"And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud" Exodus 13:21

By Rabbi Benjamin Rickman, January 13, 2011

The exodus from Egypt is not merely an historic event retold yearly during Pesach but a vital part of our daily lives. We mention several times a day during prayer and Grace after meals. But leaving Egypt was only the first stage of the exodus and the easier one.

Far more challenging was taking Egyptian culture and theology out of the minds of the liberated Israelites. The seventy souls who came with Jacob had become a nation; the next stage was to develop consciousness of God.

On their journey from Egypt, the Israelites were guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. This ancient navigation system was also a fast-track lesson in understanding the difference between the gods of Egypt and the God of Israel. In fact, the verse cited above is so important that the Talmud quotes it in a story about a Roman convert called Onkelos, a nephew of Emperor Titus.

Caesar sent a troop of soldiers to bring Onkelos back to Rome. Each group of soldiers converted to Judaism after speaking with him. Onkelos explained that the different levels of Roman dignitaries expected to be served by those junior to them. In contrast, God Himself walked in front of His people, carrying the torch so they could walk in the desert. God is personal. The divine spark within us means that we are never alone. Our struggles, difficulties, challenges and successes are relevant to God.

The next forty years of biblical narrative deal almost exclusively with the nation's struggles with God. It is easier to believe in a range of gods that have limited powers. Move beyond their territory and they cannot harm you. Far scarier is the immanent nature of the God of the Jews. Accepting this notion would ultimately dictate who among the Israelites could consider themselves truly liberated.

Last updated: 10:56am, January 13 2011