What Jews Are Here To Teach The World
Last night, I realized that the rabbi who gave a Torah class I had just attended and the rabbi who wrote a new book about Passover I was just reading, were making the same point.
At the beginning of his book The Exodus You Almost Passed Over, Rabbi David Fohrman poses an interesting question. If you were God, how would you get the Hebrew slaves out?
“Remember, you are playing God, the ultimate power in the universe. Any and all conceivable weapons are at your disposal: lightening, earthquakes, tidal waves, you name it. There’s simply nothing you can’t do. So how might you, as quickly and efficiently as possible, achieve your objective?” Rabbi Fohrman wrote.
He goes on to explain why ten plagues seem like a highly inefficient way to extract the Hebrew slaves from among the Egyptians. Without thinking too hard, you could probably come up with three or four faster ways, right off the top of your head. A few chapters later, Rabbi Fohrman explains why God didn’t pick the quickest, most efficient path to free the slaves.
It’s because, according to Rabbi Fohrman’s thesis, God had another agenda.
Ancient Egyptian culture was steeped in polytheism. They believed that nature was controlled by multiple gods, including a sun god, a rain god, a wind god, etc. The ancient Egyptians worshipped an array of deities, each of whom had defined powers. In ancient Egypt, gods were often in conflict with one another.
In a series of chapters that are written in an accessible way for the general reader, Rabbi Fohrman explains that, besides freeing the Hebrew slaves, God wanted to teach Pharaoh that there was one Creator who has total control of everything, including the various forces of nature. In effect, God wanted to teach Pharaoh a fundamental Jewish principle about the Oneness of God.
We may take it for granted, but this concept of a single Creator represented a total paradigm shift for the Egyptian mind. And it took ten plagues to get Pharaoh to move from not recognizing the God of the Hebrews to admitting that he had been vanquished by the Creator of the universe.
When Moses first asked Pharaoh to let the Hebrew slaves leave to serve God, he got this response: “And Pharaoh said, "Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Lord, neither will I let Israel out." (Exodus 5:2) Pharaoh’s response doesn’t even acknowledge God. Pharaoh claims no knowledge of the existence of the God of the Jews.
After ten plagues have convinced Pharaoh that the world has a Creator who has complete control over every force and power in the universe, he changes his tune and says, "Get up and get out from among my people, both you, as well as the children of Israel, and go, worship the Lord as you have spoken.” (Exodus 12:31)
Mission accomplished! God wanted to get the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt for sure. But there was another agenda – to demonstrate to Pharaoh and the Egyptian people, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the fundamental Jewish idea that there is a Supreme Being who created and who rules the world.
It took ten plagues to do that.
How does all this connect to the Torah class I heard last night?
Four hundred people came to the Jerusalem Great Synagogue last night to hear Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (pictured above right) speak. One of Rabbi Riskin’s core messages was that it is the job of the Jews to teach the world about the God of the Jews and God’s principles for ethical living.
There is an opinion that we are forbidden from inviting non-Jews to the Passover seder because we are not allowed to teach Torah to non-Jews.
Rabbi Riskin argued exactly the opposite. The Torah has messages for every human being in the whole world. Just as Moses helped Pharaoh and the Egyptians recognize God, so the Jewish people are supposed to bring the world to understand the moral and ethical messages of the Torah. That’s what being a “Light to the Nations” means.
Not everyone in the world needs to become Jewish. But the universal, ethical messages of the Torah, such as compassion, righteousness, kindness and justice, are for all humanity. That is what, according to Rabbi Riskin, the Jewish people are here to teach the world.
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