You Left Egypt – Now Pay It Forward

In this lesson we explore how the Exodus story in the national consciousness of the Jewish people has been a moral compass, instilling the values of protecting the vulnerable in society. This is legislated in Jewish law, can be seen in Jewish history, and is a national calling for the future – to build a society on the values of protecting the weak and vulnerable amongst us.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Politics of Memory

(1948-2020) British Rabbi and Jewish philosopher, author, and thought leader. Member of the House of Lords and former Chief Rabbi. 

Good things, says Moses to the next generation, will happen to you. The question is how you will respond. Either you will eat and be satisfied and bless G-d, remembering that all things come from Him – or you will eat and be satisfied and forget to whom you owe all this. You will think it comes entirely from your own efforts: “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” Although this may seem a small difference, it will, says Moses, make all the difference. On this alone will turn your future as a nation in its own land.

Moses’ argument is both brilliant and unexpected. You may think, he says, that the tough times are behind you. You have wandered for forty years without a home. There were times when you had no water, no food. You were exposed to the elements. You were attacked by your enemies. You may think this was the test of your strength. It wasn’t. The real challenge is not poverty but affluence; not slavery but freedom; not homelessness but home. Many nations have been lifted to great heights when they faced difficulty and danger. They fought battles and won. They came through crises – droughts, plagues, recessions, defeats – and were toughened by them. When times are hard, people grow. They come together. They bury their differences. There is a sense of community and solidarity, of neighbours and strangers pulling together. Many people who have lived through a war remember it as the most vivid time of their life.

The real test of a nation is not, can it survive a crisis? but, can it survive the lack of a crisis? Can it stay strong during times of ease and plenty, power and prestige? That is the challenge that has defeated every civilization known to history. Let it not, says Moses, defeat you. 

Moses’ foresight is little less than stunning. The pages of history are littered with the relics of nations that seemed impregnable in their day, but which eventually declined and fell and lapsed into oblivion – and always for the reason Moses prophetically foresaw. They forget. Memories fade. People lose sight of the values they once fought for – justice, equality, independence, freedom. The nation, its early battles over, becomes strong. Some of its members grow rich. They become lax, self- indulgent, over-sophisticated, decadent. They lose their sense of social solidarity. They no longer feel it their duty to care for the poor, the weak, the marginal, the losers. They begin to feel that such wealth and position as they have is theirs by right. The bonds of fraternity and collective responsibility begin to fray. The less well-off feel an acute sense of injustice. The scene is set either for revolution or conquest. Societies succumb to external pressures when they have long been weakened by internal decay. That was the danger Moses foresaw and about which he warned.

Available online at Viewed July 2020.

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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 values at the heart of the Exodus story?
  • How has the Exodus story impacted the moral life of Jews throughout the generations?
  • What does Jewish morality (in the light of the national experiences in Egypt) look like in a practical sense?
  • How does this affect the way we live our lives today?

Background for Teacher

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Politics of Memory Biblical Context: In the book of Devarim, Moshe delivers several speeches to the Israelites that are about to enter the Land of Israel. After wandering in the desert for forty years, they will transition from a nomadic...

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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Politics of Memory

Biblical Context: In the book of Devarim, Moshe delivers several speeches to the Israelites that are about to enter the Land of Israel. After wandering in the desert for forty years, they will transition from a nomadic group into a group that will conquer and settle a land that was promised to Avraham and his descendants.

Common Pitfall: One may think, says Sacks, that after years of uncertainty, of exposure to sun and rain, of having lived through the lack of food and water, now things will get better. Yet, it is precisely at this time that Moshe cautions the people. It is not unlikely that when they will think the worst is behind them, when they will see themselves as being “on the top of the world,” then will they forget the values they learned during the hard times.

The imperative to remember the suffering to grow from it: Sacks brings up an important point: when one has become successful, when one is not struggling, it is possible – and even likely – that the sense of injustice that was so close to him, will now be forgotten. It is precisely in this ideal state of success that the true test emerges – will one remember their mission even when the difficulties are in the distant past? The memory of the Exodus needs to be constantly at the forefront of society’s mind to ensure the values instilled are not forgotten and abandoned. This is an important conversation in today’s world, where many Jews live comfortably.

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, Judaism as an Exodus Religion: Passover

Exodus Morality: The story of the Exodus generated what Greenberg calls “exodus morality” – a religious ethical system that shaped not only Judaism, but all three Abrahamic religions. In his view, exodus morality infuses the mitzvot of the Torah, given to the Israelites soon after leaving Egypt. Religion was not just a matter of how to serve God, it was a matter of how to treat others, and how to do so in a way that is moral and ethical.

Exodus’ Transformative Power: Greenberg believes that there is a transformative power in the story of the Exodus. The status quo of injustice can and must be challenged. The Talmud (Tractate Bava Batra 10a) records a debate between Turnusrufus and Rabbi Akiva, the former arguing that aiding the poor is interfering with the will of God. There are many who accept their own “disadvantage or suffering” as fate, or perhaps worse still, as did Turnusrufus, they accept the “disadvantage or suffering” of another as their fate! Argues Greenberg, along the lines of Rabbi Akiva of long ago, that being poor, or downtrodden, or oppressed is not fate, and it is not God’s will for one to remain like that. People must strive to transform the world into a place where such things cease to exist. Out of the memories of the Exodus, one is to draw the courage to fight for the betterment of all.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, Don’t Tell Me, Show Me

Exodus Compels Us to Take Action: Like Greenberg, Brous speaks about the Exodus from Egypt being an event that conveys critical ideas, instills values, and offers a sense of purpose. She points to the 36 times in which the Torah speaks about caring for those most vulnerable in society, a concern a Jew should have as a consequence of the Israelite experience of having been slaves. With redemption, she posits, comes responsibility. Telling the story is important, but not enough – action is required. This might be why the Rabbis insist that every Jew, in all generations, is required to feel as if they themselves had left Egypt (stated in the Haggada). With the narrative so internalized, one would not only understand the responsibility embedded in being redeemed, but would also feel the need to act.

Brous sees the Exodus from Egypt as a symbol for the coming out from all narrow spaces in life, referring to the shared root of the word Mitzrayim ( מצִרְַיםִ , Egypt) and the word tzar (צַר – narrow, tight).

There are a number of theories for why Egypt is called Mitzrayim in Hebrew or Mitzr in the Arabic. Among them:

  • The root may derive from a Semitic root that means “border” or “frontier.” The word מֶצרֶ (metzer) to mean boundary is used in several talmudic passages.
  • The root may also derive from a Semitic root that means “narrow” or “straits.” The country may have received its name in this case because even to this day much of the settled portions of Egypt form two narrow strips lining both banks of the Nile River.

Every person, in every generation, has been, at one or more times in their life, in a “narrow space,” either physically or emotionally. Even if one has not been a slave in the actual meaning of the word, most people have felt as if they were enslaved or confined. The Exodus story is a call for action not only for communities that suffered oppression, but also for individuals.

Note about the text:

The quote, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free,” is from Emma Lazarus (1849–1887) and appears in her series of articles titled “An Epistle to the Hebrews,” in which she discusses the Jewish problems of her time. You may wish to show your students the speech where Rabbi Brous said these words. This can be accessed here: The source is several excerpts from the speech. To help you navigate the video and find the excerpts, you can find the text in the appendix with the timings from the video.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
  • The following story is a great example of a Jew showing concern for the vulnerable in society. You could tell this story (if you prefer to read it with your students then you could have them read aloud using this technique) and ask your students some follow up questions (to tease out why Jews are often, or should be often, the first to stand up for the vulnerable in society, such as:
    • Why did this simple act of kindness have such an impact on the boy?
    • Why do you think Carter believes it was “no coincidence” that Sara Kestenbaum was a religious Jew?
    • What is it about Judaism and Jewish history that means that Jews are often the first to stand up for the weak in society?

In 1966 an 11-year-old black boy moved with his parents and family to a white neighborhood in Washington. Sitting with his two brothers and two sisters on the front step of the house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not. Passers-by turned to look at them but no one gave them a smile or even a glance of recognition. All the fearful stories he had heard about how whites treated blacks seemed to be coming true. Years later, writing about those first days in their new home, he says, ‘I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here . . . ’

As he was thinking those thoughts, a white woman coming home from work passed by on the other side of the road. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, ‘Welcome!’ Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden with drinks and cream-cheese and jelly sandwiches which she brought over to the children, making them feel at home. That moment – the young man later wrote – changed his life. It

gave him a sense of belonging where there was none before. It made him realize, at a time when race relations in the United States were still fraught, that a black family could feel at home in a white area and that there could be relationships that were color-blind.

Over the years, he learned to admire much about the woman across the street, but it was that first spontaneous act of greeting that became, for him, a definitive memory. It broke down a wall of separation and turned strangers into friends.

The young man, Stephen Carter, is now a law professor at Yale, and he eventually wrote a book about what he learned that day. He called it Civility. The name of the woman was Sara Kestenbaum. He adds that it was no coincidence that she was a religious Jew. ‘In the Jewish tradition,’ he notes, such civility is called ‘chessed – the doing of acts of kindness – which is in turn derived from the understanding that human beings are made in the image of God.’ He adds, ‘Civility itself may be seen as part of chessed: it does indeed require kindnesses toward our fellow citizens, including the ones who are strangers, and even when it is hard.’

Based on an excerpt in Stephen Carter’s book Civility (pp. 61-71)

  • You could use the story of the Vietnamese Boat People who were rescued by Israel as an example of Jews acting on their understanding of what it is like to be a refugee. Here are some facts:
    • From 1977 to 1979 the State of Israel permitted approximately 360 Vietnamese boat people fleeing the 1975 Communist takeover of Vietnam to enter Israel as refugees. 
    • The most famous rescue operation took place on June 10, 1977 when an Israeli freighter ship called the Yuvali, en route to Taiwan, sighted the passengers and rescued them. 
    • Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin told the US President Jimmy Carter:

“We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews, the St. Louis, having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War… traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused… Therefore it was natural… to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel.”

For more information see here and here.

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

  • Physical security and material prosperity can lead to moral stagnation and a sense of hubris. The sources in this lesson intimate that the roots of Jewish history in slavery and opression was designed to achieve a national morality based on a sensitivity to the oppressed. In this source, Rabbi Sacks is suggesting that the people risk losing this moral orientation when they enter the land and enjoy prosperity and security, and Moshe is warning them against this. The first stage in this lesson is to help your students understand the process by which a people can forget their roots and lose their moral compass that was forged in the crucible of slavery and opression. These questions may help with this (which could be considered using Cafe Conversation):
    • Who creates the wealth in your life?
    • Why does Judaism always encourage us to see God’s role (as well as our own) in this?
    • Why do you think we sometimes forget God’s role?
    • Why do you think Moshe is worried that the Israelites will forget their experiences in Egypt?
    • Why do you think he thinks it is important for them not to forget?
  • Rabbi Greenberg expresses here the centrality of the experience of the Exodus in the formation of the moral framework of Jewish civilization. The question is, how did this experience change the Israelites then, and how does it impact us to this day. These questions try to encourage your students to explore these ideas (which could be considered using the Fish Bowl technique):
    • What do you think Rabbi Greenberg means by the term “Exodus Morality”?
    • What examples from Judaism does he list in the source of this?
    • Why would the Jewish experience of being slaves and then being redeemed by God create an “Exodus Morality” in the generation of the Exodus?
    • How and why would it also create this in following generations (including our own)?
  • Much like Rabbi Greenberg, Rabbi Brous describes the role of the Exodus narrative in the formation of Jewish morality, especially in relation to the way we treat the vulnerable in society. Just as we were redeemed from the oppression of Egypt (symbolically represented in the root of the Hebrew word for Egypt which means “narrow” implying oppression), so we must protect the weak and vulnerable in society (found in the 36 times in the Torah where we are commanded to do this). Rabbi Brous focuses on the importance of these values being actualized in action, and the responsibility of Jews to create a society where these values are the foundation. These questions may help your students explore these ideas (which could be considered using the Give One, Get One technique):
    • What do you think Rabbi Brous means by religious  communities need “a story that ultimately helps us articulate what it means to be alive in the world, what it means to be a human being”?
    • Why is the Exodus the Jewish story that achieves this?
    • How does it tell us how to be human?
    • What are the values at the heart of the Exodus story?
    • How do we act on this in a practical way?
    • How can you make these values and this story central to your life?
  • This lesson presents a great opportunity for your students to find a practical way to act on the ideas they have learned. You could divide them into groups, and ask them to create a project that shows concern for the vulnerable in their local community. Encourage them to make it practical and if the ideas are realistic, help them carry them out. You could vote as a class which idea is the best and then execute it, or if practical, all the groups could carry out their ideas. 
  • A research project on famous (European) Jewish social activists.