Our encounter with the offerings made in the Tabernacle is interrupted on the Shabbat of April 4th by a description of the Exodus that we celebrate on this day, the first day of Pesach. The Reform reading (Exodus 12:37-42; 13:3-10) differs slightly from the traditional reading, which is Exodus 12:21-51.
What we have omitted is the description of slaughtering the lamb and putting its blood on the doorposts (which is included in the Shabbat HaChodesh reading on March 21), the killing of Egyptian first-born sons, and the despoiling of the Egyptians. While a description of the institution of the Festival of Passover is found in the omitted section, verses 24-28, it is reiterated in Exodus 13:3-10, which is included in the Reform reading.
What is emphasized in the Reform selection is the journey out of Egypt, allowing us to fulfill the command in the Haggadah, "In every generation a person is obligated to see oneself as though one had gone forth from Egypt." As reading about the offerings becomes the manner in which we fulfill our obligations to make these offerings, so reading about the Exodus enables us to fulfill our obligation to regard ourselves as having made the journey on our own.
What does this passage tell us about our journey? The first stage, a trek from the city of Raamses in Egypt to Sukkot in the wilderness, covered a distance, Rashi tells us, of about 120 miles, which they traversed "quickly," because, he notes, God carried them "on wings of eagles" (Exodus 19:4). The use of such a metaphor, rare in the Torah, helps give us a sense of what the journey felt like. While we are so used to airplane flying that the thrill of it has mostly dissipated, to ride not in a sealed carrier but on the great outstretched wings of soaring eagles watching the earth below race past, is a powerful experience—particularly since the image may also be understood to mean that God gave us wings of eagles, turning us into birds soaring out of Egypt on our own.
The text next tells us in whose company we made the journey: 600,000 men. How about the women? Given our modern sensibilities, their omission from this figure is startling, but it is in keeping with other enumerations (see Numbers 1:46). We should also remember that the Book of Exodus begins with stories about women-Moses's mother and sister, the two midwives, and Pharaoh's daughter—whose heroism was indispensable for the redemption from Egypt itself (Exodus 1:15-21; 2:1-11). Also in the party was an eirev rav, a "mixed multitude," whom Rashi identifies as converts. How much this describes our own communities these days!
And of course we brought food—cakes of matzah, unleavened bread, a casualty of the hurriedness of our departure. Matzah is the signature food of our own Passover, for at the Torah's bidding we have turned a necessity for survival into a ritual treat. From our beginnings as a people, food was not only a requirement for life, but also an instrument for our relationship with God. When the matzah ran out, God created manna, with an extra portion for Shabbat, memorialized in the three matzot on the Seder plate (so that even after the middle matzah is split there will still be two whole pieces). The text notes that other than beginning to bake matzah, "they had not made any food for themselves" (12:39). Rashi sees this as a subject of praise for the Israelites: they never protested being taken out of Egypt without sufficient food. What a legacy for us to live up to!
While the Rabbis argue about the length of our stay in Egypt, the figure in our passage is 430 years (Exodus 12:40), essentially the length of time God told Abraham the people would be enslaved (Genesis 15:13). To give us a sense of how long this was, it was a little more than twice the length of time that African Americans were enslaved in the United States (officially from 1619-1863).
The passage in which God tells Abraham about the length of the enslavement is a disturbing one. What an unsettling covenant the Holy One makes with him: we would have an eternal claim to the Land of Canaan and progeny who would be uncountable as the stars-and we would be enslaved for 430 years. The three provisions of that covenant have continued: no one has yet been able to count the number of Jews in the world; we have a stronger claim on the Land of Israel than we have had in the last 2000 years—and through pogroms and the Holocaust we have continued to be oppressed in the lands in which we have lived. Couldn't we have the progeny and the land without the suffering? One after another, the nations that oppressed us met their doom—their progeny and their land were not assured. Ours have been, but periodic oppression has been the price.
But our Passover reading continues. The night of the Exodus, it tells us, was a leil shimurim, a night of watching (Exodus 12:42). The old Union Haggadah1 called it "The Watchnight of the Eternal." Rashi sees God as "watching and looking [for ways] to fulfill the promise to bring us out of Egypt." Can we feel God looking out for us as we relive the Exodus in our own day?
And how shall we relive it? Chapter 13:3-10 instructs us. We are to eat matzah—and so we do. We are to eat no leavening for seven days, nor have any in our possession—observance of this varies in our Movement. We are to instruct our children in the reason for these practices—telling the story at the seder is almost universal among Reform Jews. There is to be a sign on our hand and our forehead (traditionally understood as the wearing of tefillin) reminding us of God's mighty hand in freeing us from Egypt-only a few Reform Jews wear tefillin, though provision has been made for this in Reform prayer books for almost 40 years.2 In sum, we fulfill most of the Torah's ritual injunctions enabling us to regard ourselves as having been personally redeemed from Egypt, but we know that redemption is a psychological, inner state as well as one of outward observance, so we are on the way. And that is appropriate—redemption is a journey.
1. Union Haggadah (New York: CCAR, 1923), p. 38
2. See Mishkan T'flilah (New York: CCAR, 2007), pp. 28-29
Rabbi Richard N. Levy recently retired as Rabbi of the Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR, where he continues to teach in the fields of liturgy, spiritual growth, and social justice. He is a past Director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the campus and a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.