The tale of the Jewish people's first quest for freedom from slavery in Egypt was written so long ago that no one knows how much of it is fact and how much is fiction. Like all good stories, however, its moral lessons are valid and important.
The story starts in ancient times, with Abraham, the first person to have the idea that maybe all those little statues his contemporaries worshiped as gods were just statues. The idea of one all-powerful god inspired him to leave his family and begin a new people in Canaan, the land that would one day bear his grandson Jacob’s adopted name, Israel.
Abraham was convinced this God would make his family a great nation in Canaan and believed God spoke to him, saying: “Your descendants will dwell for a time in a land that is not their own, and they will be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years; however, I will punish the nation that enslaved them, and afterwards they shall leave with great wealth."
[Everyone raises their glasses of wine.]
Leader: וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ וְלָֽנוּ
V’hi she-amda l’avoteinu v’lanu.
Everyone: This promise has sustained our ancestors and us.
[Everyone: Put down the glasses of wine.]
The words became true: During a time of famine in Israel, Abraham's descendants, now known as Israelites, traveled to Egypt. According to this legend, the Israelites were all the single family of Jacob -- Abraham's grandson --and his children.
At first, things were good: One of Jacob's sons, Joseph, was very wise -- so wise that he even became a leader over all the people of Egypt. But eventually another man became the ruler of Egypt. This new Pharaoh and the leaders of Egypt grew alarmed by the growing numbers of Israelites within their borders, so they enslaved the Israelites and forced them to perform hard labor. This slavery went on for 400 years before a prophecy started circulating among Egyptian priests about a baby boy who would be born a Hebrew slave and eventually free the Israelites. The Egyptians so feared the prophecy that the Pharaoh decreed that all Israelite baby boys should be drowned.
Upon hearing the Pharaoh's order and desperate to save her infant son, one Israelite mother, Yocheved, begged her daughter, Miriam, to hide her baby brother, named Moses, who Miriam had prophesied would be born and save the Hebrew people. Miriam hid him by the side of a river, but the Pharaoh's daughter discovered the infant; however, instead of murdering the baby, she took pity on the child and decided to adopt him. Miriam saw this and advised the princess to take on a nurse for the child, suggesting Yocheved for the job.
As Moses grew up with the Egyptian royal family under his mother's secret care, he was raised to know his heritage as a Hebrew. One day, Moses saw an Egyptian master beating a Hebrew slave, and so he killed the slave master. After the murder, he fled across the Red Sea, but encountered a voice that spoke to him from within a "burning bush," telling him to go back to Egypt and demand that the Pharaoh release the Israelites from slavery.
And so Moses returned to his homeland and demanded the Pharaoh let his people go, but the Pharaoh refused to allow the people of Israel to leave Egypt. God heard the cries of the Israelites, and sent plague after plague on Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Nine plagues the Lord inflicted on the Egyptians; each of them frightened Pharaoh, and he promised to let the Israelites go, but when the plagues stopped he took back his promise. Finally, God sent the tenth plague — the killing of the firstborn. But first, God instructed Moses to tell the Israelites to slay a lamb and smear its blood on their doorposts. He said to Moses, “It is the Lord’s Passover. On that night I shall pass through the land of Egypt and kill every firstborn of man and beast. The blood will be a sign on the houses in which you are: when I see the blood I shall pass over you; when I strike Egypt, the mortal blow will not touch you.”
After the last plague, the death of the first born, Pharaoh summoned Moses and his brother, Aaron, and said, "Up with you! Be off and leave my people, you and the Israelites. Go and worship your God." But when it was reported that the Israelites had gone, the Pharaoh once again had a change of heart. The Egyptians, all Pharaoh’s chariots and horses, cavalry and infantry, went in pursuit, and found them camped beside the sea.
God said to Moses, "You are to raise high your staff and hold your hand out over the sea to divide it asunder, so the Israelites can pass through the sea on dry ground." And the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, while the waters formed a wall to the right and left of them. Then God said to Moses, "Hold your hand out over the sea, so that the water may flow back on the Egyptians, their chariots and horsemen." Moses did as he was told, and as the water came back it covered all Pharaoh’s army, the chariots and cavalry. Not one of them survived.
That was the day the Lord saved the Israelites from the Pharaoh of Egypt.
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