A long, long time ago, a great famine came to the land of Israel. The rains had stopped pouring down and the sun was burning hot. With no rain to grow crops and water trees, there were no fruits and vegetables for the people to eat. They tried saving as much of their food as they could but, after a while, there was no food at all left to eat.
Their kind neighbors in the land of Egypt invited them to come share the food that they had. Their land was blessed with plenty of rain and they were happy to share the bounty of their fields with their neighbors who were not so fortunate and who were really suffering. So, many of the families of Israel packed up all of the belongings they could carry and they traveled to Egypt.
For many years, all of the families lived together in peace. The families of Egypt and the families who had come from Israel. As they had children and grandchildren in the new land, the Israelites came to feel that Egypt was their home and they hardly thought about going back to the land of Israel.
But then a new king—a new Pharaoh—came to power in Egypt. He was scared that there were getting to be too many Israelites and he didn’t like having so many people who were different living in his community. So, the Pharaoh decided to make the Israelite people slaves, and to have them work hard to make bricks and build buildings and cities in Egypt. He asked some Egyptians to be taskmasters to make sure that the Israelites kept working hard. The Pharaoh said that it was okay for the taskmasters to be mean to the Israelites, and not allow them to have enough water to drink, or to let them rest when they were tired from working so hard.
The Pharaoh also had the idea to send away all of the baby boys born to the Israelites. But two midwives, Shifrah and Pu’ah, refused to obey Pharaoh’s order, and they found ways to hide all of the babies.
One Israelite woman, Yocheved, did not want to send away her baby boy, Moshe. So Yocheved wove a basket of reeds for Moshe that could float in water, and she placed the basket carefully in the river nearby where the Pharaoh’s daughter, the princess Batya, was swimming. Moshe’s sister, Miriam, wanted to make sure that her baby brother was okay, so she hid in the tall grasses of reeds and watched Princess Batya discover baby Moshe floating in his basket.
When Batya saw the basket floating by, she took the baby out of the water and said with love: “I will raise you, but who will feed you?”
Miriam appeared from her hiding place and said that her mother, Yocheved, could nurse the new baby. Batya replied: “Bring him to me when he is weaned, he will be as my own son for I have no other. I will call him Moshe because I brought him from the river’s water.”
History tells us that Moshe grew up in the Pharaoh’s palace in Egypt without knowing that he was an Israelite. But we know that he was nursed by his mother and played with his parents and brother, Aharon, and sister, Miriam.
Although he left when he was weaned, the memory of their love and their plight was in his head and his heart.
While Moshe was growing up, it made him sad and confused to see the Israelites working as slaves and being treated unfairly. One day, Moshe saw a taskmaster being very mean to an Israelite slave who was working so hard in the burning sun. Moshe pushed him away so he would stop treating the Israelite so badly. Moshe didn’t want to hurt the taskmaster, he just wanted to stop him from being so mean to the Israelite who was working so hard. But the taskmaster fell to the ground. When Moshe realized what he had done, he got scared and he ran away into the desert for safety and to live in the wilderness, close to nature. Moshe spent the next 40 days wandering through the hillsides as a shepherd, taking care of sheep.
One day, while Moshe was taking a walk with his sheep, he saw a bush on fire that was burning and burning, but it did not burn up. Moshe stopped for quite a long time to watch it. After a while, Moshe heard a voice from within that said, “Moshe, the ground you are standing on is holy ground. Take off your sandals and feel the earth beneath your feet.”
As Moshe kept watching the bush burning, he heard a voice telling him what he knew in his heart to be true – that he needed to return to Egypt and help the Israelites in their struggle to be free. “You are an Israelite, Moshe. Go, return to your people. Rescue your people from slavery.”
Although Moshe did not feel that he was the best person to be a leader for the Israelites because he stuttered when he spoke and, sometimes, he was unsure of himself, he heard a still, small voice saying, “You will not be alone. All that is good and strong will be with you.”
When Moshe returned to Egypt, he met with Israelites who were organizing themselves so they could leave Egypt and return to live in a place where they could be free. Moshe went with his sister, Miriam, and his brother, Aharon, to meet with the Pharaoh and demand that the Israelites be released from working as slaves. But the Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites leave Egypt.
“If you do not let the Israelite slaves go free, some terrible plagues will come to the people of Egypt,” Moshe told the Pharaoh. “I don’t care,” the Pharaoh said. “I will not let the Israelite people go free.”
So, the plagues came to the land of Egypt. First, the waters in their rivers turned to blood. Then frogs came and they were everywhere. Then lice and wild animals and sickness. Then boils and hail. After that, darkness filled the land. With each plague, the people of Egypt cried out to Pharaoh along with Israelites: “Let the Israelites go free!” And they sang this song …
SONG – LET MY PEOPLE GO
When Israel was in Egypt land, Let my people go.
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let my people go.
CHORUS: Go down Moses, Way down in Egypt land, Tell old Pharaoh
To let my people go.
No more shall they in bondage toil, Let my people go.
Let them come out from Egypt’s soil, Let my people go.
Finally, the last plague came when all of the Egyptian babies were sent away. After hearing the sad cries of all of the parents and brothers and sisters, the Pharaoh ordered the Israelites to leave the land of Egypt. And they did—in a hurry—taking only what they could pack up quickly. They didn’t even have time to let their bread rise, so they just took it while it was still flat. And that became the matzah that they ate while they wandered in the desert back to the land of Israel.
But then the Pharaoh changed his mind about letting the Israelites go, and he told his army to go get the Israelites who were fleeing, and to bring them back so that they could keep working as his slaves in Egypt.
The Egyptian soldiers caught up with the Israelites and chased them until they got to the Sea of Reeds. A brave boy named Nachshon, took a risk and walked through the shallow waters of the Red Sea. Although Nachshon was afraid to swim, he walked into the water trusting that he could make it through to the other side. The water came up to cover his ankles. Then to his knees. Then to his hips. Then to his waist. Then to his chest. Then to his shoulders.
Then to his neck. Then to his chin. Then to his lips. Then Nachshon tipped his head backwards and, just before the water covered his nose, the waters of the sea began to part. It was a miracle! Moshe lifted his staff and the waters parted to make a path for the Israelites escape.
When the Egyptian soldiers—with all of their heavy equipment—tried to follow the Israelites, they were swallowed up by the Red Sea.
When the Israelites reached the other shore, Miriam and the women led the community in dancing and singing, celebrating their freedom from Pharaoh.
And the women dancing with their timbrels, Followed Miriam as she sang her song, Sing a song to the One whom we’ve exalted,
Miriam and the women danced and danced the whole night long.
And Miriam was a weaver of unique variety
The tapestry she wove was one which sang our history. With every thread and every strand she crafted her delight! A woman touched with spirit, she dances toward the light.
When Miriam stood upon the shores and gazed across the sea The wonder of this miracle she soon came to believe.
Whoever thought the sea would part with an outstretched hand And we would pass to freedom and march to the promised land!
And Miriam the prophet took her timbrel in her hand, And all the women followed her just as she had planned, And Miriam raised her voice in song—
She sang with praise and might
We’ve just lived through a miracle (yelled): We’re going to dance tonight!
For the Playgarden children, I usually end the story there — but here is the rest of this section from our family haggadah …
But freedom from Pharaoh was only the first step to liberation. A revolution in the Israelites’ consciousness was the second step, Not only was it necessary to take the Israelites out of Egypt/Mitzrayim, it was also necessary to take the Mitzrayim—the place of narrowness—out of the Israelites.
For this reason, the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years. It wasn’t until a new generation of Israelites grew up—a generation born in freedom—that the Israelites were allowed to enter the land of Israel as a free people. But this is not the end of the story. There is no land of milk and honey until we live in a world of peace, where all people are free.
Dayenu means “it would have been enough.” By tradition, a litany of miracles is recited, each one followed by the refrain Dayenu. The meaning of this ritual is to acknowledge that we would have even been satisfied with much less. But, surely, no one of these would indeed have been enough for us. Dayenu means to celebrate each step toward freedom as if it were enough, then to start out on the next step. It means that if we reject each step because it is not the whole liberation, we will never be able to achieve the whole liberation. It means to sing each verse as if it were the whole song—and then sing the next verse!