I make no secret that Pesach is my favorite of the Jewish holidays. Yes, the cleaning, cooking, kashering, and shopping are daunting. But while the meanings behind many of the other holidays escape me, this one rings out clear.
Every year, I think about why it is that of all the holidays in the year, this holiday speaks to me the most. This year I’ve been thinking about one of my daughters’ favorite movies: “Prince of Egypt.”
I don’t care much for animated kids’ movies. Most Disney movies make me want to bring up my dinner, and most of the other video fare for kids is similarly tortuous to watch. But somehow, Dreamworks managed to get it right with “Prince of Egypt.” (Okay, they made Aaron a dumbbell, Tzipora a centerfold for Hustler, and ignored the midwives completely. But other than THAT…)
One part particularly stands out in my mind, and that is the scene where Moses kills the Egyptian and is haunted by remorse afterwards. When Rameses tries to reassure him that he won’t be punished, and says, “We can take care of that. I will make it so it never happened,” Moses replies, “Nothing you can say can change what I’ve done.”
In just a couple of lines, the writers encapsulate what set Judaism apart from the pagan religions among which it amazingly took root. The pagan practices of burying live babies in the cornerstones of new buildings, bizarre sexual rituals with many anonymous partners, and the belief in humans as divine (that would resurface later, but that’s another story) are all uprooted and demolished in Judaism, and replaced by a new reality in which deeds cannot be undone with words. In the Egyptian moral code, an Egyptian can murder a Jewish slave with no apparent consequences. No one can stop him—except a prince. And according to Rameses, a prince can murder an Egyptian overseer and declare that it never even happened. Where Moses’s vision of justice differs is where he realizes that the value of human life cannot be distinguished between a slave, a brute who abuses his power, and a prince. For perhaps the first time in history, all men are seen as created equal.
The Cap’n and I have scores of family members who think Judaism is a system of quaint rituals at best, and totally irrelevant at worst. What the more farbrennt secularists believe—that moral and ethical behavior is intuitive and one need not be a religious person to be righteous—is not entirely untrue. But I believe that attitude ignores the foundations of morality in our society that lie in religion (Judaism in particular, since it was the first to buck the trends in paganism). As we see in the scene with Moses and the Egyptian, justice and the value of human life are one such foundation.
There is much in this world that I don’t know. One thing I don’t know is when, had the incident with Moses and the Egyptian not appeared in the Torah, the same lesson would have appeared which would set the groundwork for Western perceptions of justice. Killing happens pretty wholesale thereafter, with the apparent sanction of God: the plague of the firstborn, the Egyptians in the sea, the Canaanites. But the predatory attack of the strong and powerful against the weak—like what happened when the Amalekites attacked the Israelites in the desert—is just the sort of abuse Judaism condemns and requires us to be on our guard against.
There are so many things about this holiday to love. Yitziat Mitzrayim, slavery to freedom, the forging of a people again from a rabble of slaves as down and out as they could get, setting out on the journey to settle in their own land. When the haggadah commands us to see ourselves as though each of us had left Egypt, the message for me is a resonant one. From no real spiritual roots to traditional Judaism, and from the non-Jewish world to Israel, where my family feels it truly belongs.