Pesach: From the servitude of Egypt to service in the Promised Land

(Photo: Unsplash/Seefromthesky)

Why is this day different from all other days? That is the question posed by Jews all over the world at the Pesach Seder, the feast also celebrated by Jesus, who had never heard of Christmas, Lent, or Easter.

Jesus' sojourn in the desert when he faced evil forces was a type of Exodus for him – so what does this actually mean?

As usual, this Pesach will commemorate our Exodus from Egypt, through the Sea of Reeds, en route to our chosen destiny of the Promised Land, now the State of Israel.

We don't have any grand words in Hebrew – Judaism is direct, straight and terse, and the language mirrors the religion. So, what others have termed 'the Exodus', for us is 'yetziat Mitzrayim', 'the going out from Egypt.' The word Mitzrayim (Egypt) signifies a place of overwhelming restraint and restriction. It's the domain of slavery. By contrast, G-d says: 'Let My people go, that they may serve Me' (Exodus 9:1).

In Hebrew, the words 'slave' and 'serve' come from the same root, which is ' –v-d. But servitude isn't, as some have argued, simply a 'state of mind'. Servitude is an actually physical reality that has to be overcome. So when Christians speak of Jesus' obedience to G-d, the Hebrew word is 'shema', which means 'to heed', and often to act, but G-d expects us to work with Him. And when I say 'us' I don't mean the Church hierarchy – Judaism doesn't have a concept of priesthood and laity. What is intended by the phrase 'kingdom of priests and a holy nation' is that every Jewish person should aspire to heed G-d's word and behave in the manner expected.

For Jesus as well, obedience meant heeding G-d's word and not deferring to any system or hierarchy.

So 'Exodus from Egypt' means going out, departing, leaving a situation of servitude, in order to carry out a new kind of service which is to be defined and internalized during the people's journey via the Reed Sea and Sinai, towards the Promised Land of Israel.

This kind of service is not a smooth run – in fact the Jewish people come up against one obstacle after another – until after 40 long years, they are deemed to be ready for their entry into the Promised Land.

But this is without their leader, Moses – the greatest Jew who ever lived must never be idolized, and in fact to this day no-one knows precisely where Moses is actually buried.

The 'Exodus from Egypt', therefore, is not a kind of Brexit (a political decision taken by a smallish nation to regain sovereignty), nor is it Megxit (the rejection of cherished traditions of duty and service, based on a covenant between monarch and people - something alien to the American psyche), but 'the Exodus from Egypt' signals the rejection of servitude in favour of service.

In order to serve, the Jewish people need to have a place they can call home, and for the majority of Jewish people in our own day, this is once again, as it was then, the tiny land (only the size of Wales) known as Israel.

And for Jews, service to G-d means service to humanity, as well as the carrying out of various often incomprehensible rituals whose significance is known only to G-d. This is to teach us humility, so that none of us can boast about our more comprehensible service of 'tikkun olam' ('repairing the world').

This year, the festival of Pesach will be like no other. As the world gradually opens up, our universal experience in the last year or so will mean that we will have all learned a lesson.

As those of us who can be with family will be teaching our children and grandchildren during this year's Seder meal, when we read from the Haggadah and retell this story of what servitude means and what service means, we will remember all those who worked hard on a cure for our contemporary Plague – all those doctors, nurses, scientists and governments, volunteers and carers who tried to make it work.

When Jews talks about people recognizing the one true G-d, what we mean is that love for humanity is what G-d requires of us, in the famous words of the prophet Micah: 'What does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with thy G-d', i.e. the G-d who is personal to each individual.

People may think that it is easy to exit a bad situation, to 'go out', 'leave', make for pastures new – but it is actually very difficult. A midrash explains that it took a special individual to make the first leap into the sea, before others decided to join in.

Just as the modern State of Israel was the first to make the leap to close down at this time last year – for the greater good - the individual gets used to their state of servitude, just as prisoners often don't want to leave jail – navigating the seas of life can be choppy and difficult.

But didn't we all cheer when someone aged 90 was the first person in the entire world to take the leap of faith and jump into her own sea, by being the very first on December 8th last year to choose to have the very first jab – after which we all followed suit (or most of us anyway), and she was followed by someone called William Shakespeare!

The 'Exodus from Egypt' is based on the root word 'yatza', which is also the root of one of the verbs meaning to 'deliver', in the sense that G-d 'brought us out' of our restricted state of servitude (hotzi). And the same causative verb also means to 'produce', as in the blessing we say every mealtime over bread 'hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz' ('Who produces bread from the earth').

But what is bread, but a joint effort by G-d, nature and us. We humans are needed in order for bread to be made and embellished from its essential ingredients. But at Pesach, we don't have bread, we have matzah instead, unleavened bread, known as 'poor man's bread', the 'bread of affliction'.

This is to remind us that it was G-d who initially took us out of Egypt – not a man and not an angel – G-d Himself who made us hurry along, and not wait. And therefore for one week in the year, we are obliged to remind ourselves of what it is like to 'eat bitter herbs' and 'taste of the bread of affliction'.

'We were slaves in Egypt', and now we yearn to be free. But once a year we stop what we are doing, wherever we are in the world, and spend a week (8 days in diaspora) celebrating the fact that the going out was through G-d bringing us out, and now it is up to us to produce, and all three concepts, the going out, the bringing out and the producing, stem from the same tiny Hebrew verb – yatza.

Other religions and nations may have tried for thousands of years to reverse this process and enslave us once again. However, G-d's will prevails, and we hope and pray for the time when the nations and religions of the world finally recognize the wonderful bounty bestowed on us by G-d, in giving us free will and choice – the choice to forsake the slavery of restriction and to make for the Promised Land of faith, hope and love – for the land which, after much struggle and tzores [a Yiddish word related to the Hebrew connotation relevant to the pangs suffered in Mitzrayim) is, eventually, called Israel.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.