Our 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 God, invisible and all-powerful, 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.
God had made a promise to Abraham that his family would become a great nation, but this promise came with a frightening vision of the troubles along the way: “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."
Raise the glass of wine and say:
וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ וְלָֽנוּ
V’hi she-amda l’avoteinu v’lanu.
This promise has sustained our ancestors and us.
For not only one enemy has risen against us to annihilate us, but in every generation there are those who rise against us. But God saves us from those who seek to harm us.
The glass of wine is put down.
In the years our ancestors lived in Egypt, our numbers grew, and soon the family of Jacob became the People of Israel. Pharaoh and the leaders of Egypt grew alarmed by this great nation growing within their borders, so they enslaved us. We were forced to perform hard labor, perhaps even building pyramids. The Egyptians feared that even as slaves, the Israelites might grow strong and rebel. So Pharaoh decreed that Israelite baby boys should be drowned, to prevent the Israelites from overthrowing those who had enslaved them.
But God heard the cries of the Israelites. And God brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with great awe, miraculous signs and wonders. God brought us out not by angel or messenger, but through God’s own intervention.
It is written that long ago, during a time of famine, the ancient Israelites traveled to Egypt. According to this legend, the Israelites at that time were all in a single family—Jacob and his children. One of Jacob’s sons was Joseph, whose wisdom caused the Pharaoh—the ruler of Egypt—to make him a leader over all the people of Egypt.
But as time passed, another Pharaoh became the ruler of Egypt. He did not remember about Joseph and his wise leadership. This new Pharaoh turned the Israelites into slaves, and burdened them with heavy work and sorrow.
After the Israelites were in Egypt for over 400 years, a man arose among them. He demanded that Pharaoh let his people go! Many times he risked his life to insist on the freedom of his people, until he finally succeeded.
The story begins in Egypt with the persecution of newborn Hebrew males, and Ptira's, the Pharaoh's daughter, discovery of the infant Moses on the Nile. Moses' youth at the Pharaoh's court ends abruptly when he is forced to flee, after he kills an Egyptian overseer to save his brother Aaron. During his years of exile, Moses meets his future wife Zipporah and her father Jethro. After Moses and Zipporah's wedding, the vision of God in the Burning Bush occurs, commanding Moses to return to Egypt with Zipporah and his brother Aaron. There, Moses and Aaron confront the Pharaoh, demanding that he free the Israelites. Only after the tenth plague - the killing of the Egyptian firstborn - does the Pharaoh allow them to depart. With the crossing of the Red Sea and God's destruction of the Egyptian army ends the first part of the story. The second part begins with the discontent of the famished Israelites with Moses. The mood changes when God nourishes Israelites with the sudden, welcome gift of manna and quails in the desert. On the slopes of Mount Sinai, God and the people of Israel enter into a Covenant, which is sealed by Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on the mountaintop. Upon his return to the camp, however, Moses is shocked to discover that the people of Israel have lost their faith in God and are now worshipping an idol: the Golden Calf. In rage, Moses smashes the tablets and severely punishes the idolizers before retreating to the mountaintop and receiving the new tablets. On the way to the Promised Land, Moses' sister, Miriam, jealous of Moses' wife Zipporah, rebels against her brother's leadership. God punishes her and makes it quite clear that Moses is the chosen leader and will remain so. Finally on the borders of the Promised Land, the Israelites send out twelve scouts. Their fearful description of the Canaanites when they return shocks the people of Israel into rebelling against Moses and Aaron, intending to kill them and return immediately to Egypt. God quickly punishes the rebels, and tells Moses that none of the adult Israelites he has led will ever see the Promised Land, and instead must wander through the desert for another 40 years. Exactly forty years later, Miriam dies. Although Moses wants to mourn the loss of his sister, the people only complain to him about the lack of water. At God's command, Moses strikes a rock and water flows from it, but he is so angry and frustrated with his people that he forgets to attribute the miracle to God, and he too is condemned to never enter the Promised Land. Moses appoints Joshua as his successor and sets off alone to the peak of Mount Nebo. As a final mark of his forgiveness and thankfulness, God grants Moses the chance to look over into the Promised Land just before his death. Finally, now under the leadership of Joshua, the Israelites cross the Jordan river into the Promised Land.
At our Passover Seder, we celebrate the story of Moses and the people he led out of slavery 3000 years ago. We celebrate the struggle of all people to be free. Throughout the centuries, the story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt has inspired Jews and non-Jews in time of persecution and hardship.
Let us remember that the thirst for freedom exists in all people. Many centuries after the time of Moses, African people were brought to America as slaves. These slaves longed for freedom, and they were inspired by the story of Moses and the ancient Israelites. When the Black slaves in America sang “Go Down Moses,” they were thinking of their own leaders who were working to end slavery…..
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