Torah from Around the World #199

By: Rabbi Bar Ephraim,

Or Chadasch

, Zurich, Switzerland, and co-chair of
the European Bet Din.

Changing your World

Pharaoh and the Israelites have one thing in
common: they are unable to think of something other than their perception of
the order of the world. They are tied up in their own world view. It is only
after the last plague, the one that kills his own son, that the Pharaoh
recognizes the power of God. The objective of the plagues was not only to
confront the Pharaoh with a new mindset. It is only after the splitting of the
Reed Sea, that the Israelites exclaim that they “believe in God and Moses his
servant” (Exodus 14: 31). They also had to make acquaintance with the God of

After the Exodus, with its wonders and
miracles, and after really and literally leaving the physical bondage behind
them, the Israelites are still fixed in their slave identity. The freed slaves
miss their slave existence and cry out in the wilderness that they are hungry
and long for the fleshpots of Egypt (Shemot 16:2). The Israelites must learn
what it means to be free. They must learn that freedom and responsibility are
two sides of the same coin. It will take generations, but finally the
Israelites choose: the free existence with Torah and Jewish law as a guide for
moral action. Moses had courage. Maybe he even invented the ‘out-of- the-box
thinking’, but it was not easy. In this way, Moses has jolted the inflexible
Egyptian society, and gave the Israelites the possibility to pave a new road.

Moses makes it clear to us that the essence
of Judaism is being a work in progress. To realize this and to practice this is
essential for our way in Judaism.

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The Pharaoh

He is the god – king of Egypt, his wish is
for everyone a command. The Egyptians belong to him and obey him. He cares for
them and only he alone knows what is good for his people. He is the ruler of
the world and his decisions are irreversible. The concept of ‘freedom’ is
significant only to the extent that it concerns himself. Other people are
either slaves, manual laborers, traders, doctors, priests or foreigners. Nobody
can leave the caste, in which s/he is born. For the Pharaoh the world order is
clear, and there to stay.

The Israelites

They are slaves. Body and soul belong to
Pharaoh. He determines and plans their lives. They do hard work and get food
and shelter. In a peculiar way, they are at ease with their social position. It
is known and familiar to them. They have no dreams, nor do they resist their
hopeless situation. Freedom is unattainable and is therefore not an option; the
thought of it doesn’t even give so much as a stir to their conscience. For the
Israelites the world order is clear and there to stay.


He is an Israelite who grows up as a prince
in Pharaoh’s court, thanks to the courage of the midwives Shifra and Puah,
Yochewed his mother, his sister Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter. These five
women are disobedient to Pharaoh’s decree, which orders to drown all Israelite
male babies. Despite his Egyptian education, Moses is aware of his Israelite
ancestry. Moses sees the Pharaoh – certainly after the God of his ancestors
revealed himself to him – not at all as a deity. Although he initially declined
the mission that God bestowed upon him – to lead the Israelites out of slavery
and into the Promised Land – Moses is able to imagine a different world order,
and he is also aware of the fact that people have the ability to make changes
in their lives, albeit depending on the situation. He feels with every sense in
his body, the concept of ‘freedom‘. He doesn’t accept that the world, in the
way it is presented to him, is the only possibility. Although in awe of the
divine revelation to him, he is not too timid to ask God critical questions:
Why should he, Moses, of all people perform this task? What if his words, which
are uttered with difficulty, don’t convince the Pharaoh? Why should the
Israelites accept him as their leader at all? Somebody like him, catapulted out
of the Royal palace, technically an Israelite but with a total other history,
with total other experiences. Moses, in spite of this and because of this makes
a choice. He chooses for God, and so too for the mission and the laws. He
chooses for his people, the people of Israel, because for him the world order
is dynamic and changeable through the deeds of Human beings.

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