Why? Parashat Bo begins with a brief explanation of what all these plagues have been about. “In order that I may put these my signs among them, and in order that you may recount in the hearing of your child and of your child’s child how I have dealt harshly with Egypt, and my signs, which I have placed upon them.” (Ex. 10:1-2, Everett Fox trans., 1995) As God instructs Moshe, the basic reason for the miracles and wonders of the exodus from Egypt is a demonstration of God’s power and justice before both the Israelites and the Egyptians.
But this brief introduction concludes quite differently. “Vidatem ki-ani Hashem” — “that you may know that I am [Hashem]” (Ex. 10:2, Fox). Careful readers who were paying attention last week, and last year, will remember how this phrase “ani Hashem” repeats numerous times throughout the Torah. Last week, in Parashat Vaera, the 4 (Or 5, or 7?) verbal expressions of redemption are bracketed by this declaration of God’s essence, sending the message that one major goal of the exodus is cementing knowledge and awareness of God into the Israelite nation.
Those who can remember back all the way to the book of Vayiqra last spring will remember that the phrase “ani Hashem” repeats 52 times throughout the latter part of the book, punctuating the numerous mitzvot with their declared purpose: to inculcate a knowledge of God.
Digging a little deeper with the help of our sages; however, reveals an even more pointed significance to the refrain “ani Hashem” throughout the Torah. In the midrash Vayiqra Rabba 24:9 Rabbi Shimeon ben Laqish and Rabbi Levi point out how the declaration “ani Hashem” is a direct parallel to the grandiose claims of greatness by an earlier wicked Pharaoh “ani Par’o” — “I am Pharaoh!” (Gen. 41:44). Thus, God’s declarations of “ani Hashem” throughout the exodus narrative amount to a perfect rejection of Pharaoh’s rule and oppression of the Israelites. If Pharaoh continues to oppress and abuse the slaves by claiming it is his right as the one who can say “I am Pharaoh” then he deserves to be countered by the one who truly rules and can declare “I am Hashem.”
This neatly ties up the appearances of “ani Hashem” in Shemot in the context of the plagues and the exodus, but the vast majority appear in Vayiqra in legal contexts! How are we to understand the repetition there? This is indeed the original context of the midrash cited above. Because we do not always read the Torah with a “wide-angle lens” we often gloss over the clear fact that the mitzvot of the Torah are given as a direct consequence to the exodus from Egypt. This significant pairing begins in Parashat Bo with the Torah’s first significant collections of mitzvot and the beginning of the first “halakhic midrash” the Mekhilta on Shemot.
Thus it seems clear that by linking the defeat of the Pharaoh, the miracles of the exodus, and the numerous laws comprising much of the end of Vayiqra, “ani Hashem” serves to carry the wonder and awe of the exodus and the requirement to instruct future generations into the main event of covenantal Judaism through the giving of the numerous and varied mitzvot. Nowhere is this evident than in Parashat Qedoshim (Lev. 19), the beating heart of Vayiqra where “ani Hashem” appears a whopping 16 times in 37 verses, the concluding lines of which instruct us:
“You are not to commit corruption in justice, in measure, weight, or capacity; scales of equity, weighing-stones of equity, an efa of equity and a hin of equity you shall have. I am [Hashem] your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt! You are to keep all my laws and all my regulations, and observe them; I am [Hashem]!” (Lev. 19:35-37, Fox)
The reason for the exodus is to fight injustice and to promote justice. The reason for the exodus is to ensure fairness and equality in the marketplace and the world of commerce. Who better than exploited slaves to know the value of a day’s work and a fair price. And all of this to be able to tell their children and grandchildren, “We do all this because Hashem took us out of slavery in Egypt. Because Pharaoh declared ‘I am Pharaoh’ and was defeated by the one who declares ‘I am Hashem.’”