Failures On the Eve of Exodus and Its Aftermath

Eleven Nisan

What does it take to change a mindset? Commentators’ readings of Shmot confront us with this question, because they saw the Jews as clinging to their connection to Egypt and the Egyptians, to their old ways of looking at the world, displaying a remarkable immunity to learning from what they are seeing.

I want to emphasize that I bring this up as a mirror for ourselves, not to judge them. Their example can help us be readier to react better when we meet parallel situations in the future.

The Jews’ Attachment to Egypt

Rashi, 10;22, records the tradition that during the plague of darkness Hashem killed the Jews who were not going to be redeemed. His sources do not give a reason those Jews were left behind, but Rashi ascribes it to their not wanting to go. In his view, anyone willing was taken out, regardless of their other (often significant) sins.

But this tradition says that the overwhelmingly large segment of the people preferred to stay, and died in darkness. Rashi at the beginning of Beshalach cites the view that eighty percent were blind to Moshe’s message; the Midrash itself has views that it was a much higher percentage than that.

I read this Midrash as a reminder that Jews have always developed exaggerated attachments to where they live-- and continue to-- often in spite of significant hardships. Chazal and Rashi had no problem saying that most Jews, with all the troubles of slavery, wanted to stay. To accept that suggests they saw it as realistic in their times as well, that many of the Jews they knew would also prefer where they were living to going to Israel.

Recent history shows that matters have not changed much; a small percentage of Jews is ready to uproot and head to Israel when the opportunity arises, while most of them have to be dragged or pushed out.

The Forgotten Holocaust of Egypt

Many of us have heard of this tradition of Jews’ dying in the plague of darkness, but I wonder whether we stop to note that it means that Chazal thought of the generation that left Egypt as survivors of a devastation worse (in percentage killed) than the Holocaust. I stress that we need not claim that this is historical fact, or even that Chazal meant it as historical fact, for the lessons to be worth learning. Regardless of what did or didn’t happen, they found it plausible that well above three quarters of the Jewish people would be left behind.

The destruction they contemplated was also more sudden than the Holocaust. In their reading, the joy of the Exodus would surely have been tempered with the sorrow of loss, since everyone who left would have known someone killed in darkness. For Chazal, the Jews of the desert had to balance survivorship with their participation in a great redemption, not all that different from the European Jews who moved to Israel and saw the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

The Jews’ Strong Bonds with Egyptians

In another example of tradition’s seeing the Jews as having become overly enmeshed in Egyptian society, Rashi, 12;12-13, notes Chazal’s inference that foreign first-born in Egypt, Egyptian first-born abroad, and Egyptian first-born in Jews’ houses would all be killed (but not Jewish first-born found in Egyptian houses).

I find surprising Chazal’s contemplating Jewish first-born (the pride and joy of these nations, which is why the final plague struck them) spending that night in Egyptian homes, and vice versa for the Egyptians. We often think slavery divides slave and master, but comments like these (and the text itself, such as where the Jews ask their neighbors for gold and silver) assume that some parts of these two peoples got along well.

If Egyptians might have been in Jewish houses and vice versa (and these Jews survived the culling of darkness, were members of the minority ones willing to follow Moshe out of Egypt), despite hundreds of years of slavery, despite the plagues of the previous year, tradition is telling us there was a strong bond between the peoples.

Delaying War

The first verse of Beshalach, 13;17, tells of Hashem’s decision to take the Jews through the desert, to avoid the Jews’ reacting badly to a war so soon after becoming free. Ramban explains that the desert road would delay war until they were too far to contemplate returning to Egypt, with the hope that it would improve the odds they would handle it well. Rashi points out that even on the longer route, the spies’ report of their need to fight their way into Israel led some to argue exactly what Hashem here explicitly hoped to avoid, that they should return to Egypt.

With all Hashem’s assistance, all the plagues and other miracles they had seen, the Jews were still unable or unready to understand what they should have, that they could win any war where Hashem was helping them. To believe that they would have had to abandon all they knew about war, that the stronger nation wins; with all they had seen, they could not take that next step, to understanding that once Hashem becomes directly involved, literally anything can happen.

Taking Time to Be Ready for the Torah

Kli Yakar thinks Hashem took the Jews the long way because they were not yet worthy of receiving the Torah. Their time in the desert aimed at teaching them הסתפקות, making do with what is available, and the miracles at the Sea would instill faith.

That explains the verses’ referring to the Jews as the “עם, the nation” several times. Upon leaving Egypt, they did not have the requisite faith and were also unwilling to live within their means, always searching for more wealth and luxury (another theme he seems to be translating from his time back to the Torah’s time). Once the Sea and their need to rely on Hashem for sustenance in a desert taught them the necessary lessons, they could be referred to as בני ישראל, the Jewish people.

He also raises the possibility that “עם, the nation” refers to the ערב רב, the hanger-on Egyptians who joined the Jews. While earlier he spoke approvingly of their willingness to defy Par’oh, here and at the Sea he sees them as lacking faith. They were the ones unready to face an army, the ones who complained at the Sea, in this reading.

Meaning that, in his view, one can demonstrate much faith and commitment and yet not have reached the necessary minimum expected of a Jew.

Armed or Not

The Torah tells us the Jews were חמושים when they left Egypt. The simplest meaning is that they were armed, explaining in advance how they had weapons for later battles. But it also draws our attention to their timidity.

Ramban says the weapons were actually a symptom of their fear, of their inability to rely on Hashem’s help. Soon after, 14;8, he reads the verse’s description of the Jews leaving ביד רמה, with a strong hand, as saying that they walked confidently and securely into their future, having left behind their slave’s sense of limited options, without commenting on the change. It leaves us to reconstruct when and whether the Jews’ achieved the proper confidence that Hashem would help them reach their best future.

The Terror of Flight

When they see the Egyptians chasing them, 14;10-12, a Yerushalmi cited by Torah Temimah finds textual allusions to four groups among the people, none reacting with faith, ready and open to what Hashem will do for them.

Kli Yakar suggests that the Jews doubted Moshe, not Hashem. They assumed that had Hashem brought them there, Par’oh would not be chasing them (reminding us that we can be certain we know what Hashem would or wouldn’t do, and yet be completely wrong). Pursuing the distinction between בני ישראל and עם he made before, he suggests that the born Jews (Benei Yisrael) had full faith, but the ערב רב, the Egyptians who had latched on, questioned what was happening and complained about leaving.

To highlight the internal divisions, Kli Yakar reads 14;20’s reference to “neither coming close to the other” all night as referring to the Jews themselves, who were unable to bridge the gaps among them.

He sees that same division in the two ways the verse speaks of the experience of walking through the Sea. Verse 22 says they came into the Sea on dry land while 29 changes that to walking on dry land in the midst of the sea. The first refers to those of faith, who went into the water before it split, while the second to those who waited until the Sea split before moving forward.

Even After the Sea

On verse 30, Rashi notes the tradition that, after the event, Hashem had the Sea wash up the Egyptian corpses on the Jews’ side, to forestall the Jews’ claim that just as they were unharmed on one side, the Egyptians were unharmed on the other.

It can sound easy to watch Hashem smite the Egyptians with plagues, be taken out of Egypt, provided with food, have a sea split to enable passing through on dry land. Tradition shows that the Jews struggled to adjust their thinking and their expectations to the new reality they were being shown.

Many failed. Some couldn’t take the first step, some couldn’t navigate change at the pace Hashem demanded. Watching their mistakes, working to relive their experience, we can and should use this to chart a better path.

But perhaps our own forefathers’ failings are too sensitive a topic, carry too much of a whiff of the judgmental. We’ll have it easier with the Egyptians, to whom we have no emotional connection. Sadly, we might find that even their failures are ones we could see ourselves committing.