Yetziat Mitzrayim, Passover, And The Secret Of Divine Empathy
Could The Ten Commandments Help Us Understand The Exodus From Egypt?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
The Meaning of Yetziat Mitzrayim
We don't generally connect the origins of the 10 Commandments to Passover. Instead, we usually celebrate the great miracles that God performed for the Israelites, namely, taking them out of Egypt. But isn’t it strange that right after the Israelites were freed, God enforced the laws of the Ten Commandments without warning?
Sure, God took them out of slavery, but wouldn’t it have been nice to at least mention the laws before the Israelites left Egypt? What is the hidden connection between Pesach and the Ten Commandments?
Rabbi Fohrman argues it's an important theme throughout the Exodus from Egypt that highlights our unique relationship with God. Join Rabbi Fohrman as he explores the roots of the Ten Commandments in the Burning Bush story – the original commandments story – and never read the Exodus from Egypt the same way again.
Hi folks, I'm Rabbi David Fohrman, and Pesach is just around the corner. So let me just ask you this very fundamental question: What is the exodus from Egypt supposed to actually mean to me? God redeemed us from slavery all of those years ago, but how should that actually change my life, today?
What Does the Exodus from Egypt Mean Today?God Himself seems to give us a very clear answer to that question. Right at Mount Sinai, just weeks after the Exodus, He talks about the Exodus and seems to very clearly imply its meaning. He says to us, right in the very beginning of the Ten Commands: "אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים" – I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. And then what's the next thing He says? 600 or so odd commands. It's quite a laundry list.
God's logic here seems pretty clear: I took you out of the land of Egypt, so you should keep my commandments. So that seems to be our answer, right? At least how God sees it: How should the Exodus change my life? God redeemed my nation, so I should therefore follow His mitzvot.
Which seems kind of reasonable, doesn't it? I mean, you know, God dramatically transformed our lives for the better, He took us out of Egypt, out of slavery, with signs and wonders; it seems like the least that I can do is follow his 613 laws, right?
Except that, at least for me, when you kind of stop and think about this idea, something about it seems to sort of gnaw at me.
The Exodus From Egypt... in Exchange for Commandments?Let me try to explain the difficulty I see here with maybe a bit of an analogy: Imagine that you're traveling through Europe and your car breaks down on some back road. Fortunately, some guy named Igor from Uzbekistan – he stops and helps you put on that spare tire.
So, you're thankful to Igor; you exchange numbers and go on your merry way. A few weeks later, you get a call from Igor: "Hey, Rabbi Fohrman, it's Igor, remember? The Uzbeki guy who gave you a hand when your car broke down? Listen, I'm in a bit of a fix myself. Don't ask. Lost my passport. Stuck in an airport. I was wondering: Can you wire me some money?" And you do. And then Igor calls back with some more requests. Hundreds of them. 613 to be exact. What would be your reaction? I might excuse myself for thinking: "Igor, it's great to hear from you and everything, but, I don't know, the whole thing kind of feels a little transactional, a little coercive even. I might wire him the money – after all, he did help me – but I wouldn't feel great about it... and I wouldn't even feel great about Igor.
So how is that not what God did? Listen again to the beginning of the Ten Commandments: I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Is God talking like Igor here? Is keeping the mitzvot some kind of elaborate tit-for-tat? Is that what God was trying to imply with that first of the Ten Commandments? And if it wasn't what He meant – what did He mean?
So, I want to argue to you that there's actually another way to read this first of the Ten Commandments, a decidedly un-Igor way… and it's got stunning ramifications, really, for the way that we experience our relationship with God – and the way that we understand Pesach. Come with me, and let's try to explore this. We may never look at the Ten Commandments – or the Exodus for that matter – in quite the same way, ever again.
Remembering Passover Through the Ten CommandmentsSo I want to suggest to you that the key here is seeing the 10 Commandments through a certain lens, the lens of another story that seems to overlay upon it. That other story appears earlier in the Torah, before the 10 Commandments. It's a story involving the same mountain.
Listen to how the story of the Burning Bush begins. "U'Moshe hayah ro'eh et tzom Yitro, chotno, kohen Midyan." And Moses, he was shepherding the sheep of his father in law, Yitro. "Vayinhag et hatzon achar hamidbar," and he led those sheep through the desert, "vayavo el har haelokim choreva," and he came to the mountain of God, at Chorev. And now ask yourself, when else did you hear something like that? When else does Moses lead sheep through a desert, the sheep of Father, until he gets to the mountain of god at Chorev? That happens at Sinai. Moses leads sheep, but the sheep aren't people, he leads the sheep of father in law, except this time, it's father, Father in Heaven. And he leads them through the desert, and once again, he arrives at the mountain of God, at Chorev. It seems like the beginning of the Burning Bush story's an eerie kind of predecessor to the beginning of the Sinai story.
So the interesting thing is that the parallels between these episodes don't stop here. Because if you look at the next thing that happens in the burning bush episode, we hear about this burning bush that's not consumed. "Hasneh bo'er ba'eish v'hasneh einenu ukal." And if you think about that notion, about fire descending upon something and the thing not burning, we have the same imagery happen at the mountain. "V'Har Sinai ashan kulo," when the mountain was full of smoke, "mipnei asher yarad alav Hashem ba'eish," because God had descended upon it in fire, except the mountain wasn't burning, it was still there; just like the bush was burning, but still there. So the parallels between these stories actually continue further. Next thing that happens, in the burning bush, God calls to Moses, "vayikra eilav Elokim." And as it happens, same thing happens in the Sinai narrative. "Vayikra Hashem l'Moshe," God calls to Moses and what does God say at the burning bush? "Al tikrav halom," don't get too close. At Sinai, don't get too close. There's this perimeter around the mountain. If the people invade the perimeter they might die; it's too dangerous.
So if you add it all up, we have four parallels, in order, in both of these prologues. Right? First verse of the burning bush narrative, you've got Moses leading those sheep through the desert. You've got this burning bush that's not consumed. You've got God calling to Moses. You've got this command, don't touch. That's the way it is at the burning bush and that's the way at Sinai. So if the prologue to these stories is the same, what about the stories themselves? What about what God says at the burning bush? What about what God says at Sinai?
Could they, somehow, be related, too? The next thing that happens at the burning bush is that God speaks to Moses, and tells him he wants him to lead the people out of Egypt. Moses tries to avoid taking the job, and God and Moses have this back and forth. Moses gives five reasons, one after another, why he can't go; and God parries each of these five excuses. And, at Sinai, the next narrative is the Ten Commandments – with five commands on each of the tablets.
So if these parallels continue, it might be the case that the private conversation between God and Moses at the burning bush, somehow becomes the basis for the public conversation between God and the people – in at least the first five of these Ten Commandments. To see if that's true, we're going to continue going through each of these stories – the burning bush, and the first tablet of the Ten Commandments. As we do, we will pay attention to how these play off of each other. And we will also pay attention to the common thread that seems to be developing in each narrative – what theme binds together the various different parts of God's conversation with Moses, and what theme binds together the various different commands on the first tablet. Let's begin looking with the Burning Bush.
Remembering the God Who Led Israel from Egypt"Vayomer," and God said, "Anochi Elokei avicha," I am the God of your fathers. Those are the first words of the Ten Commandments. The same anochi; "Anochi Hashem Elokecha." But there is a difference, isn't there? Because the first time around at the burning bush, who was God? The God of your fathers. The second time around, who was God? I'm your God. "Anochi Hashem Elokecha."
Why? What's the difference? Why the second time around, on Sinai, all of a sudden does God become your God? The answer is, look what he says. Why am I your God? "Anochi Hashem Elokecha asher hotzeiticha mei'Eretz Mitzrayim." Because I did something. I just took you out of Egypt, the house of bondage. That makes Me your God. You see, the first time around, I hadn't done that yet. Now, though, I'm no longer just their God, I'm your God. I just took you out of Egypt. As it turns out those words, too, are borrowed from something God said to Moses at the burning bush because the exchange opened with I am the Lord, God of your fathers and it ended with and Moses, you're supposed to take My people out of Egypt. So if you, kind of, put those two things together; "Anochi Elokei avicha v'hotzei et ami Bnei Yisrael miMitzrayim" that sort of becomes I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage. It's right there. The discrepancy, though, is that there's a whole middle that's missing. Right? There's a whole middle that doesn't appear to be there in the Ten Commandments.
What is in that middle and why doesn't it appear to be there? "Vayomer Hashem," and God says, "ra'oh ra'iti et ani ami asher b'Mitzrayim," I have seen the suffering of My people, in Egypt, "v'et tza'akatam shamati m'p'nei nogsav," I have heard their cries, "yadati et machovav," I feel, I understand, I know their pain. We have a word for all that in English; it's empathy. To experience what someone else is experiencing as deeply as possible; even if that experience is uncomfortable or painful. And empathy leads to something. It spurs you to action which is actually what you see in the very next words here.
"Va'eireid l'hatzilo miyad Mitzrayim," and I will go down to save them from the hand of Egypt and to bring them to a land, a good land, a land that flows with milk and honey. God feels what the people feel and acts to save them because he feels their pain so deeply. Why doesn't that get reflected in the Ten Commandments, in that first command? Why does the middle of that statement of God go missing? Unless it doesn't go missing because there's one more word in the Ten Commandments that got, sort of, surreptitiously added. It's God's name.
You see back at the burning bush, "Anochi Elokei avicha," I am the God of your fathers, but at the Ten Commandments, "Anochi Hashem Elokecha," I am Yud, Hei and Vav and Hei. That special, mysterious name of God. What does it mean? I want to suggest a radical theory to you. That word, that one word, that name of God: it's shorthand for everything that was in the middle of that sandwich. It's shorthand for the God of empathy and therefore, the God of action. That's Who I am, that's what I'm introducing Myself to you as, in the Ten Commandments – and that's why this God should matter to you. Because I cared deeply enough that I couldn't help but act. That's why I should matter to you.
Now, let's look at the second exchange between God and Moses at the burning bush and I think you'll see how it actually animates the second of the Ten Commandments. Along comes Moses to God and says "mi anochi ki eilech el Pharaoh," who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, "v'chi otzi et Bnei Yisrael miMitzrayim," how could I possibly take the People of Israel out of Egypt.
To which God responds Moses it's going to be okay. "Ki e'heyeh imach," I'm going to be with you and plus here's the sign that I've sent you that you represent Me. When you ultimately take the people out of Egypt, you'll be right back here, "ta'avdun et ha'Elokim al hahar hazeh," you're going to serve God on this very mountain. Now, if you take those words, those words become the crux of the second command of the Ten Commandments. "Lo yihiyeh lecha elohim acheirim al panai," God says, there shall not be for you other gods, "lo ta'avdeim," you shall not serve them.
It's the same words borrowed from what God said back at the burning bush. The private conversation between God and Moses becomes the template for the national conversation between God and the people of Israel. And in our case it becomes the rationale for the prohibition against idolatry. Because why is it that idolatry is prohibited? Why it is that God asks this kind of loyalty from us? It's not just this trans-actual demand of Igor who calls you to cash in his chips for what he once did for you; no, that's not the tenor of the command here. Because listen carefully to what it was that God said to Moses back at the burning bush. What was Moses's concern? "Mi anochi ki eilech el Pharaoh." There's that words anochi. It was the first thing God had ever said to Moses. "Anochi Elohei avicha," I am the God of your fathers. and along comes Moses and says yeah, but who am I? If You are Anochi, You're a somebody; I feel like a nobody. "Mi anochi ki eilech el Pharaoh?" How am I supposed to go to the king of Egypt?
To which God responded, you know how you're a somebody? Because I'm going to be with you. That idea of "being with you", we've heard that idea before, too. That's basically what God said the first time around at that first exchange with Moses, except, he said it about the people as a whole. I'm with them. I understand their suffering. But now I'm not just with them, Moses, I'm with you personally, one person. I'm with them in their times of pain and I'm with you in your time of trouble, too. You don't know how you're going to Pharaoh? Don't worry, Moses. I got you covered. I'm with you.
That, in a word, becomes the soul of the second command. You know why you should be loyal to me? Because the deepest kind of loyalty there is, the kind of loyalty that is expressed in empathy, in love. I'm the God Who stands with you. Would you really betray a God like that? You wouldn't just exchange him for some other God. "Lo yihiyeh lecha," means in effect, don't desecrate the "va'e'heyeh imach" quality of God, God's with-you-ness. That with-you-ness is really the greatest gift He can give to you. Give it back to him, as well, in some kind of way. Be with Him. Don't betray Him.
Deeper Connections Between the Exodus and Ten CommandmentsSo, let's move forward into the third exchange between Moses and God at the burning bush. If our theory is right, it should correspond to the third principle of the Ten Commandments; don't take God's name in vain. And, guess what? As if on cue, the third exchange between God and Moses at the burning bush revolves around what main issue? God's name of all things. Moses says to God, "Hinei anochi ba el Bnei Yisrael," okay, fine, God, You said I'm a somebody. I'm going to go to Israel, I'm going to tell them that God sent me and they're going to say what's Your name, what should I tell them?
To which God says to Moshe, you know what I usually tell them? "E'heyeh asher E'heyeh," I will be that which I will be. Fascinating because the name that God gives to Moses to tell them is that word e'heyeh which showed up in our last exchange at the burning bush. Remember, that was God's answer to Moses before when Moses says who am I, I'm a nobody. God says you're not a nobody. I'm with you, "ki e'heyeh imach." Now, God says, you're dealing with that idea "ki e'heyeh imach." That's actually My name. But God says something interesting here. He doesn't just say e'heyeh once; he says it twice. "E'heyeh asher E'heyeh." What would that even mean – what the Sages in the Gemara, in Brachot, quoted by Rashi here have an explanation? They said it actually had to do with empathy. They understood that e'heyeh is used in the context of empathy before when God said I will be with you Moses.
Now, God is saying I'm not just with you Moses. Tell the people that I'm with them. I'm with them in their times of trouble now and I'm with them squared in all future times of trouble. I'm with them timelessly in some kind of powerful concentrated way. To really be with someone empathetically, it strikes me that one of the things you, sort of, need to do is to concentrate your sense of being. You can't be distracted. Right? And there's different ways of concentrating your sense of being. If you're telling me about something really painful and difficult in your life and I'm glancing off at my iPad or something and scanning around the room, looking at other people, if I'm doing that my attention is fragmented. I'm not really there with you. And even if I turn off my iPad or my iPhone, I put it on silent, but I still have it there buzzing on the table I'm still kind of thinking about it, it's in the background, it's distracting me. But you know if I turn my phone off, I leave it in the other room and I'm really focused on you and there's nobody else in the room then I'm fully concentrated. That's something else.
But you know, even then, when I'm as concentrated as that, there's something, sort of, inherently fragmented about human consciousness because still I'm only here right now, in this little fragment of the present and the part of me that was in the past and the part of me that's in the future all other future Davids and all past of Davids, they're not there right now. It's just me and my little present David, that little fragment of me that happens to be here right now in the moment. But God. God somehow blends past, present and future existence together into one concentrated sense of being and stays powerfully there with you. As a matter of fact, one could argue that the name Yud, Hei and Vav and Hei, God's special name, is actually really just a contraction of the idea of "E'heyeh asher E'heyeh," I'm going to be with you throughout time. All of time collapsed into a single kind of present.
You know, in Hebrew, there's a word for existence in the past, it's hayah; there's a word for existence in the future, it's yihiyeh and existence in the present is hoveh. If you take all of those and overlay them, you know what it spells? It spells Yud, Hei and Vav and Hei. As if God is saying that's my concentrated existence. I am there with you. That's My name. "Lo tisah et sheim Hashem Elokecha lashav," don't take that name lightly. If My name is I'm so powerfully there with you, you wouldn't trash that. You wouldn't make light of that. That's principle number three in the Ten Commandments.
God's Empathy Behind the Exodus and Ten CommandmentsSo I just want to take a quick break here and just show you how there is a theme here that is wending its way throughout the discussion between God and Moses at the burning bush. It's that thread that I was talking to you about before. In a word, it's empathy or I am with you. It was the main idea of the very first thing that God told Moses when he said that I've seen the suffering of My people, Israel and I'm with them in their times of sorrow. And then Moses says well, what about me? And God says, well, I'll be with you. Then Moses says okay, but what's Your name? And God says My name is empathy. My name is I'm the One Who's always with My people. This is the theme here. Now, the way we've been understanding this, God has introduced Himself to Moses, has given him His name, "E'heyeh asher E'heyeh," the empathy name. Yud, Hei and Vav and Hei we've just suggested is a contraction on that.
Well, in the fourth exchange, along comes Moses and says they're going to doubt that. They're going to doubt that the God Who says I'm going to redeem you and that which was done to you. This Yud, Hei and Vav and Hei, empathy God ever appear to you? And God says, you know what, they're not going doubt it because of these signs. Somehow, the signs will show that the empathy God is with you, really is here. Look at the three signs. Does any of it look familiar to you?
God tells Moses to take some water from the Nile, spill it on the ground and, as if by magic, it will turn to blood. Does that remind you of anything that happens later on in the exodus saga? Water turning into blood, per chance? It's the first plague when the entire Nile turns to blood. It's as if the sign foreshadows that plague. I want to argue that this sign and then that plague constitute God's redeeming that which was done to the people in Egypt.
What was done to the people? What was the greatest crime that the Egyptians perpetrated upon the Israelite population in all of those hundreds of years of slavery? Wasn't it the throwing of the little infant baby boys into the Nile? And when that happened, let me ask you, did the Nile ever turn red with blood? And you know, the answer would have been no. There's like nine quadrillion gallons of water in the Nile; too much for it to turn into blood and so the Nile conspires, as it were, to cover over the crime. It's as if at night there's screams and there's terror and there's stormtroopers taking babies from parents, but in the morning when the parents come before the court and say where's my child? Here's what happened the court says well, we don't know what happened. Can you provide any evidence? And the birds are chirping and it looks like a normal day and the Egyptians are walking on the sides of the Nile and playing Brahms on stolen pianos and reading Schopenhauer. And the Nile, it looks normal; it looks normal. It covers over the crimes and you think you're crazy.
Redemption Beyond the Exodus from EgyptWell, God validated what was done to the people. The first step in redeeming people isn't just taking them out of Egypt. You have to say I know what was done to you. So the first plague, foreshadowed here in the sign, becomes the Nile itself turns to blood because that's the reality. The aggressor forced to confront the crime. The victim validated, yes, this is what happened to you.
When people tell lies about what happened to you, God stands up and tells the truth. And therefore, in the Ten Commandments, in the Fourth Principle, we mirror God's actions. We too make a clear declaration. We stand up and tell the truth about God – that He created the world; we testify to that truth by our own actions, when we keep the Sabbath, every Seventh Day. Our doing this constitutes. a sign, as the Torah later calls the Sabbath. God made signs of testimony for us; we make signs of testimony for Him. That's the soul of empathy. It's not just being with someone, it's by your actions standing by someone and telling the truth about the action that violated them. So if God did that for us the least we could do is reciprocate. The least we could do is tell the truth about him; principle number four. By the way, there are two other signs here that have similar implications. For an elaboration of how they fit with the first sign, take a look at our course, "The Three Great Lies of the Exodus", which you can also find on Aleph Beta. It goes through all three of these signs at the burning bush and shows this common theme. But meanwhile let's continue on to the fifth exchange between God and Moses at the burning bush.
"Vayomer Moshe el Hashem," so Moses lodges one last complaint towards God. He says God I'm not cut out for this, "lo ish devarim anochi," I'm not a man of words, not yesterday, not the day before, "k'vad peh u'k'vad lashon anochi," I have a kind of heaviness of the mouth, a heaviness of the tongue. I'm just unable to do this. I have a lisp. I can't speak well. You've got the wrong guy.
To which God responds, "mi sam peah l'adam," who do you think you're talking to? I'm the One Who gives people mouths. I'm the One Who makes people deaf or dumb or sighted or blind. "Halo anochi Hashem," am I not God? "V'ata leich, anochi e'heyeh im picha," and now go. You have what it takes to do this. I'll be with you. There's that word again. "V'horiticha asher tidabeir," I'll help you understand what it is that you're supposed to say. God says two things here. The first thing he says is I'm the One Who makes people with deficits and gifts and if I say you have the tools that you need to accomplish what you can accomplish in life then you have those tools. The next thing God says is hey, don't worry. I'm going to be with you. I'm going to be with your mouth. I'll help you.
Moses thought he had a deficit, "k'vad peh u'k'vad lashon." Isn't it fascinating that the Hebrew there is Kaf-Pei-Daled. that deficit that Moses was talking about turns into a plus when God says "Kabeid et avicha v'et imecha." Honor your father and honor your mother.
What's the reason why you don't want to honor your parents? You say, I don't like the life you gave me. I don't like the genes I got from you. I don't like the upbringing I got from you. I feel like it's all wrong. And when God comes in the Ten Commandments and says no, "Kabeid et avicha v'et imecha," honor your father and mother, what's the Torah really saying? Your parents gave you undoubtedly gifts and undoubtedly deficits, but you have what you need in this world. Honor your father and mother. They gave you exactly what you need.
And your parents hopefully, give you another thing as well. They stand by you. They are 'with you'. They are with you at soccer practice. They are standing in the back of the room at the school play. And that 'means' something to you; it helps you make the most of yourself. That's what God's telling Moses: I'm with you and your mouth, even as you are worried that your inability to speak is a great deficit for you. I'm with you, so Kabeid, honor them. The life they gave you, that mysterious combination of deficits and gifts; it's a reason to honor them. When your parents gave you those gifts and stand by you, you are able to achieve what you need to in this world.
So, when we stand back and look at the conversation between God and Moses at the Burning Bush, we find a common thread animating each of their five exchanges. That thread is: Eheyeh. I am with you. The God of your fathers is the God of 'being with you,' the God of empathy. God acted on our behalf because He cared deeply about us. He was there was with us. He allowed Himself, as it were, to feel what we felt, and to act on that basis. What, then, are the Ten Commandments? Seemingly, they are corollaries of that Divine empathy – ways that we, the recipients of God's love and care, are meant to respond to it.
When, at Sinai, we accepted the Ten Commandments, we showed we didn't want to merely be passive recipients of God's empathy, but to reciprocate it. The Ten Commandments all boil down to a single essential truth: If our Creator is there for us, we want to honor that, we want to be there for our Creator, too. So what about old friend Igor? I would argue that when God, in the beginning of His Ten Commandments, states that the He is the God who took us out of Egypt, He is not guilt-tripping us so much as offering an opportunity. The Ten Commandments are mitzvot, 'commands', yes, but even more than that, they express the chance that we, as human beings, have to be a full partner in a relationship with God; a giver, and not just a taker. In accepting the Ten Commandments, we commit to respond to a loving God, with love, care and honor of our own.
Understanding Passover and the Ten CommandmentsSo this year, as you sit around the Seder table, and you ask yourself, "what does the Exodus mean to me?" – maybe the Ten Commandments is, somehow, an important part of the answer. Because on Seder Night, what, after all, are we celebrating? If we are right in our understanding of God's conversation with Moses at the Burning Bush, it is not just God's actions, in setting us free, that we celebrate – but where those actions came from.
God was there with us in our sorrow and pain; so powerfully and so deeply that He was, so to speak, impelled to act – and He stopped at nothing to set us free. That gift of empathy impels us to act, too. It impels us to respond meaningfully to that being with us. And the Ten Commandments… they teach us exactly how to do that.
Have a wonderful Pesach.