Remembering why we are who we are

Remembering why we are who we are

We are the people of memory. Today, in memory, is the ninth day of the Israelites’ trek from Egypt to Sinai. There are 40 more days, in memory, before we will stand at Sinai and hear God explain to us why there was an exodus and why we need to be reminded of it every day, not just occasionally.

Because we are the people of memory, for example, we are now in the process of counting our days, literally, until that unparalleled moment in human history arrives, when God spoke to an entire people, not just some chosen person.

Memory — of the exodus and the reason for it — controls everything we are supposed to be and everything we are supposed to do. Yet why must we remember so demeaning a period in our history as our enslavement and the exodus that ended it? Why is that worth remembering, and what are we supposed to do about it? Why are we even bothering to count our days until God appears to us at Sinai?

Even before God appears before all of us, God provides the answer to those questions to Moses, and has him repeat it to us:

“[I]f you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples….[Y]ou shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These [, Moses,] are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” (See Exodus 19:5-6.)

Those two phrases — “kingdom of priests” and “holy nation”—imply a purpose to our existence that goes beyond itself. We are not just another nation in the world, God was saying. There is a reason for our being. Simply stated, God created a world that was supposed to focus on doing great and wonderful things, not the awful and evil things that were being done. God chose Israel — chose us — to be a walking, talking instruction book to humankind on how to behave.

Forty years later, Moses restates this in very specific terms:

“[T]ake heed that you do not forget that it was the Lord who freed you from the land of Egypt…. Be sure to keep the instructions, decrees, and laws which the Lord your God has commanded you. Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord…. When, in time to come, your children ask, ‘What is the point of these decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’, say to your children, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand….’” (See Deuteronomy 6:12ff.)

There are many other places in the Torah, as well, where the exodus is given as the reason why we must observe God’s law. We must remember the exodus because we must live according to God’s law, in a way that demonstrates to the others in this world how God intended for all people to live.

To better understand our mission, let us examine some of the laws God handed down during that momentous event at Sinai. They are found in Exodus 21-23 and are known collectively as the Sefer Ha-b’rit, the Book of the Covenant, the document I often refer to here as the constitution of the People Israel (meaning us, the Jewish people).

A slave is not property. Injuring a slave, for example, results in his or her immediate release. Killing a slave is murder.

Slaves also must be allowed one day off each week from all labors — and it is the same day the master must rest, meaning on Shabbat. This was first stated in the so-called Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. It told us and everyone else that one day out of every seven, we must acknowledge that no one has any real control over anyone else. Rich or poor, master or slave, man or woman, parent or child, human or animal — everyone has an equal right to the same day of rest each week, and no one has the right to take that away from them.

People who own slaves have absolute control over those slaves. Slavery cannot exist without that absolute control. Deny the slave owner control over his slaves for one-seventh of the time, and you deny that such control exists at all. The Shabbat commandment, in fact, is the ultimate statement of social equality.

Another slave-related commandment relates to a young girl sold into slavery by her destitute family, something common in the ancient world when times were really bad. This permission, however, is qualified. Her “master” must either marry her when she reaches an appropriate age or have his son marry her. Until then, he cannot put her to servile work, must raise her in his home, and must respect her person (she may not be sexually violated in any way). If he decides against him or his son marrying her, he must set her free because “he broke faith with her.”

On the other hand, he may decide to “marry” her, after all, in order to get some return on his investment. He then puts her to work as sort of a “scullery maid wife,” and marries another woman he finds more to his liking. (The Torah makes clear in its narratives that it abhors polygamy, by the way.) Nevertheless, he must treat her the way he must treat any wife. He must give her proper and nourishing food, provide her with proper shelter and clothing — and be intimate with her whenever she (not he) desires it. As our Sages of Blessed Memory noted, this clause gives married women all the rights where sexual intimacy is concerned — all the rights; a husband has none. It is from this law, as well, that we derive the laws of marriage generally. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Ketubot 47b.)

Cold-blooded murder is punishable by death, but killing in self-defense is permitted. Self-defense has its limits, however. If a thief breaks into someone’s home in the dead of night, and is killed by someone in the darkened house, the killer is free of guilt. He or she had no way of knowing whether the intruder had a murderous intent. On the other hand, if it is clear that the thief is unarmed and is killed nevertheless, the one doing the killing is guilty of murder. Also, if someone is actively engaged in trying to murder another, the would-be murderer may be killed — but only if it is the only way to prevent that murder from happening.

Accidents all too often also result in someone’s death, so provision is made for dealing with such unintentional homicide to protect the one responsible from being murdered in turn by a hot-blooded relative of the deceased.

There is no sanctuary available for the wanton murderer (and, for that matter, any other criminal); no one, not even a high priest, is immune from prosecution.

Kidnapping is a capital offense.

If one person injures another in a fight, regardless of who started it, that person is responsible for caring for the injured person, including paying any medical bills.

Several verses deal with instances of carelessness that lead to harm. The “ox that gores” in these verses represents anything we own that we suspect may cause injury to people or property. The “open pit” represents any public hazard we create — including, for example, blocking a crosswalk, which forces people to get around the obstruction (the car) in order to cross the street, thereby endangering them.

All of society’s disadvantaged and disenfranchised — such as the stranger, widow, orphan, someone who is in dire financial shape — not only must be protected and cared for by everyone else, but great care must be taken not to take advantage of the situation (return a pledged garment each night, no matter how inconvenient that is).

We may not spread rumors about other people, gang up on them to their detriment, or commit perjury. We must make sure the justice system is fair, equitable, and honorable. We may not take bribes or give them, especially if someone will be harmed because of it. Everyone is equal under the law.

If an animal is in trouble, we must do what is needed to help, even if its owner is an enemy of ours. Animals have rights, too.

Observing these and the other laws in these chapters and the rest of the Torah are the reasons why God took us out of Egypt. The bulk of Torah law, in fact, amounts to a moral and ethical code we not only must remember, but we must remember to carry out all its requirements because we “were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.”

We are the people of memory. There are 40 days left before God appears to us at Sinai. Count each day. Study the Torah’s moral and ethical code. Then remember to observe those laws, for “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is

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