Why were we taken out of Egypt?
Concepts such as freedom, justice, equality, and the recognition of Divine Providence are the themes of the exodus, ideas that the Jewish people are mandated to live by and demonstrate to the world around us. Parshat Acharei Mot (see Vayikra 18:3) teaches that a sexual ethic based on holiness was one of the ways to differentiate Jewish and Egyptian society. And Rashi identifies the opening call of our parsha, Kedoshim tehiyu, as relating to sexual morality.
While I do not doubt that the above is true, the Torah’s most direct reason for our removal from Egypt appears at the end of chapter 19. There, the Torah tells us to love strangers, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We are then told, “Do not falsify measurements, whether in length, weight or volume. You must have an honest balance, honest weights, honest dry measure and an honest liquid measure. I am the Lord who took you out of Egypt” (19:35-36). Rashi, with three simple but profound words, spells out the clear implication of the Torah’s words: al m’nat ken, for this purpose. The reason G-d took us out of Egypt was to enable us to have honest balances, honest weights, honest dry measures and honest liquid measures. Matzah, the seder, and getting rid of chametz are not the key ways to commemorate the exodus. After all, they last only seven (or eight) days, and are apparently of secondary importance. Rather, we celebrate the exodus in a much more significant manner; we rid ourselves and our homes of unfair and shady business practices. Thus, the first of the Ten Commandments—“I am the Lord your G-d, who took you from the Land of Egypt”—means, first and foremost, that as free people we are not to economically oppress others.
The exodus from Egypt is the defining moment of Jewish history, in many ways even more so than Divine Revelation at Sinai. We are commanded to remember it each and every day (and night), and it forms the basis of so many of our mitzvoth, from Shabbat and the holidays to shema, tefillin and mezuzah. Unfortunately, in commemorating the exodus, it is often the ritual side of Judaism on which we tend to focus. Somehow, modern man and many a Jew view money and economics as separate from the religious experience. Working, making a living - surely these are not also religious duties, we tell ourselves. These mundane aspects of life can even be antithetical to religion, G-dliness and spiritual growth; a necessary component of life, but completely divorced from religious observance. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Judaism sees work as religiously meaningful and Divinely mandated. Perhaps no less important than “resting” on the seventh day is the imperative “six days you shall work”. Not only does the Torah have over 120 mitzvoth dealing with the economic sphere, it is specifically in this area that we have the most opportunities to create a Kiddush Hashem, as we interact with people from all walks of life. The way we talk to our co-workers or competitors, the way we advertise, how we hire and fire, how much we charge, our compliance with government regulations, when we pay our bills, are all potential ways to grow closer to G-d as we put Judaism into practice where it really counts. It is the ultimate remembrance of the exodus.
The enslavement in Egypt began with unfair taxes, hard labour and backbreaking work, practices that Jewish law forbids. The clarion call of the Torah to a life of holiness demands that our monetary practices be the manifestation of freedom, justice, equality and above all, honesty. After all, it is for this reason that we were taken out of Egypt.