This week, we come to the climax we've been waiting for: God finally sets the Israelite slaves free, ending generations of oppression and degradation at the hands of the Egyptians.

This story is the very heart of the Bible and, indeed, of Judaism as we know it. It would be no exaggeration to say that most of Jewish life and law is an attempt to discern the implications of the Exodus experience and to live in its light.

This story is so integral to Jewish ritual and theology that we run the risk of taking it for granted, of mouthing the story rather than proclaiming it in both word and deed.

It behooves us to stop and ask a simple question: Why is a seemingly obscure tale about a seemingly obscure tribe so significant? Why, 3,000 years later, do we go on retelling and re-enacting this, of all stories?

The story of the Exodus teaches us the most important truths we need to know in order to think and live as Jews faithful to the covenant of God and Israel. First, it teaches us the deepest truth we can know about who and what God is. God's most fundamental self-definition in Judaism is not Creator of the World or Sustainer of All Flesh (though God certainly is both and infinitely more), but rather the "Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to be your God" (Numbers 15:41).

In other words, God is the One who sides with the widow and the orphan, the vulnerable, the enslaved and the oppressed. Consider, for example, the words of the Psalm (recited every Shabbat morning): "God," the psalmist asks, "who is like you?" Perhaps he will speak next of the majesty of creation or of the wondrousness of a small flower or an innocent child? No. The psalmist continues instead by describing God as the One "who saves the weak from the powerful, and the needy from those who would prey on them."

Who is the God to whom we are externally covenanted? The God of the downtrodden and degraded.

Because we are created in the image of God, human beings are called upon to become like God--in Deuteronomy's words, "to walk in God's ways." The deepest truth about God thus becomes our most profound religious aspiration: Each of us must seek to become a person who cares for the weak, who frees the wrongfully imprisoned, who raises up the cast down.

We are commanded to keep the experience of being a stranger in a land not our own constantly in mind, and to be driven to ethical passion as a result. We have a positive duty to love the stranger, because we too were once strangers (Leviticus 19:33-34).

The Exodus story also offers us a powerful counter-testimony to the cynicism and despair that threaten to engulf and demoralize us. Imagine a people, enslaved and dehumanized for generation after generation, all hope of freedom and dignity beaten out of them. After hundreds of years, it seems manifestly clear that nothing will ever change.

But then everything changes.

God's freeing the slaves serves as a paradigm and a program for all of Jewish history and, indeed, for all of human history. The world will not be redeemed until every slave has been freed and all oppression has been rooted out. But the slaves will be freed, and the world will be redeemed.

Egypts come in all sizes. We are, each of us, familiar with enslavements and oppressions of various kinds. And we are tempted, more often than many of us would care to admit, to abandon all hope of change, to dismiss all talk of transformation of self and world as so much Pollyanna nonsense.

To combat our despair, we tell a simple story--the story of a people who seemed destined for eternal degradation and yet emerged into freedom and a shared dream with God. A people who were slaves now suddenly forged a covenant with God to help build a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest.

Who is God? The One who "lowers the haughty and raises the downtrodden." Who must we be? Compassionate souls who love and care for those who are driven low.

There is no room for despair. After all, no one knew despair like that ancient tribe. And they soon tasted freedom. So, I hope, will we.

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