This evening, Friday the 15th, Jews all over the world will celebrate Passover—the redemption of Israel from the enslavement in Egypt, thirty-three centuries ago. The exodus from Egypt is mentioned not only on the relevant date in the Hebrew calendar. Almost every significant date on the Hebrew calendar contains the words “to remember the exodus from Egypt.” In fact, not only Judaism, but Christians, too, attribute great importance to the deliverance of the Israelites from enslavement. Throughout history, there have been countless cases of enslavement and liberation. Why then is this one so important that we make it a point to remember it? The exodus symbolizes much more than deliverance of one nation from another. It describes the inner process by which one redeems one’s soul from the enslavement of the ego. And since we are all born slaves to our egos, the exodus from Egypt pertains to each and every person on the planet.
When the Israelites were in the Sinai desert, they complained to Moses, “We remember the fish that we ate for free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the greens [vegetables] and the onions and the garlic” (Num. 11:5). On another occasion, they lamented, “Would that we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full” (Ex. 16:3). We see that it was not physical hardships that afflicted the children of Israel in Egypt, but something else tormented them to the point where they could not tolerate remaining there even for another night. That something is the reason that the story of the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt is still so well remembered.
To understand what that something is, we must remember that the people of Israel are unlike any other nation. Their roots cannot be traced to any one nation or country, clan, or tribe. We attribute the beginning of the nation to Abraham, but he was only the first. On the day he died, the Hebrews were still not a nation. They received their official status, if you will, only at the foot of Mt. Sinai, after they vowed to unite “as one man with one heart.”
Until then, people of countless tribes and nations joined the Hebrews at their own will. The only condition for joining the ancient Hebrews was to agree to the principle of unity above all differences. In other words, the emerging nation consisted of people from many different origins, who joined the group that Abraham had established because they subscribed to the idea by which he established it: unity, care for others, this is all that matters. This is why the fundamental law of Judaism is “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Despite their efforts to unite, the ego of the ancient Hebrews failed them time and time again. Each time they rose above it and united, it intensified and separated them once more. This is why the history of the people of Israel is rife with conflicts and wars.
The story of the exodus from Egypt is a symbolic tale that speaks about one’s efforts to overcome one’s ego. Moses, for example, is the quality within us that constantly pulls toward unity. The Hebrew name Moshe [Moses] is similar to the Hebrew word moshech [pulling], namely pulling away from the ego and toward unity and love of others.
The people of Israel are qualities within us that can relate to Moses and follow him, but hesitate to do so. They are tempted by the ego to remain in Egypt, where the ego is king. This is why they constantly question Moses’ leadership and wonder if it would not be better had they stayed in Egypt.
Egypt symbolizes our ego, our hatred of others. Pharaoh is the epitome of the ego. He is not only hatred of others, but a desire to rule over everyone and everything, to oppress all of reality under one’s own governance. This is why Pharaoh says, “Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice?” (Ex. 5:2). In other words, Pharaoh bows to no one; it is the core of egoism.
Moses’ struggle to release the people of Israel from the ego was successful. For an individual, it is the redemption of the soul from the shackles of the ego, the king that rules us from birth, as it is written, “The inclination of a man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21).
As we can see, the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt is very pertinent. Today’s world, which is mired in egoism, needs redemption from the ego no less than the people of Israel needed it then. We have built a beautiful world, abundant in every possible way. Yet, the enslavement to our narcissistic selves separates us from each other and causes us to destroy every piece of beauty on our planet.
Just as the enslavement of the people of Israel in Egypt was really an enslavement to their egos, so we are trapped by our own egos and seek to dominate and oppress others (if we are Pharaoh), or simply hate other people (if we are simple Egyptians). Either way, it is destructive to ourselves, to our society, and to the world we live in.
May this Passover be the beginning of our redemption from our egos and the beginning of our unity and love of others.