Every year Jews tell the story of the Exodus. In fact, they tell it twice, once in the synagogue, when they read the weekly portions from the Book of Exodus, or Shemot, the Book of Names in Hebrew, and once when they sit down at the seder, or festive, table, and read from the Haggadah. This book, often illustrated, tells the story of the Exodus and relates it to the present, to the family and to the community. It is an ever repeated, living act of memory.
What is it we should remember? We remember many things, at the centre of which is that we were led out of slavery and brought to the threshold of freedom, to a growing awareness that we are able to choose good or evil, that these choices have consequences and that we must assume responsibility for our own lives and for the lives of others. Whereas much of Genesis tells the story of a family, Exodus recounts the birth of a nation. The most urgent need of this new nation is to forge an ethic based on honouring God and creating a just society. Thus, as the Israelites begin to wander through the desert, they are given rules, rules and more rules. These range over a wide spectrum of behaviour: economic, social, cultural and, of course, religious. We are told to honour our parents, to keep certain festivals, to build a beautiful travelling home for the word of God and for the very presence of God, to leave the fields fallow every seven years, to ensure that the debtor has a warm coat to sleep in, no matter how poor they may be, not to bend justice either for the rich or for the poor, to distinguish between the profane and the holy, to help our neighbour’s donkey when it stumbles under its load, to love our neighbour as ourselves. Now that is a really difficult law to keep.
One law which is repeated in different forms many time relates to the stranger. After all, as soon as you have a nation, you also have strangers, the others, those who do not belong to the nation. “Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt,” it says, and elsewhere: “When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt.” Such commands are given no less than 36 times in the Torah or Five Books of Moses. In this context, it is interesting that the story of the Exodus is called Shemot. It is the first significant word in the book. It is also a word which gives humanity to an enslaved people, for slaves, like the prisoners of tyrannical regimes, often do not have names. They are reduced by their owners or captors to objects. The root of the word shemot is also pivotal, since it is where the first word of the most important Jewish prayer also comes from: Shema, which means ‘Listen’.
In this time of suspicion or fear of the stranger, the other, the one who is not one of us, we should remember to listen to the story of the other and to recognise that, while we may be different, we all have names that deserve to be heard, and that these names and the stories that they carry with them are all part of the story of humanity.
Jeremy Jacobson OBE, 1 April 2017