its ability to separate groups, but identity is also responsible for cohesion within a group, and that must not be minimized. A mythology can be built from a long national history, or it can revolve around a single event. The Alamo was a single event which formed a localized narrative and identity. In Australia and New Zealand the ANZAC day commemorations, taking place next month, honour the contributions and sacrifices made by troops from these countries in the two world wars. “Lest we forget” is the phrase we employ to keep this in our national memory. For Jews a more recent phrase is “Never again,” invoking memories of the Holocaust’s horrors.
Zecher L’yetzi’at Mitzrayim, in commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt, is a phrase woven into the theme of numerous Mitzvot we perform, a significant part of the Torah’s mythology for the Jew. This phrase is most recognizable as a part of the kiddush we recite every Friday night, as well as every Yom Tov eve. The observance of a festival, the consecration of the day, invokes the memory of the Exodus.
Other Mitzvot invoke the memory of the Exodus as well as the festivals. Tzitzit and Tefillin are daily Mitzvot, and they were commanded with the injunction to thereby remember the Exodus. The rules against forbidden sexual relationships listed in Leviticus are attributed to Egypt. Rashi points out that ancient Egypt was well known to be deeply immersed in depraved sexual promiscuity, and therefore the Torah invokes that country when listing forbidden sexual relationships.
The theme of remembering the Exodus is prominent enough to have been included in the Shema. One of the ideas explaining the inclusion of the third paragraph of the Shema, which discusses the Mitzvah of tzitzit, is the reference to the Exodus included in the Mitzvah of tzitzit. We have a daily Mitzvah of remembering the Exodus, in addition to our annual Mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus at the Seder. The verse in Deuteronomy (16:3) states: “…in order that you shall remember the day of your exit from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.” Due to its inclusion in the text of the Shema, we fulfill this Mitzvah each time we recite the Shema, twice every day. The Shema concludes with the declaration: “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God, I am the Lord your God.” (Numbers 15:41)
Remembering the Exodus has a prominent place in Judaic life and culture, but it is by no means the only remembrance. There is a list of daily remembrances, printed in many siddurim following the weekday Shacharit service. (In the Artscroll Siddur this appears on page 176) The first on the list is the Exodus from Egypt, and this is what we are focusing on here. The very first statement in the Ten Commandments invokes the Exodus from Egypt to define our relationship with God. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)
Our relationship with God, as reflected in this all-important statement, is based on the Exodus. Why is this the case? Our forefathers, who preceded the era of the Exodus, had a relationship with God that certainly did not include this element. And that relationship was sufficient. After it happened, however, the story of the Exodus seems to have taken over the narrative. God is also Creator of the world – this is a fundamental doctrine in all Abrahamic religions. But our particular identity, the narrative of the people of Israel, focuses on the experience of the Exodus which was unique to Israel.
This week the world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking died at the age of 76. Dr. Stephen Hawking was remarkable not only in his brilliance in the field of physics but also for his miraculous survival of an illness about which doctors in the 60’s predicted would kill him within two years. Stephen Hawking is also known for his view on God, or lack thereof. Hawking was a sworn atheist, going so far as to reinterpret any statement he had earlier made about a god to be hypothetical. He was, one can say, an evangelical atheist, one who pushed his views upon others to the point of ridiculing the faiths of others. Who, in a world dominated by science, can argue with a mind like Hawking’s? How does a rational Jew, a person with respect for the discoveries and accomplishments of science, maintain a belief in God when geniuses such as Hawking stand opposed?
This challenge may be the reason the focus shifted from God as creator of the world to God as Liberator from bondage in Egypt. Adam may have harboured no doubts about the existence of the Creator. Adam’s grandchildren were raised with certainty of God’s presence. But hundreds of generations later, with no real “proof” regarding the world’s creation other than statistical likelihood and a few other theories, belief in God becomes more difficult, a greater “leap of faith.”
But the Exodus from Egypt wasn’t like the creation of the universe. The Exodus was witnessed by millions of people, and all of us trace our ancestry to those who crossed the Sea of Reeds and subsequently stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The God who brought us out from Egypt is the God we can believe in without doubt, without being subject to scientific challenges. At Mt. Sinai the Lord established this new relationship when He declared “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This is our national identity, the narrative and mythology through which we relate to God and each other. For this reason so much of our ritual connects to that theme, that which defined us as a national entity, with a God Who revealed Himself in the presence of multitudes.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch posits that the question of whether God exists is not part of this declaration. That is not the question the first commandment is focusing on. It is rather the establishment that this is my God, the God Who has expectations of me and Who guides me and is involved at every step and every moment. This is the concept expressed by “the Lord who delivered us from Egypt.”