There is no shortage of key events in Jewish history. The destruction of the First Temple instigated a theological revolution in Judaism that included the universalization of God, the formalization of prayer, and the institutionalization of the synagogue. The destruction of the Second Temple – an event neither predicted by nor even considered by the prophets – transformed Israelite religion into Rabbinic Judaism. The emancipation of the Jews of France in 1791 ushered in the modern period and posed the dilemma not yet resolved on how Judaism can adapt to political freedom. The birth of the modern State of Israel radically changed the perception of the Jewish people internally as well as externally.
Any list of key events would be incomplete, however, without the inclusion of the Exodus from Egypt and the Giving of the Torah. In fact, a compelling argument could be offered to list either one of these critical events as the first on any list. The Torah is what defines us as Jews. The Torah is the foundation of all Jewish praxis. Yet, a stronger case can be made for the Exodus from Egypt.
To be sure, the argument can be made that the Exodus from Egypt is linked to revelation at Sinai: the former was the necessary precursor to the latter. Thus the two events are actually connected. But neither Jewish law nor liturgy accepts this argument.
Jewish law maintains that the recitation of the third paragraph of the Shema is mandated specifically because of the mention of the Exodus from Egypt and not for the commandment to attach fringes to clothing. Thus, any Jew who recites this paragraph without the intent of remembering the Exodus has failed to fulfill his obligation. The author of the ever-popular Passover hymn “Dayyenu” begins with the Exodus, even though it is chronologically out of place. (The Exodus should appear after the fourth stanza “…If he had killed their firstborn…”) But since the Exodus is the key event of the Passover story and of all Jewish history up to and including the building of the Temple, it had to be placed first. (The giving of the Torah, incidentally, only appears in the twelfth stanza.)
In his book “Peninei Halakhah,” Rabbi Eliezer Melamed cements the case for the pre-eminence of the Exodus. He notes that the Egyptians were essentially materialists who only considered items of substance to be of value. Possessions were all that counted. The accumulation of wealth was the ideal. The Egyptian obsession with death (the pyramids were glorified tombs) was actually a concern for physical existence after death. Accordingly, the pharaohs were buried with their worldly goods. The Exodus was a fundamental denial of materialism. For the first time in human history, Rabbi Melamed claims, values trumped material wealth. Justice and freedom mattered more than treasure. While Pharaoh was focused on building cities for his treasure, the slaves commanded to build them were focused on treasuring liberty. The Exodus was thus a revolutionary event.
Shabbat Shirah is annually set aside to celebrate the Exodus in general and the crossing of the Reed Sea in particular. It is not just another date on the Jewish calendar but a commemoration of the singular event of Jewish history.