Dragging Down the Redemption
The distance of history reassures us that as we list the failures of the generation that left Egypt, we will not be seen to be judging them or pretending any confidence we would have done better. We enumerate where they went wrong to teach ourselves how to avoid repeating the past, to make our reliving of the Exodus an act of constructive and productive memory, not a rote rehearsal of a list of events.
Done right, we can walk away better than we walked in, readier to react optimally when it is our turn to be tested. A full awareness of how we and those greater than us have stumbled helps us eschew at least those failures going forward.
Bringing Slavery Upon Oursleves
In 1;10, Par’oh justifies enslaving the Jews with the claim that they would join the Egyptians’ enemies in case of war, ועלה מן הארץ, most easily read as “and leave the land.” But if they were potential enemies, commentators have long noted, he should want them to leave!
Sforno makes the fascinating but radical suggestion that Par’oh did want the Jews to leave, that the phrase was part of his plan, not a fear. Since the Jews are so dangerous, he was saying, let us act badly towards them, and they will leave. His goal was to be rid of them, not enslave them (Sforno would have to say that that changed later, perhaps because the Egyptians got used to the luxuries of having slaves).
For Sforno, the Jews of that first generation were unwittingly complicit in their sufferings, by being overly focused on staying in Egypt. The entire subsequent history of Egyptian mistreatment was, in this reading, partially a result of the Jews’ failure to take the hint when they were first shown the door. That does not pardon the Egyptians’ crimes, it only shows a Jewish failure to take freedom when offered.
Sforno does not address the seeming contradiction between his idea and Hashem’s having told Avraham his descendants would be oppressed by their hosts in a land that was not theirs. However he would have resolved that, Torah Temimah offers another way the Jews contributed to their enslavement. He cites R. Eliezer in Sotah 11b, who says the slavery is described as עבודת פרך, backbreaking labor, to hint at פה רך, soft mouth, that Par’oh fooled them with soft words, step by step until they were slaves.
Eliezer does not elaborate how that went. Torah Temimah assumes that Par’oh announced a public works project, which he himself joined the first day. The Jews jumped to prove their civic pride; thinking it a one-day job, they gave extraordinary effort. Par’oh then made that their daily quota going forward.
Sforno thinks the Jews’ attachment to Egypt got them in trouble, Torah Temimah thinks it was their concern with proving their dedication to their adopted country. They agree that the Jews were part of the reason the slavery was what it was. It started with descendants of Ya’akov forgetting that he had told them they were supposed to be and feel like strangers, until Hashem returned them to the land promised their forefathers.
Jewish Sins that Contributed to Slavery
On Moshe’s second excursion to check the welfare of his brethren, 2;13, he sees two Jews fighting, and upbraids one for intending to hit the other. The fighters (whom tradition identifies as Datan and Aviram) react badly. The assailant challenges Moshe’s right to mix in, mockingly asking whether he intends to kill him, as he had the Egyptian.
The verse comments that Moshe became afraid, realizing “the matter was known.” Rashi notes a Midrash that he had wondered, until then, what made the people deserve this slavery. With these words, he understood that they were talebearers.
The comment assumes slavery was a punishment, not only preparation for nationhood. Further, it considers tale-bearing a serious enough transgression to justify slavery, a traditional perspective we might forget to keep in mind.
Kli Yakar echoes that when explaining why Hashem chose to appear to Moshe in the image of a burning bush. We’ve seen before that Kli Yakar had a different tradition of what the Jews held on to—while we often say it was their clothes, names, and language, he had it as their sexual morality, names, and language. His version added another element as well, that they held on to their ancestral abjuring of slander and gossip. Datan and Aviram’s threat to reveal that Moshe killed the Egyptian showed they had abandoned this standard.
But, Kli Yakar adds, their refusal to slander others was only in their dealings with outsiders. The burning thorn-bush made the point that even as they were being consumed with suffering (burning), the Jews were still sticking their thorns into each other, another reason they had not yet merited redemption.
Beyond the question of slander, Kli Yakar thinks their overall assimilation meant they needed a process before they could even leave. That’s why 3;10 speaks of taking them out of Egypt, not the land of Egypt. They first had to separate from its society and culture, and only after that would they be ready to exit the physical location.
Not Ready for Redemption, Even When the Time Had Come
When 2;25 speaks of Hashem’s “seeing” the Jews’ sufferings and knowing it was time, Torah Temimah quotes Yerushalmi Ta’anit that includes the Jews’ repentance as part of what earned them the right to leave. Ramban, Sforno, and Kli Yakar all ignore that, seeing the Jews as not yet deserving redemption.
Ramban says that the multiple verbs describing Hashem’s decision to save the Jews—heard, remembered the covenant, saw, knew, etc.—stress that the Jews were redeemed only because of their cries for mercy. Strict justice would have left them to languish, a view he repeats on 12;40 to explain why the verse says the Jews were in Egypt for 430 years instead of the 400 predicted to Avraham. While Rashi counts the extra years to an earlier start date, Ramban says the Jews in fact left later than originally promised, because they did not deserve to leave.
Sforno, 2;23, thinks only the oppressors’ cruelty tipped the scales for redemption.
Kli Yakar reflects on that verse’s speaking separately of their plaints from the work and then their crying to Hashem, and offers two explanations. He first posits that their cries were internal, sadness at what was happening to them. The next verb, ויזעקו, they cried out, was their call for redemption, which they felt certain they deserved.
The verse disagrees, Kli Yakar says, attributing Hashem’s decision to redeem them to their cries מן העבודה, from the work, not the זעקה, the crying out. This is a double failure (and, sadly, a common one), not managing to deserve the good Hashem waits to give us, and not reading ourselves honestly, making it harder to improve.
Kli Yakar’s second suggestion is that there were two types of Jews. Good ones cried out for help with no sense they deserved it. Others grumbled at Hashem, certain this was Divine injustice. The verse telling us that Hashem listened to the cries from the work tells us which group had it right, the same idea as in his first suggestion, that some or many Jews had a false picture of themselves and of Hashem.
Kli Yakar gives more than a hint that his ideas are fueled by events in his own time, insights into his contemporaries that he assumes would have characterized the Jews of the Exodus. They ring true for us as well.
Not Believing in Moshe or His Promises
We see some of the Jews’ difficulties with faith in 6;9, where the verse explains that the people did not heed Moshe “מקוצר רוח ומעבודה קשה, from shortness of breath (or spirit) and hard labor.” Rashi takes it literally, that people in distress cannot breathe deeply; their inability to hear was almost physiological—winded by their troubles, they focused on their next breath.
For Ramban, it means shortness of perspective. People in trouble lose their ability to hope for or believe in a better future. In their despondence, the Jews could not take in Moshe’s promise of a better future right around the corner.
Sforno reads the word for “spirit” as “faith in Hashem.” Four times in the space of two verses, he uses the verb בינה, as in להתבונן, to think through carefully, to come to understand fully. They didn’t believe Moshe because they failed to think it through, to see the truth he was presenting. He names this lack of faith as the reason they did not merit entering the Land of Israel.
Since the Torah says explicitly that that generation was kept out of Israel because of the sin of the spies, Sforno’s different reason seems to mean that the lack of faith they demonstrated here led to them not believing the spies either. Or perhaps that had they disciplined themselves to believe in Moshe here, they would have had the fiber to reject the pessimism of the spies.
The Elders’ Road Not Taken on the Path to Redemption
5;1 speaks of Moshe and Aharon arriving alone at the audience with Par’oh, even though they had just been speaking with the elders of the people. Rashi assumes the elders started with them but peeled off, one by one, fear besting them. At Sinai, Hashem required them to peel off as well, as punishment.
Had they gone to Par’oh’s palace, perhaps the giving of the Torah would have been a more widespread experience, with the elders closer to or even on Sinai itself. We’ll never know the positive ripples that might have had, but one easy place to think about it is how it might have affected events at the sin of the Golden Calf.
Had the elders been allowed to go as far as Aharon, would they have joined him in disputing those who doubted Moshe’s return and demanded a new leader? Instead of Aharon standing alone (or with Hur, per Chazal, whom the people killed), a group of the nation’s leaders would have opposed making the Calf, ameliorating or removing that stain on our national record.
Commentators are prepared to say the Jews could have avoided slavery, could have brought their redemption earlier, could have made it better once it started. Lack of faith drags any redemptive process, even one that ended as well as the Exodus.
We’ll never know exactly how, but by pondering it, we can hope to be ready to handle next time better. As we watch this movie annually, we might try this time around to free ourselves of these national flaws.
Perhaps, though, these are the wrong flaws to notice, since they were so early in the process. Perhaps it is unfair to expect slaves to do any better. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the later stages of the Exodus, when the plagues had given more than some room for the Jews to adjust. Sadly, we will see that failures continue, even after they left Egypt.