Although Passover is, well, over, there is something that humanity never gets over: its fascination with Moses. In fact, it is not only Moses, but the whole story of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt and their miraculous escape that has captivated the imagination of humankind for thousands of years. What is it about this story that has so enthralled us? After all, stories about slaves and the escape to freedom abound, as are stories about confrontations between leaders. But few, if any, have gained immortality the way the story of Israel’s escape from Egypt has.
There is a good reason for this. The story of Israel’s entry into Egypt, their lives there, and their escape, captivates us not so much because of the story itself, but because of what it means for each of us. The annals of the Hebrews in Egypt describe the process of liberation from egoism and attaining the quality of altruism, or love of others.
There is a reason why Rabbi Akiva explains that the great rule of the Torah is “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and why the great sage Hillel said to a man who asked him to summarize the Torah in one sentence, “That which you hate, do not do to your neighbor.”
Granted, not everyone wants to become an altruist. In fact, few do. However, as humanity evolves, it is becoming increasingly interdependent. The more we recognize that the actions of each of us affect the lives of all of us, the closer we come to realize that we have no choice but to change our most fundamental trait: selfishness, which in this day and age has become what many pundits call a “narcissism epidemic.”
The realization is already underway. The widely used phrase “An infection anywhere is an infection everywhere,” shows that we acknowledge that we all influence each other.
However, how can we care about others when we are so preoccupied with ourselves? This is precisely what the story of the Israelites in Egypt tells us. And it moves us because deep down, we all have an inner Moses that understands that the solution to our problems is in unity, in breaking free from the ego, and it is only a matter of time before we accept the inevitability of the transformation.
In the story, Pharaoh represents the evil inclination, the ego. The Egyptians are also egoistic desires and thoughts, but they are not as obstinate and self-absorbed as Pharaoh. The Israelites are those thoughts and desires within us that are willing to follow Moses toward altruism.
It is not an easy battle, and the lure of Egypt is too strong for the Israelites to triumph. Likewise, we, too, are very weak when it comes to resisting our egos. Just look at the “Me! Me! Me!” culture we have built, as a great NPR essay described it, and you will understand how immersed we are in ourselves.
But sooner or later, we will have to come out of Egypt. The ego-empire is already falling; the civilization we have built is crumbling under pollution, exploitation, and belligerence. It is driving us out of ourselves and into each other’s arms. It is giving us the choice to embrace each other and be saved, or kill each other and ourselves in the process.
Eventually, we will choose the former. The only question is how long it will take before we understand that we have no choice but to run away from Egypt and build a new nation, made of all of humanity, where people care for one another and unite like the people of Israel did at the foot of Mt. Sinai: “as one man with one heart.”