Timely Thoughts

Magid, Moshe, Story-Telling, and Story-Living

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Jennifer Raskas

Towards the end of the Magid section, the Haggadah states: “Be-khol dor va-dor, hayav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza mi-Mitzrayim,” In every generation, one must see himself as if he came out of Egypt.

Why must we see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt? Is it not enough that one follows the commandment of sippur yetzi’at Mitzrayim, telling the story of leaving Egypt? Why must one not only be a storyteller of the Exodus, but also become part of the story?

We can gain some insight by juxtaposing the story of Moshe’s personal ascendancy to leadership, with the story of the Israelites’ ascendency from slavery to revelation. Analyzing these stories together and seeing the striking similarities between them, shows that Moshe not only helped shape the Israelites’ Exodus story, he also personally lived it.

The national story of the Israelites in Egypt begins with Yosef’s strong ties to Pharaoh and the Egyptian palace. Likewise, Moshe’s early life in Egypt takes place in Pharaoh’s palace. Moshe then leaves Egypt in a hurry, “Va-yivrah Moshe,” after killing an Egyptian. He names his son “Gershom,” “ki ger hayiti be-eretz nokhriyah,” because I have been a stranger in a strange land (Shemot 2:15, 22). The Israelites also leave Egypt in haste and are constantly reminded that “Gerim hayitem be-Mitzrayim,” they were strangers in the land of Egypt (Shemot 22:20).

At the end of Moshe’s personal journey to leadership, he experiences a transformational, divine revelation through fire, at the burning bush on top of Mount Horev. He is told not to come too close, “Al tikrav halom”, to the revelation, for the land on the mountain is too holy (3:5). The people, upon leaving Egypt, encounter God on that same mountain, Horev, also called Mount Sinai, where, as Moshe describes in Devarim, “Panim be-fanim diber Hashem imakhem ba-har be-tokh ha-esh,” face to face God spoke to you on the mountain from amidst the fire (Devarim 5:4). The people, similarly to Moshe, are told not to climb or touch the mountain (Shemot 19:12).

Finally, on the mountain, Moshe is given three otot, signs, that God is with him: his staff turning to a snake, his hand getting leprosy, and water turning to blood. He descends the mountain after accepting his mission to lead the people. These very people too are given an ot, a sign on the mountain: “Akh Shabtotai tishmoru,” My Sabbaths you shall obey, “ki ot hu beini u-veineikhem le-doroteikhem,” for it is an ot, a sign, between Me and you throughout the generations (Shemot 31:13). Here the children of Israel also accept their mission stating, “na’aseh v-nishma,” we will do and obey (Shemot 24:7).

Moshe’s ascendancy out of Egypt to leadership with its climactic, transcendental, encounter with God at the burning bush then, is a harbinger of the people’s own passage out of Egypt towards their transcendental encounter with God on Mount Sinai.

According to Ramban (Shemot 4:19), Moshe makes a concerted effort to keep his story parallel to the story of the Israelites even after the episode of the burning bush, when he moves his wife, Tziporah, and their sons out of comfortable Midian in order to join the people of Israel who are slaves in Egypt. Moshe realizes that only by bringing his family down to become part of the people’s story will the people of Israel fully believe that he sees himself as one of them, plans to truly redeem them, and genuinely has their best interests at heart. Only by continuing this shared story, will he be trusted to lead the people forward.

One of the roles of a leader is to be a storyteller, to be able to articulate the history, identity, values and emotions of the people. Moshe, however, went one step further by not only telling the people’s story, but also by living it.

Now we can better understand the verse in the Haggadah, “Be-khol dor va-dor, hayav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza mi-Mitzrayim,” In every generation, one must see himself as if he came out of Egypt.

By seeing ourselves as if we personally left Egypt, we, like Moshe, demonstrate that we are not only ready to transmit the Jewish people’s story, but also help shape and lead it’s future.

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Jennifer Raskas
Jennifer Raskas teaches classes on Hebrew literary approaches to readings in Tanakh across the United States and Israel. She is the Director of the Israel Action Center at the JCRC of Greater Washington. Jennifer received her Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University and her Master's in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She studied in Jerusalem, Israel at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a trained educator for the Matan Women's Institute for Torah Studies program — Jewish Women Through the Ages.