“I am the Lord who took you out of the Land of Egypt”
If there is any single defining event in Jewish history, it is the exodus from Egypt. We are never allowed to forget it – when we get dressed in the morning with tzitzis, or pray with tefillin, the justification given is that we must remember the exodus. It is true, of course, that the Exodus was a national birth (Gelernter has compared the splitting of the sea as analogous to the birth canal), and so to form the connection to leaving Egypt only seems logical – doing G-d’s commandments is the duty a child owes to his parents. It can be expressed as simply as this: because G-d took us out of Egypt, we owe Him everything. Many of the incidences of “I took you out of Egypt” are clearly understood in this vein: all of the commandments surrounding Pesach, for example, are about explicitly reliving the exodus, and connecting with our past.
But there are quite a few exceptions to this rule, and the notion that we somehow are indebted to Hashem does not explain why the phrase “I am the Lord who took you out from the Land of Egypt” punctuates a host of commandments throughout the Torah, seemingly at random. Until now, I have always been frustrated by these references – we know that nothing in the Torah is accidental, yet I have not previously seen a convincing explanation of why specifically these commandments (and not others) come with the “land of Egypt” language.
I believe that the answer is found by looking at the Exodus as a campaign. The Torah tells us explicitly that Hashem has several distinct goals: to bring the people out; to bring them into Israel; and to make the world “know” His name.
It is making people “know” that is most intriguing, because it is the least definite of the goals. Either the Jews are in Egypt or they are not, but whether or not the Egyptians (or the rest of the world) have heard of G-d is a far more subjective goal. It is, after all, akin to a marketing campaign, and one with several targets. In Shmos 9:14 Hashem explains that the reason he is going through all the steps of the plagues and the Exodus is that “you shall know that there is none like me in all the world…. Show you My strength and so that my Name may be declared throughout the world.”
A god, of course, is anything that we worship. We hold that even a stick can do miracles if enough people believe that it is a deity; the power to create gods is intrinsic within our own creative power. By worshipping, we create gods in our own minds and that, too, is a reality. And it is in this reality that Hashem emerges in Shmos, a reality wherein nobody could deny that the sun was a god – that was obvious, if for no other reason that people considered it to be one. So in this world, Hashem could not hope to convince non-Jews that Hashem was in fact the only real god. The most that could be achieved would be for the Egyptians, and indeed any righteous gentiles, to understand that G-d is greater than their gods.
This is hinted at before the plague of hail – some of the Egyptians, who had learned to fear G-d, brought their servants and cattle under cover, and those who had not yet accepted that Hashem was capable of overriding their native deities suffered the loss. The plagues and the destruction of Pharoah are meant to be understood by the Egyptians and others as proof that Hashem is greater than all the other deities – and so was the splitting of the sea in front of two idol-landmarks (Horus and Baal). Nobody who was aware of these events could say after the fact that their god was greater than the G-d of the Jews. And it is made explicit when Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law comes. 18:11 “Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods.” For all that he recognized G-d, Yisro still compares him to other gods, not embracing the Jewish idea that there is a qualitative difference between Hashem and all other deities. So the target audience of the Exodus was every non-Jew in the world, and the message was simple enough: Hashem is the greatest G-d of all.
But this is not the purpose of the marketing campaign to the Jews. To us, the Exodus was meant to be understood as a fulfillment of a historic destiny, and as proof of our debt to Hashem forever more. But it was also meant to be a defining moment, the moment when we understood that Hashem was not a mere tribal deity (as he could have been understood in the days of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov), nor indeed was he a great G-d on the scale of the other deities of the ancient world. Hashem never tells Moshe that he wants to be considered greater than the other gods by the Jewish people, because to invite comparison suggests that there is a comparison to be made!
Instead, the conclusion reached by the Jewish people is that G-d cannot be compared to other deities: in the song sung after the Exodus they sang, “mi kamocha b’elokim Hashem?”, “who is like Hashem among the gods?” does not tell us that G-d can be placed on a number line, several spaces ahead of Baal and one space behind Ra. It tells us that G-d has nothing in common with other gods at all – he is Hashem, and on an entirely different metric.
Our G-d is not a regional or tribal or ethnic deity. While he is our G-d, He is also the creator of the world, available for a potential relationship with all those who are made in His image. But he cannot be compared to any other G-d, which means that His commandments are not just quantitatively different from the worship of other deities, but they are also qualitatively different. Instead of merely serving a deity by offering sacrifices, or having specific feast days, we acknowledge that Hashem uniquely spends a great deal of time concerned with commandments that can be conventionally understood as imposing a system of morality upon us. And these commandments are the ones that are connected to “I am the Lord who took you out of Egypt,” they deal with being kind to one another, and commandments to “be holy”, not commandments to serve G-d in any way that would have been recognizable to a pagan in the ancient world. So when Hashem tells us to do something because He took us out of Egypt, we can understand the Egyptian reference as a reminder: the commandment is not similar to the worship of any false god, because, as he showed in the exodus, our G-d is not similar. He is Hashem.
P.S. This also answers a common question: why doesn’t Hashem do open miracles anymore? The answer is that the nations of the world already know his name – He is the G-d of the Jews. Righteous gentiles already know that he is greater than all other gods. And Jews already know, thanks to our tradition and Torah, “mi el kamocha” – there is no comparison. The purpose for which Hashem revealed himself publicly in Egypt was completely achieved, so there is no need to ever do those acts again.