Do not mistreat or oppress foreigners, for you once were foreigners in the land of Egypt.”

By garlandcannon via Flickr, Creative Commons

Yesterday’s first reading caught my attention in a new way.  Until very recently, the story of the Hebrew people’s escape from Egypt through the parted waters of the Red Sea crossed my mind only during the Easter Vigil, where it is heard in relation to Jesus’ death and resurrection.  In a weekly class on Judaism that I’m taking in an adult education program for Jews, I’m learning to appreciate the exodus as a foundational story in its own right.  For the Jewish people, it’s the seminal narrative of the Bible because it’s when they became a people.  It tells of God’s compassion and action in response to their suffering, but it’s far more than an event in their history.  It’s a widely used metaphor for liberation even in the present day, but as yesterday’s reading reminds us, the exodus event creates a mandate.  The people are to actively remember that they were once slaves in Egypt and therefore must not treat others the way they were treated.  The Bible gives concrete instructions in the book of Exodus and elsewhere:  Do not charge interest when you lend money; don’t take a person’s hand mill in payment of debt because that would be taking their life; if you take someone’s cloak as collateral, give it back by evening so that they have covering for sleep; when you harvest, don’t go back over the field because the leavings are for the fatherless and the widowed to gather.  Social justice concerns become a direct outcome of the exodus; caring for the stranger, the orphan or the widow is commanded in the Torah.

Active remembering as a reminder of their identity pervades contemporary Jewish religious practice throughout the year, not just at Passover each spring.  The Kiddush, a prayer recited over wine that proclaims the sanctity of the weekly Sabbath, evokes the exodus each time it is prayed.  During weekday morning prayer, small leather boxes are worn on the arm and the head, bound by black leather straps.  These phylacteries contain the four passages in the Torah that include the instruction that “it shall be a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt,” a daily reminder of bondage and freedom, signifying that people are not meant to be bound to human beings but are free to bind themselves to God.