Posts Tagged ‘Exodus’

‘A Renewal of Public Conscience’

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

My friend Amalie said the other day that Barack Obama’s election has spurred her to re-engage¬†with the world once again — she’s reading the paper more closely, staying up on the news, paying attention to what’s going on. The experience was a bit jarring for her. It made her realize just how dis-engaged she’d become in the past eight years.

My guess, from anecdotal evidence, is that she’s far from alone.

Reading the Torah portion for this week — parsha Bo — I was struck by a thousands-year-old Biblical parallel for large-scale public re-engagement.

We are currently in the third parsha of Exodus, smack dab in the middle of the Passover story.¬†In a series of escalating confrontations, Moses tells Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go free, so they can worship God in the desert. Pharaoh, as is well-known, declines again and again — despite ever-worsening plagues. Blood. Frogs. Vermin. Wild beasts. Pestilence. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Finally, after the tenth and last plague — death of every first-born child — Pharaoh relents: “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!” (Exodus 12:31)

Next, though, comes a part of the story that I never knew before, growing up. On their way to freedom, a large portion of the Egyptian population (roughly one-third) gives the departing slaves “silver and gold, and clothing.” (Exodus 12:35)

Here’s the midrashic interpretation, from the Sages:

The silver and gold given (not lent) by the Egyptians constituted a protest against the policies of a royal tyrant. They demonstrated a renewal of public conscience. Similar gifts were given to the Jews leaving Babylonia to return to Judea.

In helping the Jews attain their freedom, the ancient Egyptians were awakening, in a sense; shaking free, themselves, from their extended malaise.

Some 3,500 years later, perhaps we are, too.