A central concern of Jewish life has always been the transmission of the tradition from one generation to the next. This is clear from the Torah’s narratives about the patriarchs and matriarchs and their struggle in each generation to bring children into the world. The Torah seems to be telling us that the creation of a next generation of Jews, that group that will carry Judaism’s torch into the future, is enormously difficult. And yet it is the central mission of the Jewish people, for without that next generation the covenant between God and Israel will be broken.
That same challenge was still on the table in the time of Moses, some 400 years after Sarah and Abraham lived. At the beginning of Parshat Bo, Moses and Pharaoh engage in a series of negotiations about when and how the Israelites might leave Egypt. Pharaoh has been pushed to the breaking point by the first plagues, and he is ready to give some ground. “Go, worship the Lord your God!” he says to Moses and Aaron. But then he asks an interesting question, almost as an afterthought: “Who are the ones to go?” Moses’ response is clear: “We will all go, young and old, our sons and daughters!” And suddenly Pharaoh pulls back from his promise. “You must be crazy if you think I am going to let the children go with you!” (Exodus 10:8-11, with my own paraphrase translation).
So it seems the real struggle of the Exodus is not about freedom alone. It is also about continuity, about whether a next generation of Jews will be included in the Exodus moment. Pharaoh has no trouble letting the Israelite men go, because he knows without their children, the ideals of freedom and common dignity they espouse will die out in the wilderness. But he also knows that if the Israelite children leave Egypt with the adults, there is a chance that Judaism and its ideals will be around for a long time, something Pharaoh finds threatening and unacceptable.
Of course, we know the end of the story. As the plagues rain down, Pharaoh is forced to acquiesce, and the Israelites leave Egypt en masse — men, women and children. In this way, Moses averts yet another crisis in Jewish continuity. There will be a next generation of Jews in the wilderness to learn the laws from Moses, to remember the history of the Exodus and then, when their time comes, to transmit the richness of our tradition to their own children and grandchildren. Our challenge, from one generation to the next, is to make sure that process of transmission continues.
Steve Schwartz is senior rabbi of Beth El Congregation.