The Collective Memory of the Exodus
The Collective Memory of the Exodus
By Dr. Brachi Elitzur
In the first half of the 20th century, French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs coined the phrase "collective memory," defining it as the individual's consciousness of the historic past as molded by society, the establishment, or the leadership to which he is subservient. This definition implies that collective memory comprises two parts: an abstract aspect, relating to knowledge and notions of events that took place in the past, and a tangible aspect, relating to events, ceremonies, and memorials that society establishes as a means of nurturing this memory.
The story of the Exodus from
The text does not hide its intentions in molding this memory. In the explanation of the commandment of the Pesach sacrifice, we read:
This day shall be for you as a memorial, and you shall commemorate it as a festival to God for your generations; you shall mark it as an eternal statute. (Shemot 12:14)
A little further on, the need to remember the Exodus serves as the explanation for Pesach and its accompanying commandments – the prohibition of chametz and the redemption of the firstborn:
And it shall be, when your children say to you, “What do you mean by this service?” Then you shall say, “It is the sacrifice of the Pesach to God, Who passed over the houses of Bnei Yisrael in
Moshe said to the people, “Remember this day, in which you came out of
And it shall be, when you son asks you in the future, saying, “What is this?” Then you shall say to him, “By strength of hand God brought us out of
Chazal expand on the commandment of remembering the Exodus:
In every generation, one is obligated to regard himself as though he himself came out of
Why is it that specifically the story of the Exodus from
We will attempt to address these questions and to propose five stages of the molding of the collective memory of the Exodus, in keeping with the nature of the period and the particular challenges characterizing each stage of its remolding. These five stages will help us to pinpoint the unique elements of the Exodus, turning it into a narrative with messages that are eternal.
First Stage – Laws of Human Ethics
One of the elements of the story of the Exodus is the affliction and suffering that preceded it. The text describes at length the cruel methods of oppression adopted by the rulers of
He said to his people, “Behold, the nation of Bnei Yisrael has become more numerous and mightier than we. Let us therefore deal with them wisely, lest they multiply, and it come to pass that, if any war should arise, they too shall join our enemies and fight against us and go up from the land.” So they set taskmasters over them, in order to afflict them with their burdens… But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew; and they were mortified because of Bnei Yisrael. And
With the Exodus from
Laws of a stranger:
You shall not vex a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, since you were strangers in the
If a stranger should live with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. A stranger who lives with you shall be like one who is born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. You shall do no injustice in law – in measure, in weight, and in quantity. You shall heave just balances, just weights, a just efa, and a just hin; I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the
Laws of lending to a stranger and foreign resident:
If your brother grows poor and his means fail with you, then you shall relieve him – even if he is a stranger or a sojourner – that he may live with you. Take no usury from him, nor interest; but fear the Lord your God, that your brother may live with you. Do not give him your money with usury, nor give him your food for interest. I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the
Laws of a Hebrew servant:
And if your brother who is with you grows poor and he is sold to you, do not cause him to serve as a bondman. He shall be like a hired servant and a sojourner with you; until the Jubilee year shall he serve with you. And then he shall depart from you – he and his children with him – and return to his family, and to the possession of his forefathers shall he return. For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the
Summary of the laws of freeing servants in the Jubilee year:
For Bnei Yisrael are servants unto Me, since I brought them out of the
Rest on Shabbat for servants:
And the seventh day is a Shabbat unto the Lord your God; you shall perform no labor – neither you nor your son or your daughter, or your manservant or your maidservant, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your animals, or the stranger who is in your gates, in order that your servant and your maidservant may rest like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the
The commandment of gifts to the freed servant:
If your brother, a Hebrew man or Hebrew woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you for six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not send him empty-handed. You shall surely furnish him from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your vineyard; of that with which the Lord your God has blessed you shall you give him. And you shall remember that you were a servant in the
Guarding the rights of the stranger, the orphan and the widow:
You shall not pervert the justice of the stranger or the orphan, nor shall you take a widow's garment as a pledge. You shall remember that you were a servant in the
Thus, the molding of memory at the first stage is especially adapted to the generation that left
Second Stage – Paradigm of God's Power
In our study of Parashat Va’era, we noted that the purpose of the signs and wonders in
In the description of the encouragement that Moshe offers to the spies:
And I said to you, “Do not dread them, nor be afraid of them. The Lord your God, Who goes before you – He shall fight for you, as all that He did for you in
In the request by Moshe's emissaries of the king of
Moshe send messengers from Kadesh to the king of
In Moshe's encouragement to the nation, prior to the conquest:
If you say in your heart, “These nations are more numerous than we are; how can we take possession of them?” You shall not fear them. Remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all of
In the words of the kohen anointed for war:
When you go out to war against your enemy and you see horses, and chariots, a nation more numerous than you – do not fear them, for the Lord your God is with you; He Who brought you up from the
The inverse is found in the speech of rebuke by the man of God to the nation after they forge a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, despite the knowledge of God's deeds among the nations:
The Lord sent a man who was a prophet to Bnei Yisrael, and he said to them, “So says the Lord God of
This stage of molding the collective memory of the Exodus around the wonders of God's deeds among the nations was well suited to the period of preparations for the conquest and the conquest itself. At that time, God's wonders continued to accompany the nation in all their battles.
Later on, during the period of the monarchy and the transition to a natural, mortal leadership, wars would be waged on the basis of military planning and human effort. At this point, recalling God's might in
Third Stage – Strengthening Faith in Future Redemption
At the end of the First Temple Period, following the exile of the
Why do you say, O Yaakov, and say, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my judgment is passed over from my God"? (Yeshayahu 40:27).
And now, son of man, say to the house of
The prophets of the destruction must, on the one hand, address the nation's sins and the message of the impending exile as punishment. On the other hand, they must prevent a situation in which Am Yisrael will assimilate in the lands of their exile. They must be prepared anew for a process of redemption and return. The great power of the redemption from Egypt is therefore recalled by the prophets in an attempt to awaken in the broken and despairing people a flicker of hope for a similar redemption in the future.
Yeshayahu compares the return of the exiles of Ashur to the process of the Exodus from
And it shall be on that day that the Lord shall set His hand a second time to recover the remnant of His people which shall remain from Ashur… and the Lord will destroy the tongue of the sea of Egypt, and with His scorching wind He shall shake His hand over the river, and shall smite it into seven streams, and shall lead [them] over it dryshod. And there shall be a highway for the remnant of His people which shall remain from Ashur, as there was for
Amos describes God's love for His people as unchanged since the time when He brought them up out of
Are you not as much Mine as are the children of the Kushiim, O Bnei Yisrael? says God. Did I not bring
Hoshea and Mikha describe the nature of the future redemption in terms of the redemption from
But I am the Lord your God, from the
Like the days of your departure from
Yirmiyahu offers a powerful description of the future redemption of
Therefore, days are coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, “As the Lord lives Who brought Bnei Yisrael out of the
Fourth Stage – Reinforcing the Idea of Chosenness
The choosing of
You have seen what I did to
Is this a choosing for eternity, or is the chosenness of
We have become a taunt to our neighbors, a scorn and derision to those around us… Help us, God of our salvation, for the glory of Your Name, and deliver us and forgive our sins for Your Name's sake. Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” (Tehillim 79:4-10)
Similarly, we find in Daniel's prayer:
And now, Lord our God Who brought Your nation out of the
The connection between the redemption of
For instance, the prophet Chaggai tries to reverse the nation's discouragement at the sight of the
And now, be strong, Zerubavel, says God, and be strong, Yehoshua son of Yehotzadak the kohen gadol, and be strong, all of the people of the land, says God, and work, for I am with you, says the Lord of Hosts. Like the matter that I forged with you when you came out of
Some of the chapters of Tehillim recall the Exodus from
In chapter 78, the story of the Exodus is combined with a description of the nation's rebelliousness despite the wonders that they experienced and God's repayment of their sins. Chapter 105, in contrast, ignores the nation's sins altogether, focusing only on God's kindness, the covenant with the forefathers, and an emphasis on the eternal validity of the promise of the inheritance of the land, which surrounds the story of God's kindness in
He has remembered His covenant forever, the word which He commanded for a thousand generations; which He made with Avraham, and an oath to Yitzchak. And He confirmed it for Yaakov as a statute; to
The motif of chosenness and its validity also characterizes the mention of the Exodus in psalms 114 and 135:
For He struck the firstborn of
Fifth Stage – Dimming of the Memory of the Exodus
In the Books of Ezra and Nechemia – and especially in Divrei Ha-yamim – the Exodus is almost completely absent, even where we would expect to find mention of it.
David's song of praise after he brings up the Ark of God is recorded in Divrei Ha-yamim. The song parallels chapter 105 in Tehillim, except that it omits the entire section dealing with the Exodus (Tehillim 105:16-45), continuing instead with the content of Tehillim 96.
In the description of Natan's prophecy to David, the author of Divrei Ha-yamim likewise omits the name of the place from which God brought
Go and say to My servant, to David, “So says the Lord: Shall you build Me a house for Me to dwell in? For I have not dwelled in any house since the day I brought Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt, to this day; rather, I have gone about in a tent and a sanctuary." (Shmuel II 7:5-6)
Go and say to David, My servant, “So says the Lord: It is not you who will build Me a house to dwell in. For I have not dwelled in a house from the day I brought up
The noting of the date of the
And it was in the four hundred and eightieth year since Bnei Yisrael came out of
Shlomo began to build the
Shlomo's prayer at the inauguration of the
“And the Lord has kept His word which He spoke, and I have risen in place of David, my father, and I sit upon the throne of
But the parallel text in Divrei Ha-yamim omits this reference:
"God has kept His word which He spoke, and I have arisen in the place of David, my father, and I sit upon the throne of
Likewise in the continuation of Shlomo's prayer:
"Hear in the heavens, the place of Your dwelling, their prayer and their supplication, and do justice for them. And forgive Your people who have sinned to You, and for all their transgressions which they have transgressed against You, and grant them compassion before their captors, that they may show them compassion. For they are Your people and Your inheritance, whom You brought out of
In Divrei Ha-yamim, these references are omitted:
"Hear from the heavens, from the place of Your dwelling, their prayer and their supplication, and do justice for them, and forgive Your nation who have sinned to You. Now, my Lord, let Your eyes be open and Your ears attentive to the prayer made at this place." (Divrei Ha-yamim II 6)
The omission of the Exodus from the text in Divrei Ha-yamim has been interpreted in various ways. In light of our above discussion, we view it as arising from the sensitive state of the returnees from the Babylonian exile and the desire to instill some hope in them with regard to the future. The Exodus was a one-time event, a miracle of unprecedented scope, in which a subservient nation received Divine aid that transformed its situation from one of persecution to one of triumph. Recognition of God was the main purpose of the miracles of the Exodus, and God's hand was felt at every stage of the process. The miraculous aspect characterizing the Exodus could have amplified the sense of weakness and lack of faith among the returnees towards the promises of the prophets. The miracles of the Return to
The unique components of the story of the Exodus include central elements of Jewish faith relating to Divine Providence, reward and punishment, chosenness, and the eternity of the covenant. These elements required reinforcement in changing times, and especially during periods of trouble and uncertainty. The nation's prophets and leaders used the impression left by the events of the Exodus on those who had experienced it personally and on those who had heard the stories, molding it in a different way in each generation, in accordance with the specific aspects requiring revalidation and proof of their eternity. The power of the event and the anticipation of its reenactment in the minds of a generation in exile forced the leadership of the nation to temper its radiance, guiding those awaiting great and open miracles to suffice with the natural redemption that was taking place before their eyes:
For who despises the day of small things? For these seven shall rejoice and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubavel; the eyes of God – they rove throughout the land. (Zekharia 4:10)
 Hugo von Hofmannsthal is regarded as having been the first to use the term, in 1902, but it was Halbwachs who analyzed the sociological and social significance of the process.
 There is some disagreement among the commentators as to the syntactical status of the phrase, "ba'avur zeh asah Hashem li." Some understand the verse such that the command "You shall tell…" arises out of gratitude – i.e., we are to tell of God's wonders because of the miracles that God performed for me, with the word "zeh" referring to God's miracles. Other commentators understand the verse as indicating that God's miracles in Egypt were performed for the sake of, or by virtue of, the future performance of the commandments. Accordingly, the word "zeh" refers to the commandments that commemorate God's miracles. Both possibilities indicate the goal of remembering God's miracles in Egypt. For further discussion, see Shlomo Weissblit, "Yetziat Mitzrayim ke-Av Tipus le-Geula ha-Atidit u-ke-Musa Hizdahut Leumit," Morashtenu 14 (5760), pp. 109-117.
 A similar explanation is given for the gifts that are set aside for the poor in Devarim 24:22.
 The Exodus from Egypt is mentioned in some instances of rebuke, but not from the perspective of the suffering, nor from the perspective of moral reproach, but rather as an expression of the ingratitude of the people towards God Who took them out of Egypt for a specific purpose, which they had betrayed. The most extensive rebuke concerning oppression is to be found in the prophecy of Amos, who mentions the Exodus, but not from the perspective of moral rebuke in relation to the oppression.
 Some examples: Balak's words: "Behold, a nation has come out of Egypt; behold – they cover the face of the earth, and they are encamped opposite me" (Bamidbar 22:5); Bilam's blessing: "God brought them out of Egypt; they have as it were the strength of an ox. He shall eat up the nations, his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows" (Bamidbar 24:8); Rachav's confession: "For we have heard how the Lord dried up the waters of the Red Sea before you, when you came out of Egypt" (Yehoshua 2:10); the testimony of the Giv'onim: "They said to him, Your servants have come from a very distant land, because of the Name of the Lord your God, for we have heard His fame, and all that He did in Egypt" (Yehoshua 9:9); and the words of the Pelishtim in the battle of Even ha-Ezer: "Woe to us; who will save us from this great God. This is the God Who struck Egypt with all the plagues in the desert" (Shmuel I 4:8).
 It should be noted that one element of the memory of the Exodus endures until the end of the First Temple Period, and it does not arise from any specific stage in the nation's development – as a way of explaining the prohibition of idolatry and rebuking those who engage in it. In this context, the Exodus is mentioned as a central foundation in monotheistic faith, ruling out any possibility of serving any other god. It seems that the aim here is not to mold memory, but rather to make a theological statement that is backed up by historical events. See, for example, Devarim 8:14; Devarim 13:6; Shoftim 2:12; Melakhim II 17:7; and elsewhere.
 See also Yeshayahu 52:4-7.
 An ancient debate among the commentators concerns the question of whether the comparison with the Kushiim is meant in an approving or disapproving way. I have adopted the view of Malbim, who views it as a term of endearment: Are Bnei Yisrael not "as much Mine" as the children of the Kushiim? After his prophecy of Divine punishment, Amos concludes with words of consolation, telling Am Yisrael that they are as precious to God as the Kushiim, who are always prominent and conspicuous by their color. Even if they are exiled and mingled among other nations, they should not assimilate, for "You will always be prominent for you are Mine; you are Bnei Yisrael," and all who see them will recognize that they are the children of the living God. The prophet brings proof for this: Did I not bring Bnei Yisrael out of
 Similarly, ibid. 23:7-8
 See, for example, Devarim 4:37-38; Devarim 7:7-8; Bamidbar 15:41; Shmuel II 7:23-24 (with an emphasis on eternal chosenness); Melakhim I 8:51, 53.
 Explicit reference to the subjugation in Egypt and the Exodus is found in chapters 78, 105-106, and 114.
 See, Gershon Brin, Tehillim II (Olam ha-Tanakh, Tel Aviv, 1995), p. 32.
 See, Yair Hoffman, ibid., p. 129.
 For further discussion, see A. Berlin, "Interpreting Torah Traditions in Psalm 105," Jewish Biblical Interpretation and Culture Exchange (2008), pp. 20-36.
 See Sara Yefet, "Hebetim Achadim shel Hagdarat ha-Zehut bi-Yemei Bayit Sheni: Massoret Yetziat Mitzrayim u-Tefisat ha-Bechira," Migvan De'ot ve-Hashkafot be-Tarbut Yisrael 2 (5752), pp. 37-61.