Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Parashat Sh’mot sets the stage for the drama that plays out not only in the rest of the book of Exodus but around tables worldwide as Jewish families gather year in and year out for Passover seders. The Exodus and the experiences connected with it–the slavery of the Israelites, their liberation from Egypt, the covenant at Sinai, and the journey in the wilderness toward the Promised Land–are indelibly stamped on the Jewish collective memory and imagination. North American Jews relish, arguably more than any other holiday, the festival of Passover whose symbolic foods serve as props for retelling the tale of Israelite bondage that ceases with God’s redemptive miracles. The story is fantastic in every sense of the term: fanciful, remarkable, unreal, and superb.
The biblical writers are at their best in these passages, crafting a gripping narrative inscribed with timeless ethical imperatives, such as “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20), and theological conundrums, like why does God repeatedly harden Pharaoh’s heart-thereby preventing the necessary redemption without plagues befalling Egypt? This story has sustained generations of Jews, from esteemed commentators of yore to today’s questioning sons and daughters with mouths full of matzah and maror. Jews of all stripes rally to the Exodus cry; even those with mere peripheral knowledge of things Jewish resonate to “Let my people go!”
Liberal Jews Love the Exodus
So why is it that the most unbelievable of Jewish stories is that which is most believed in? Why does the Exodus charm and beguile liberal Jews, even Reform Jews, who are products of a movement of leaders who early on dismissed what the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform calls “miraculous narratives” of the Bible as “reflecting the primitive ideas of its own age …”?