The Exodus Effect

The impact of Judaism's transformative event is felt by the other monotheistic religions.

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The Exodus not only formed the people of Israel into a nation, it also shaped the Jewish people's image of God as the God of History. Over and over in Jewish liturgy, reference is made to the Exodus from Egypt and to "God who has brought us from the house of bondage." Reprinted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.

Periodically, scholars survey historians' opinions as to what is the most influential event of all time. In recent decades, the Industrial Revolution has often appeared at the top of the list. For the politically oriented, not uncommonly the French Revolution wins; for Marxists, the Russian Revolution. Christians often point to the life and death of Jesus as the single most important event of history. For Muslims, Mohammed's revelations and his hegira [exile, 622 CE] have a similar transcendental authority.

Yet when Jews observe Passover, they are commemorating what is arguably the most important event of all time--the Exodus from Egypt. If for no other reason than the fact that the Exodus directly or indirectly generated many of the important events cited by other groups, this is the event of human history.

That it was a Jewish event is an eloquent tribute to the extraordinary role the Jewish people--so minute a fragment of the human race--have played in human history.

The Exodus transformed the Jewish people and their ethic. The Ten Commandments open with the words, "I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." Having no other God means giving no absolute status to other forms of divinity or to any human value that demands absolute commitment. Neither money nor power, neither economic nor political system has the right to demand absolute loyalty. All human claims are relative in the presence of God. This is the key to democracy.


Exodus morality meant giving justice to the weak and the poor. Honest weights and measures, interest-free loans to the poor, leaving part of the crops in the field for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, treating the alien stranger as a native citizen--these are all applications of the Exodus principle to living in this world.

Thus, the Exodus, as articulated at Sinai, transformed the Jewish people and their religious ethical system. Inasmuch as Christianity and Islam adopted the Exodus at their core, almost half the world is profoundly shaped by the aftereffects of the Exodus event.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).

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