The following comes from a classic piece of Torah commentary authored by Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman. Popularly known as Nachmanides, he was born in 1194 in Girona, Spain, and passed away in Israel in 1270.
What event in Jewish history should we remember more than any other?
Its narrative takes up most of this week’s parshah. The event is the reason why we have tefillin and mezuzot. We remember it every morning and evening in the Shema prayer. Our prayers on Shabbat and Passover recall it, as does the liturgy for the redemption of a firstborn male child.
The Exodus from Egypt is without a doubt the most important event in our history.
Since G-d will not perform signs or wonders in every generation for all the disbelievers, He commanded that we should have constant reminders and signs of what we saw in Egypt; we are similarly mandated to transmit the wonders of the Exodus to our children throughout the generations. These commandments to remember events of thousands of years ago serve as a testimony through the generations so that they will not be forgotten, so that there will be no room for a heretic to deny G-d.
When one does a simple mitzvah such as affixing a mezuzah and thinks about its importance, he has already acknowledged G-d’s creation of the world, G-d’s knowledge and supervision of the world’s affairs, the truth of prophecy and all the foundations of Torah. In addition, he has acknowledged G-d’s kindness toward those who perform His will, for He took us from bondage to freedom in great honor in the merit of our forefathers.
That is why it says in Ethics of the Fathers to be as careful in performing a minor commandment as a major one, for each is major and beloved. Through the mitzvot, a person is constantly acknowledging his G-d. The objective of all the commandments is that we should believe in G-d and acknowledge that He created us.
This is in fact the purpose of creation itself, for we have no other explanation of creation. And G-d has no desire except that man should know and acknowledge that He created him. The very purpose of communal prayer is that people should have a place where they can gather, acknowledge that G-d created them and publicize and declare before Him, “We are your creations.”
Furthermore, through recalling the great revealed miracles of the Exodus, a person acknowledges the hidden miracles of everyday life that are the foundation of the entire Torah. A person has no share in the Torah of Moses unless he believes that all our interactions and experiences are miracles from Hashem, that there is no independent force of nature regarding either the community or the individual. If one observes the commandments, his reward will bring him success, and if he transgresses them, his punishment will destroy him.
“The Jew, he is the symbol of eternity,” said Leo Tolstoy. “He is the one who for so long had guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. A people such as this can never disappear. The Jew is eternal. He is the embodiment of eternity.” Many Jews know this, but few are able to express what our eternity means and what our prophetic message is. The Ramban’s teachings on the Exodus provide the words.
Rabbi Nitzan Bergman is executive director of Etz Chaim: The Center for Jewish Living and Learning and founder and president of the WOW! program for young professionals.