What is the meaning of Exodus?

Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on the meaning of Exodus for Jews, and the significance of Moses and Jeremiah. 

On Christmas Day, Jews around the world opened the Book of Exodus. As the longest night passed, with days extending again, the Jewish people worldwide recounted the story of their Exodus from darkness to light.

The Jewish people, chosen by G-d to be a light unto the nations, has now become a nation who finally acknowledge that Egypt is no longer the place for them. Led by a reluctant shepherd, called Moses, they set out on their tortuous journey from death and make for the Promised Land of light, love and liberty.

So, on Christmas Day we started with a baby who needs to be saved from certain death at the hands of a cruel ruler. This baby is saved by the first act of civil disobedience that the world has known – the deliberate policy of the two midwives to save the male babies alive through lying to a murderous dictator.

Everyone knows the story of the bulrushes and the discovery of the baby by the daughter of Pharaoh, who calls him 'Moses' – not 'Saviour', but 'someone who continually saves.'

Moses is therefore to be the channel between G-d and the Jewish people. He demonstrates his identification with his own people by observing how they suffer under their Egyptian masters, and finally takes action against an Egyptian who is striking a fellow Jew.

In Chapter 3, Moses encounters G-d in the burning bush. He, once again, reluctantly, asks G-d who He really is. But G-d cannot be defined. Many years later, the great Spanish poet Judah Halevi (1075-1141) would state in his popular philosophical tract, The Kuzari, that the Jewish G-d cannot be named. His 'name' is simply the way G-d is in the world. And the first real inkling of this 'being in the world' comes in Exodus 3.

G-d tells Moses 'I will be what I will be', implying that G-d will be with the Jewish people whenever and wherever they need Him to be. So in Judaism, G-d is always in relationship with the Jewish people and always responding to their needs. 'I shall be with you,' G-d adds, in order to make clear that when the world is against the Jews, G-d will always be at their side.

To make this even clearer, G-d also tells Moses that 'I shall be what I will be' and 'I shall be with you' is also 'the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac and the G-d of Jacob.' By repeating the word, G-d implies that G-d appears to different people differently, but G-d will always be the G-d of the Jewish people.

The Sephardi Haftorah that complements the beginning of the Exodus story is taken from the prophet Jeremiah (1:1 - 2:3).

The Exodus story is always read after the end of the festival of Chanukah and before the upcoming festival of Tu B'Shvat (New Year for Trees), which in Israel ushers in the first days of spring. This year, Tu B'Shvat falls very early, in mid-January, and we have this upcoming festival in mind as we read the words of Jeremiah.

Like Moses, Jeremiah proves to be a very reluctant prophet, certain that he is unqualified to accept the great mission thrust upon him by G-d. And like Moses, he tries to refuse, though not nearly so strenuously or for so long. He too fears that he won't be accepted. But G-d commands Jeremiah to go and prophesy and guarantees that He will protect him from harm.

G-d tells Jeremiah that only G-d really knows human beings: 'Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you, and before you exited the womb, I sanctified you; I gave you as a prophet to the nations.'

G-d is comparing the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt ('Yetziat–Mitzrayim') to a person 'exiting the womb' ('tetze ha-rechem), using the same word for both, which means to 'come out'. This deliberate similarity in Hebrew is often lost in translation.

So, what G-d is telling the Jewish people is that only maturity can lead to a true exodus from the present state of affairs. Just as a baby only leaves their mother's womb when the baby is ready, in the same way the Jewish people are only ready for the Exodus from slavery in Eygpt to the freedom of the Promised Land once they are fully prepared.

In verse 11, G-d asks Jeremiah what he sees and Jeremiah answers: 'I see a staff from an almond tree.' The word for 'almond' in Hebrew is shaked, an anagram of the word for 'sanctify' (kadesh) as used earlier in the chapter. The festival of Tu B'Shvat is marked by the appearance of the first almonds in Israel – a term that signifies, in addition, watchfulness. Once again, G-d is telling the Jewish people that He will always watch over us and even when times are hard, He will always 'be with you' (the Jewish people), just as He told Moses in the burning bush.

The G-d of the Jewish people is the G-d of relationship. This has been demonstrated time and time again in Jewish history, in Jewish thought and in the way agriculture has developed in the Jewish land – now the State of Israel.

On the first Shabbat of 2022 (January 1st), we continue the story of the Exodus (6:2 – 9:35) with the tearing down of Pharaoh's power and the parallel Haftorah of Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21. Here, the Jewish people are addressed by G-d as 'the Son of Man' and Pharaoh is depicted as a great sea monster 'crouching within its rivers'.

The term for 'crouching' ('ha-rovetz') is used elsewhere to depict the power of sin ('sin is crouching at the door' Genesis 4:7), when G-d speaks to Cain, the first murderer. And what is this power of sin? It is the sin of saying 'I have made myself' (Ezekiel 29:3).

G-d further tells the Jewish people through Ezekiel that alliances with those who wish the Jewish people harm, be they political or religious powers, should not be relied on. We can never completely trust the power of the State or other religions, because at the end of the day, they are jealous of the Jewish people and wish us harm.

As we move imperceptibly from darkness to light at this time of year, with the promise of spring and the onset of light and hope, let us think of those many thousands of Jewish people who have decided that the western countries and their religions, whether State religions or not, are no true friends.

Statistics on the emigration to the State of Israel despite strict Covid regulations are self-explanatory: the largest emigration from the USA since 1973; more emigration from Canada, France and the UK. Many Jews no longer feel at home in these countries. Time and time again, the Jewish people have found that the powers who should be protecting them are no more than 'broken reeds' (Ezekiel 29:6), themselves in a state of collapse.

Over half (57%) of new immigrants from the main Western countries of the Jewish diaspora (USA, Canada, France and the UK) are aged under 35. This demonstrates that the Jewish diaspora no longer feels comfortable in the West. The powers that be, both religious and political (or both), could do worse than to study these statistics with care. Because what happened to Egypt once the Jews had left? What happened to Spain when the Jews were kicked out? What happened to Poland and Lithuania and Hungary once those countries started to murder their Jewish neighbours?

As G-d said to Moses, only G-d will always be with us. Otherwise, we, the Jewish people, are on our own, and it is as well not to forget this.

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.