The Human/Divine Partnership in the Exodus Story

Four Nisan

The more we see Hashem hide the supernatural, perhaps to leave room for freewill, good and bad, the more we are called to rethink our role in world events. Were there ever to be naked Divine intervention, there would be little room for human input; that Hashem left room even within the Exodus for people to deny its import shows us our first step in doing our part to further Hashem’s goals in the world, being open to seeing Hashem’s interventions when they appear.

Beyond acknowledging the supernatural, today and tomorrow we will see times when commentators assumed people were supposed to take an active role in events, and others when they were supposed to be passive. Learning that balance is the next step in understanding our role in Hashem’s world, readying us to relive the Exodus with an eye out for how we would want to act were we physically there.

Moshe Tells Hashem to Change His Name

Rabbinic literature saw two places in Moshe’s first prophetic experience where he took an appropriately active role. Brachot 9b, quoted in Rashi, pointed out that Hashem originally told Moshe His Name is אהי-ה אשר אהי-ה, I will be what I will be, but closed with the command to say, אהי-ה, I will be, sent me to you.

The Gemara attributes the change to Moshe’s objecting that אהיה אשר אהיה refers to the One Who will be with the Jewish people in all distress, present and future. While the Jews were still in the throes of a current distress, he said to Hashem, why bring up another one? Hashem accepts his point and adjusts the message.

In that same conversation, 4;10, Moshe mentions that he is not a man of words “גם מתמול גם משלשם, גם מאז דברך אל-עבדך,” literally, “also from yesterday, also from the day before, also from when you spoke to your servant.” Shmot Rabbah Shmot 3;14 infers from the uses of “also” that this back and forth stretched a week (yesterday, the day before, from when you first spoke, with each גם adding a day) before Hashem shut it down. Giving Moshe that long to argue and accepting some of his ideas taught an early lesson, that Moshe’s input was appreciated, hoped for, even expected.

Hashem Will Only Do It If We Pray For It

Along the same lines, when Moshe points to his speech defect as making him unsuitable for the job Hashem has assigned him, Ramban detects a little tug of war. Moshe was implying Hashem should have healed him if He wanted him to take the helm of the Jewish people. Hashem, for His part, wanted Moshe to pray for it, which Moshe didn’t want, since that would force him to accept a role he still hoped to avoid.

Hashem took another tack, in Ramban’s reading, telling Moshe his prophecies would contain only words he could say, or that Hashem would ensure the effectiveness of Moshe’s words even if delivered with his impediment.

Ramban doesn’t explain why Hashem insisted on Moshe’s praying to be healed before He would do it, but it fits the idea that Hashem wants people to take initiative in bringing the future to fruition. It’s not an insignificant piece, either; had Moshe shown up at court without his speech problems, people who knew him from youth would have been impressed, maybe enough to have the Exodus proceed better than it did. But that future could only arise if Moshe took the first step, according to Ramban.

He opens a door for us to wonder who contributed to or detracted from the Exodus, what other bright futures did not materialize because crucial people failed to take the necessary first step. And then to turn that light on ourselves, to think how well we would have done had we been there.

Blasphemy and Its Punishment— Better in Person or Via Messenger?

In 5;2, Par’oh rejects Moshe and Aharon’s demand to let the Jews go, saying he does not know Hashem and sees no reason to release them. Sanhedrin 94a cites R. Yehoshua b. Korchah’s assertion that since he blasphemed personally, Hashem took vengeance Himself, as it were; Sancheriv, who left it to his officers to declare that his gods were stronger than Hashem (II Melachim 18) was punished through a messenger.

It’s unclear which was better. Parshat Derachim, a late 17th-early 18th century work by R. Yehudah Rosanes, understood Par’oh to have had the courage and interest to take on Hashem himself, as it were, meriting Hashem’s “personal” response. He assumed that it’s less humiliating to be punished by Hashem than an angel; I add that Ran suggests (in the fourth of his Drashot, summarized here) that Hashem’s direct involvement leaves more flexibility and room for compassion.

Torah Temimah Bereshit 19, note 13, sees it the other way, that Par’oh’s personal involvement brought the kind of punishment only Hashem administers. He showed the wrong kind of caring and therefore earned an equally more invested, and severe, reaction from Hashem.

Victory Is Easy, Securing Acceptance Is Harder

9;10 mentions the boils affecting Egyptian animals, even though 9;6 spoke of pestilence killing them all. Rashi explains that the pestilence struck only animals in the fields; some Egyptians heeded Hashem’s warning and brought their animals from the fields (as the verse explicitly says happened during hail).

This reminds us that the goal of the plagues was the Egyptians’ acquiescence. Victory could have come at any moment Hashem decided. As Rashi notes in explaining the words (10;3) לענת מפני, to humble yourself before me, it was that submission that mattered, that recognition and avowal of Hashem’s presence, role, and rule. Egyptians who admitted the plagues were from Hashem, and responded accordingly, were spared the worst of the destruction. Because they helped deepen the Exodus’ imprint on world history.

Taking Their Money

In 11;2, Hashem tells Moshe to have the people ask Egyptians for gold and silver, using the word, נא, please. Kli Yakar cites one opinion on Brachot 9b, that the Jews did not want the money, fearing it would weigh them down. Torah Temimah offers the possibility that the troubles of slavery had doused their appetite for wealth. Whatever the cause, Hashem “needed” them to take it. A tradition of the house of R. Yannai, also on 9b, explains that Hashem was worried about the Avot complaining that He had fulfilled the prediction of years of slavery but not the promise of great wealth upon leaving.

Torah Temimah links this to a claim by this same house of R. Yannai, Brachot 32a, that Moshe defended the Jews after the sin of the Golden Calf by saying that they would not have sinned had Hashem not asked them to take this money. He wonders at the lack of gratitude in misusing money and then blaming that on the donor. For the house of R. Yannai, however, the Jews’ resistance to the money, their taking it only at Hashem’s request, justified Moshe’s blaming the sin on Hashem.

How Easily We Get Ourselves in Trouble

Rashi questions why servants’ and prisoners’ first-born also died, since neither group had the power or freedom to partake of the crimes that incurred this punishment. He answers that the servants enjoyed the Jews’ troubles. Delighting in others’ evil incurs liability, according to Rashi, even when the ones taking this delight neither benefitted from the evil nor had the power to stop it.

The captive first-born were killed, Rashi says, to prevent the Egyptians’ claiming it was their idol who brought the plague. Despite Moshe’s having announced most of the plagues and those plagues’ having started and stopped exactly as he said, Rashi followed Chazal in thinking the Egyptians would have preferred to assume it was the captive first-born’s god who brought the plague, not Hashem.

There are none so blind as those who will not see. Our reliving the Exodus might productively include asking ourselves how far we go to avoid uncomfortable truths. But that answer raises a moral question as well. Would Hashem kill innocents to avoid others’ wrong conclusion about who brought the plagues?

Kli Yakar thinks not, insists that the captives deserved what they got, in one of two ways. First, they might have been taken captive only recently, after having had ample time to mistreat Jews. Alternatively, those in jail at night (when the plague struck) mistreated the Jews by day, when they worked outside the jail, as servants. Moshe referred to them as servants so Par’oh could understand why they were being punished, but they were in captivity when the punishment came.

Those out of power might seem free of blame for the wrongs of their society. Rashi sees Hashem as assigning degrees of culpability, giving moral choices even to the dispossessed. How they handle them partially determines what they reap when society’s time comes.

People’s Role in How Hashem Manifested at the Sea

In 15;6, the Jews speak twice of Hashem’s right hand, when the metaphor should have involved a right and a left. Rashi says that when the Jews perform Hashem’s Will, the left hand is turned into the right. He does not detail how that works or to what extent, but the comment again gives people some role in deciding how Hashem appears on Earth. We—and, presumably, others who perform Hashem’s Will—determine whether the world experiences a right and left Hand, or two right ones.

The Song uses the metaphor of God’s hands again, 15;17, when speaking of His having made a Temple with His hands. Bar Kappara in Ketubbot 5a uses that to contrast Hashem’s actions (creation), which happen with one Hand, to מעשה הצדיקים, the actions of the righteous, which have both Hands helping.

From the greatest prophet to the lowest level of Egyptian society, what we do decides larger and smaller pieces of how the world moves forward. In each instance, we are judged by how well or poorly we contribute to good and help the world combat or move away from evil. That’s true in the Exodus and true regarding mitzvot, where Hashem defines the right way to use our freewill, as we see in the next chapter.