The Needle to Thread in the Human/Divine Partnership
It’s important not to exaggerate. For all that we’ve shown Hashem inviting our creative engagement with His world, for all that we will watch human players succeed or fail in the Exodus, there were other times when Hashem told us exactly how to act, and we had to obey exactly. To find the middle road of human participation, let’s pause to see some of the limits placed on human actions.
The Day We Left Egypt
In 12;31-33, Par’oh and his people want the Jews gone immediately. They were agreeing to what Moshe had been asking, finally, with no conditions or limitations. Par’oh ran to find Moshe in the middle of the night, to concede all.
It still wasn’t the right move. Ramban notes a Mechilta that sees Moshe as telling Par’oh the Jews wouldn’t slink away in the night like thieves. It was not enough to allow the Jews to leave, they had to leave in broad daylight, where everyone could see the Egyptians’ acquiescing to Hashem’s demands.
Sifrei Devarim 337 reads 12;41’s description of the Exodus as happeningבעצם היום הזה, in the middle of the day, to similar effect. The Midrash says the phrase is used on occasions where people claimed they could prevent Hashem’s plan; to prove they couldn’t, Hashem had the event happen in broad daylight. Noach’s contemporaries swore they would not let him enter the ark, the Egyptians were determined the Jews would not leave Egypt, and Jews swore they would not allow the Angel of Death (or Hashem) to take Moshe from them (Midrash Tannaim, Devarim 32;48 adds Avraham’s circumcision, where the phrase is also used).
The Midrash sees Par’oh clinging to any power, even if only to order the Jews to leave immediately, to help hide his and his people’s helplessness. It should remind us of the powerful human urge for control, for some sense we are in charge. After all the plagues, after being forced to do that which he repeatedly refused to, Par’oh still tries to decide when and how the Jews go. Watching him, we can wonder where we do the same, and see if our reliving of the Exodus this year enlightens as better as to when we get to decide for ourselves and when we’re supposed to do as we’re told.
The Sensitivity of Hashem’s System
Commentators saw Moshe’s choices as also more constrained than we might notice. In 4;21, Hashem reminds him of the wonders he is supposed to perform before Par’oh. Ramban reads that as a call to review them, to be sure he remembered to do them all, turn the water into blood, show them his tsara’at-afflicted and then healed hand, and turn the staff into a snake, as well as an admonishment to pay careful attention to the wonders to come, and to perform them exactly as he was told. He cites Shmot Rabbah 5;6, that the staff was engraved with the acronym for the plagues we mention during the Seder in the name of R. Yehudah —דצ"ך, עד"ש, באח"ב.
He does not explain the need for reminders, especially since he tells Moshe what to do again before each plague. Why admonish him to review, give him a staff with hints to the names of the plagues, when He was going to lay it out again in its proper time?
Sforno suggests it reflects the exactness of the tasks ahead of him. He thinks any change might vitiate the process— Moshe had no guarantee that the wonders would happen no matter what he did. Rather, Hashem had told him the necessary procedure; if he did it wrong, and it didn’t work, it would look as if Hashem hadn’t sent him.
They assume a difficulty and lack of clarity to Moshe’s tasks that we don’t see in the text itself. For all that he was the messenger of the Exodus, Ramban and Sforno can envision his failing to carry out the commands exactly, with even that small deviation affecting the result. Almost ironically, the greatest of prophets, the greatest servant of God, gets there by accepting what God tells him, not by instituting a plan of his own.
Sforno extends this to mitzvot, saying that changing any detail of an observance might similarly sap that action’s power to produce the promised reward. Moshe’s need to obey emphasizes the specificity of some commands. So yes, freewill, choice, and action matter, but in a narrower band than we realize.
Hashem’s Being Noticed in the Song and in the World
The absence of exactly defined obligations gives us more leeway, but we still have to check that what we decide are positive contributions in fact fit what Hashem wants. For that, we need to understand Hashem’s plan, which can be counter-intuitive, as a series of Sforno’s comments show.
In 15;2, the Jews sing of Hashem as their God and the God of their forefathers. They experienced a God Who drowned the Egyptians in the Sea, but were clear that this was the same God as their forefathers announced to the world, such as when Ya’akov (Bereshit 33;20) built an altar to celebrate Hashem’s mercy and justice.
That’s also the message of the next verse, when the Jews speak of Hashem as a “man of war,” adding that His “Name” is Hashem. For Sforno, they mean that the name Hashem is appropriate even for the איש מלחמה, the man of war, that these distinct and even contradictory effects on the world extend from the same, unified Hashem. That’s because the destruction of evildoers is an act of both justice and mercy.
Weeding a garden punishes the weeds, but is an act of kindness or mercy in providing room and space for the rest of the garden to grow. We today often recoil from any death, but Sforno is saying that the death of some evildoers is good for everyone else. (He also cites a tradition that the wind that split the Sea froze it so the Jews could pass on dry land; it then moved to cover the Egyptians, stopping them from escaping, another an act of mercy coupled with an act of justice).
Sometimes we are to do nothing, to let Hashem run events. Sometimes, we do exactly as we are told. Here, we see that when we have freewill, when we are called to partner with Hashem, we need to allow these “characteristics” of Hashem’s to teach us how to use our rights and responsibilities. Seeing the Jews’ understand Hashem’s melding the duality of justice and mercy reminds us how much we might have to learn before we can achieve that.
Room to Fail
As a last step in seeing the limits on how free we should feel, I note that Gittin 56b reads the word אלים, powerful ones, in 15;11, מי כמוכה באלים ה', as אלמים, silent ones. Hashem’s staying silent, as it were, keeping His Presence enough in the background to give humans the room to err, to make choices without being directly aware of Hashem’s Providence, is the greatest show of His power.
Freewill must include the possibility of its abuse. That underlies Berachot 4a’s reading of 15;16, where the Song refers to the Jews’ passing by the nations twice. The Talmud says that Hashem’s plan would have had the second coming to Israel (in Ezra’s time) be as miraculous as the first (in Yehoshua’s time), but for the nation’s sins.
The sense of lost opportunities, the Talmud tells us, is embedded even in our moments of greatest praise—wonderful as it was, it could have been more so had we acted differently.
Part of reliving the Exodus, I suggest, is putting both sides of that coin at the forefront of our consciousnesses: the potential granted us with freewill, the places where we are allowed or supposed to act on that freewill (and the various limitations on that), along with the danger or likelihood of failure.
To make that standard more concrete, let’s turn our attention to how well or poorly the most prominent actors in the Exodus used their freewill. Did Par’oh, the Egyptians, the Jews, and Moshe Rabbenu succeed, fail, neither or both? Reading how they did, thinking to ourselves how we would have done, serves the dual purpose of reminding us of the story, so we can tell it better, and of bringing it alive in ways that affect us personally, helping convert the telling into the reliving that is our central goal.