The Exodus Narrative as an Inspiration in Modern History

In this lesson we explore how the Exodus story has been an inspiration for Jews and non-Jews alike during historical periods when freedom and liberty could not be taken for granted. These include the refuseniks in Soviet Russia, appartheid South Africa, and the the struggle for civil rights for African Americans.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Natan Sharansky, Fear No Evil

(b.1948) Israeli/Russian politician, human rights activist, and author who, as a refusenik in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s, spent nine years in Soviet prisons because he wished to openly practice his Judaism and make aliyah. 

In the spring, Micka Chlenov and two other Hebrew teachers organized a Passover Seder, which Natasha and I attended. This was the first Seder I had ever been to. Our teachers explained the various symbols, such as the matzoh and the bitter herbs, and I as the youngest participant was given the honor of asking the Four Questions. I was twenty-six years old, but in terms of my Jewish life I was a mere child.

The special relevance of the Passover story to a group of refuseniks in Moscow was so obvious that nobody had to point it out. We sat there enthralled as we discussed the story of our ancestors, enslaved and oppressed in Egypt, a powerful land where they were unable to practice their religion or learn about their heritage. Then, through a series of miracles, they succeeded in leaving this place of bondage, eventually reaching their homeland, the land of Israel. That night I came across a moving line in the Passover liturgy that would stay with me forever: “In every generation, a person should feel as though he, personally, went out of Egypt.”

Sharansky, N. 1988. Fear No Evil New York: Random House, 49

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • What is morality and what are the factors that have an impact on the development of our morality?
  • What are the responsibilities of the individual in regard to issues of social justice?
  • How can literature serve as a vehicle for social change?
  • What does it mean to be “free” in Judaism?
  • Why is it important for people and cultures to construct narratives about their experience?
  • How is the Torah story my story?
  • How can exploring the past impact our present?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What are the universal messages from the Exodus story?
  • How has the Exodus story been a narrative of hope throughout Jewish history, up until the present?
  • What aspects of the Exodus story are universal and what are particular?
  • How has the story of the Exodus affected other nations and their struggle for freedom?

Background for Teacher

Natan Sharansky, Fear No Evil Biographical information on Sharansky: Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky was born in 1948 in the Ukraine. He graduated in Computer Sciences from the Physical Technical Institute in Moscow. In 1973, he applied for an exit visa to Israel but was denied...

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Natan Sharansky, Fear No Evil

Biographical information on Sharansky: Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky was born in 1948 in the Ukraine. He graduated in Computer Sciences from the Physical Technical Institute in Moscow. In 1973, he applied for an exit visa to Israel but was denied for “security” reasons. He continued to engage in underground Zionist activities until his arrest by the Soviet authorities in 1977 on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage. Although the U.S. government categorically denied any connection between Sharansky and the C.I.A., Sharansky was found guilty in 1978 and sentenced to 13 years imprisonment. An international campaign calling for Sharansky’s release was waged by his wife Avital in conjunction with organizations around the world, culminating in his release on February 11, 1986. He arrived in Israel that same night. Since then he has been a political leader, activist, thinker and author. 

Relevance of Pesach Seder to Soviet Jewry: In his 1988 autobiography he describes his early life, his trial and imprisonment, and ultimately his liberation and aliyah. In this short excerpt, he describes how inspiring the Exodus narrative was for all refuseniks who were denied basic human rights during this period. The story that Jews around the world read every year on Seder night brought him comfort and hope for the struggle of Soviet Jewry and their desire to join their people in their ancestral homeland in liberty and peace. He references the powerful line from the Haggadah “In every generation, a person should feel as though he, personally, went out of Egypt.” This refers to the experiential nature of the Seder night where through ritual and narrative we re-experience the Exodus anew every year and work hard to connect to the story in a personal way. For Sharansky and his fellow refuseniks, they didn’t need to work hard to connect to the experience of oppression and the hope for freedom. 

Exodus as a paradigm of hope: The Exodus story was deeply inspiring for Sharansky’s wife, Avital, who campaigned tirelessly for his freedom. For her it was not a one-time event, but rather a paradigm for God’s intervention in the world. This paradigm includes the implicit assurance that wherever Jews are oppressed, once again God will intervene to set them free. The call to arms of the international Free Soviet Jewry movement of the late 1960s through the early 1990s was taken right from the Exodus story – “Let My People Go.”

In 1990, the United Jewish Appeal campaign, called Operation Exodus, ultimately collected $900 million and assisted almost 1 million Jews from the Soviet Union to immigrate to Israel and another 150,000 to come to the United States. Operation Exodus became the largest emergency fund-raising event in Jewish history.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Universal Story

Themes of Universal and Particular: In an essay that can be found in his Haggadah, entitled “The Universal Story”, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shows how the narrative of the Exodus, while being a particular story about a particular people, gave hope and inspiration to many peoples in their time of oppression and tribulation. The themes of the universal vs. the particular underlie much of the writings and ideas of Rabbi Sacks. He believes that Judaism expresses universal values in a particular way, as a model for how these values can be lived. In this instance, he is suggesting that the Exodus expresses universal values in the story of a particular people. This explains why this story has captured the imagination of so many, and served as an inspiration and narrative of hope to them

Widespread interest in the Exodus Story: It has often been asked why God needed miracles and plagues to take the Israelites out of slavery to freedom. God could have brought them to the Promised Land with less fuss and effort if He had so wished. One approach to this question is that for the message of the values underlying the Exodus story to become widely known and understood, a big show of might and strength was needed to capture the imagination of the world – for that time and for future generations. The message was that enslaving another nation was wrong. All humans deserve the basic right of freedom and dignity. 

Enduring Message of the Exodus: In this piece, Rabbi sacks shows that the story served this purpose for many generations, until today, inspiring oppressed peoples and giving them hope. If a tiny Israelite nation could secure its freedom, with the help of God, from the mightiest nation on earth at the time, then so too can we.

Michael Lerner, How the Revolutionary Message Got Repressed and Abandoned

Exodus as a model of challenging the oppressive status quo: Lerner summarizes the impact of the Exodus story on the world: it taught oppressed groups that oppression can be overthrown. Powerful rulers in different times and settings wanted to send the message that the world was divided – and some even argued that it was divinely divided – into classes and social strata: the elite and the downtrodden, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. The Exodus story introduced the idea, for Lerner, that oppression and tyranny can be fought and that no social system, even one that seemed to be divinely sanctioned, was necessarily permanent. Reality, according to Lerner, is not fixed, immutable; it can be transformed. This idea gave hope to all who saw themselves as forever destined to suffer.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Religion and Race

Historical Context: The society that was built in America by the founding fathers on the principles of liberty and equality was far from perfect, and some 200 years later African-Americans were still fighting for the same rights as their white fellow Americans.

Exodus as a model for the struggle for Civil Rights: In this source, Rabbi Heschel shows how the Exodus narrative also served as inspiration for the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The National Conference on Religion and Race, held at Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel, January 14–17, 1963, brought together representatives of US Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant organizations to discuss America’s racial problems, and was hailed by Martin Luther King, Jr., as ‘‘the most significant and historic [convention] ever held for attacking racial injustice.’’ Following remarks by President John F. Kennedy, Heschel gave the opening address. For Heschel, the Torah’s tale of the Exodus served as the foundation for his belief that human beings are meant to be free and equal. His writings often cite the Exodus as an emblem for human rights, and the basis for the Jewish responsibility to care for the stranger – the other – in all generations.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
  • You could play your students the song Exodus by Bob Marley and the Wailers as a famous example of the Exodus narrative being used as an inspiration for a freedom movement. To learn more about the album see here and the Rustafari religion see here. Following the video, you could have a discussion with your students surrounding the following questions (you could use one of the teaching strategies to facilitate this discussion from this resource, such as Think, Pair, Share; Rapid Fire Writing; or Wraparound.  :
    • Why do you think Bob Marley chose the name Exodus for the song?
    • What parts of the Exodus story do you think he connected to?
    • How do you feel about him using a story from Jewish history/Tanach as his inspiration for his community/religion?
    • Can you think of any other times in history where the Exodus has been used as an inspiration for a freedom movement?
  • You could play your class an excerpt from the following Martin Luther King Junior speech entitled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” which he delivered on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. During this speech, MLK draws a comparison between the plight of Black Americans and the Israelites in Egypt (between minutes 10:20 and 11:20). These are the words MLK uses, to encourage unity among the African-American community during their struggle:

“We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.”

  • Why do you think MLK uses the story of the Israelites in Egypt as a metaphor for the situation of the African-American community in the 1960s?
  • How do you feel about him using a story from Jewish history/Tanach as his inspiration for his community’s plight?
  • Can you think of any other times in history where the Exodus has been used as an inspiration for a freedom movement?

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

See this resource bank of teaching strategies for ideas how to creatively facilitate these discussions.

  • In this first quote, from Natan Sharansky’s autobiography, he articulates how important the Exodus story was for the refuseniks and their struggle for freedom. With these questions, you can encourage your students to consider why that would be and what role this story has played throughout Jewish history (during many other times of struggle and persecution).
    • What similarities can you see between the story of Soviet Jewry and the story of the Israelites in Egypt?
    •  Why do you think Seder night became of special importance to Sharansky and his fellow refuseniks?
    • How do you think the Exodus story gave them hope? What kind of hope?
    • Can you think of other periods in Jewish history where the story of the Exodus may have given Jews hope?
  • In the second text presented here Rabbi Sacks explains how the Exodus story is a particular expression of a universal story – the liberation of a weak people from their suffering at the hands of a stronger nation, proving that justice will in the end prevail, and that everyone deserves the basic human rights of freedom and equality. He mentions several examples of other nations and their struggle, and how this story provided them hope and language for their struggle. These questions may help your students consider this:
    • What does it mean that the Exodus is a “particularistic” story?
    • Yet the essay from which this quote comes is entitled “The Universal Story”. What is it about the Exodus story that is universal?
    • Which examples does Rabbi Sacks provide of other nations who have been inspired by the Exodus story in their own fight for freedom?
    • Do you think the Exodus story belongs only to Jews and should not be used in this way by other nations?
  • The third source in this lesson describes how the Exodus story provided inspiration for fundamental change in the status quo during the American Revolution. As the revolutionaries dreamed of liberty and equality, they were faced with a ruling power that believed that hierarchies have always existed and would always exist. The Exodus gave them hope that justice, freedom, and equality was achievable, even when all the odds were against it. Using the following questions your students will be able to explore this idea.
    • Why did the British not want to give the colonies independence?
    • How did the Exodus story give the revolutionaries hope?
    • Being a Christian country, the British were also connected to the bible and knew the Exodus story. Do you think they saw themselves as like the Egyptians? 
    • How did the story end in America? Was it a similar ending to the Exodus story?
  • In the final source we have a quote from Rabbi Heschel, who was an activist in the Civil Rights Movement in America during the 1960s (he famously marched with Martin Luther King Jr.) He was attending the National Conference on Religion and Race in 1964 when he wrote it, and compared the conference to the Exodus story. For Rabbi Heschel, the lesson of the Exodus was religious freedom and liberty and equality for all. This was the message that God was teaching Pharaoh and the world. These questions may help your students understand his point:
    • From this quote, what do you think was the most important message of the Exodus for Rabbi Heschel?
    • Why do you think it took Pharoah so long to understand it?
    • Do you think Heschel’s generation in America had fully understood this lesson? Do you think we have in our generation?
    • Consider  Heschel’s concluding words “It was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”  What impact do you think these words had on people of his generation?  What is the impact of these words on you?
  • It would be a fascinating and inspiring experience for your students to hear the personal story from a refusenik who was prohibited from leaving Soviet Russia. It may be that you can find someone in your community to speak in person to your students, or EFI could help find someone who could speak remotely through video conferencing. You may wish to explain to your guest speaker the context in which you are learning about the story of Soviet Jewry and the refuseniks, and ask them to relate to the role of the Exodus narrative for them at that time.
    • Help your students to prepare for this experience by learning a little more about the story of Soviet Jewry. You may find this video helpful, or this one which tells the specific story of Natan Sharansky. 
    • You may wish to help your students formulate questions to ask your guest speaker in preparation for the event.
  • As a research project, you could have your students create a short visual presentation (using medium such as PowerPoint or one of the alternatives – see this article for suggestions), on MLK and his use of the Exodus in his speeches. The presentation should include a short biography of and a series of quotes from his speeches  and images from his life. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University is a great resource for this. 
  • Sharansky quotes a line from the Pesach Haggadah that inspired him on his personal journey to freedom. Have your students choose a line from the Haggadah that inspires them and ask them to depict it artistically, and then share with their classmates. You could create a real (or virtual) art exhibition from these.