Seeds That Could Have Led to Success for the Jewish People

Nine Nisan

The Jewish people are us; as we watch our ancestors succeed (today) and fail (tomorrow), we should remember that this is who we were back then. Is it who we would be if the same events (or parallel events) happened today?

The Tribes, Hashem’s Love for Them, and Their Traditions

Shmot starts by naming the sons of Ya’akov who came to Egypt. Rashi cites Chazal’s note that this and other enumerations of the tribes are a sign of Hashem’s love, comparable to Yeshayahu 40;26’s portrayal of Hashem’s dealings with the stars, “Who takes their hosts out by number, to each by name He calls.”

In their original context, Yeshayahu’s words caution us against seeing creation as impersonal. Taking the stars one by one and giving them a name shows that Hashem deals with each on its own terms, responding to each one’s individual characteristics. Creation is not a giant process set in motion and then ignored; Hashem still deals with each star for itself.

When Rashi relates that to the enumeration of the tribes, it tells us that each of Ya’akov’s sons, also, was valued individually, and their character shaped that of the tribe that descended from them. Like the stars, the tribes play specific and necessary roles in Hashem’s people, and are therefore enumerated whenever possible.

That also implies that the people held onto their ancestor’s character. The slavery of Shmot happens to a people whose citizens bear allegiance to the larger nation as well as to their tribal sub-grouping. They kept alive tribal traditions, separate from those of the nation, as well as traditions of the nation as a whole. And they will leave in tribes, a permanent aspect of their national personality.

Names, Language, and Belief in the Coming Redemption

Rabbinic literature held that the national traditions they kept alive were names, language, and dress. Kli Yakar thinks the names of the tribes in particular were important, since each alluded to the redemption, keeping alive the Jews’ hopes for leaving. Reuven, for example, includes the verb for “to see,” reminding them Hashem would eventually “see” their troubles.

That is also why retaining knowledge of Hebrew was so important. Reuben is just a name, but Reuven has a message for a Hebrew speaker. The Midrash celebrates the Jews’ holding on to their language because it meant they’d understand the tribes’ names, which meant they’d remember the upcoming redemption. The tribal subdivisions helped them retain their connection to the national hope for redemption.

A Separate Sexual Morality and an Avoidance of Slander

Kli Yakar’s version of that Midrash had sexual morality, not dress, as the third component (perhaps “dress” in our version means a way of maintaining proper sexuality, not simply a way to look different). When the first verse of the book refers to the tribes’ coming with Ya’akov to Israel, Kli Yakar sees it as a hint that they held to the Patriarch’s value system, particularly his resistance to sexual immorality.

For him, that’s also why the verse stresses that each of Ya’akov sons was married when he arrived in Egypt. Otherwise, some of the sons might have married Egyptians and would have absorbed some of their perverted worldview. (The Egyptians, in Rabbinic tradition, were שטופי זימה, saturated in sexual immorality, along with their various forms of idolatry.)

In addition to names, language, and sexual morality, Kli Yakar’s Midrash said the Jews retained their rejection of slander, which is why they knew where the Egyptians kept their gold and silver—the Egyptians knew they could trust their discretion, so they told them (note that he equates avoiding slander with maintaining confidences).

Before the Exodus, the Jews had a national character, an awareness of each tribe’s role within that nation, a connection to their past and a firm hope for their future. And the trustworthiness that inspired trust, which would eventually help make them rich.

What Helped the Jews Accept Moshe as the Redeemer

To help Moshe identify himself as Hashem’s chosen messenger, Hashem tells him, 3;16, to use the words פקד פקדתי, that Hashem has taken note of what is happening to them. Rashi suggests the Jews had a tradition that their savior would use these words, since Ya’akov and Yosef had said them before their passing (the text has Yosef saying it twice, in Bereshit 50;24-5; Rashi assumes the first presents what Ya’akov had said, the second is his speaking on his own behalf).

In this view, Ya’akov and Yosef had used those words specifically to establish the code for how to recognize their redeemer. And the Jews had retained that memory.

Hashem’s punishing Moshe with tsara’at for assuming the Jews would not believe him, 4;6-7, fed into another tradition, that anyone who tried to hurt them (including badmouthing) would be afflicted with bodily plagues (such as when Par’oh and Avimelech were stricken for taking Sarah from Avraham).

For all that Rashi accepts the Midrashic view that the Jews retained only their names, language, and dress, these comments show that that was only in terms of cultural practices. Their memories of the words Ya’akov and Yosef used, and of how Hashem protected Avraham and Sarah were another part of their national history they retained.

The question of retained traditions reverberates through Jewish history, especially at our Pesach Seder, when Jews of all levels of knowledge come together. As we reinsert ourselves in that story, which memories do or don’t last is surely a part of the puzzle.

The Genealogy of Moshe Rabbenu

One tribe seems to have remembered more than the others, giving it a privileged position in the future nation. One place we see this is in Ramban’s reading of chapter six. Starting at 6;14, the Torah rehearses the genealogy of Reuven, Shimon, and then Levi, culminating with Moshe and Aharon. Rashi says Reuven and Shimon were included so as to start from the eldest of the Ya’akov family.

Ramban says they are there as contrast, to show that Moshe, Aharon, and their tribe earned the positions they were about to be given, not inherited them. The Torah told us the first generation of those tribes, hinting that only those early members were worthy of mention; their descendants quickly joined Egyptian culture. Levi’s descendants, down to Moshe’s time, were חסידי עליון, righteous servants of the Most High (Ramban’s words).

Sforno attributes the greater success of Levi’s tribe to his long life, his still being around to help raise his children and grandchildren in the paths of Hashem.

Between them, Ramban and Sforno remind us of the fragility of righteousness, the difficulty of transmitting it to generations to come. We can all hope to reproduce Levi’s success, whether by being granted his personal longevity or some other reason. When we relive the story, ready to face another year, we can all decide to strive to imitate that aspect of Levi’s legacy.

A Mark of Leadership

5;10-21 pauses to tell us of the officers of the Jewish people, who were held accountable for meeting the daily quotas. According to Rashi, the Egyptians, like many oppressors, set up a bureaucracy in which Jews managed Jews. It was the Jewish leaders who had to tell their brethren that Par’oh would no longer provide building materials but still expected the building to proceed at the same pace as before.

In later history, some Jews took on such roles for personal and familial benefit, to secure special privileges from the oppressor. The officers in Egypt did the opposite, used their position to shield the people. When production slipped, now that they had to find materials as well as build, the Egyptians beat the שוטרים, the Jewish officers, expecting them to pass it along, communicating the necessity of building more and faster.

They didn’t. Not only that, 5;19 notes that they saw their brothers’ troubles ברע, badly, which Rashi reads as meaning that they sympathized with them. While they themselves were being beaten, they retained their ability to feel how difficult life had become for those fellow-Jews. Their reward, Rashi says, was that they became the Sanhedrin, meriting a visitation of the Divine Presence that rested on Moshe.

They set a high standard for Jewish leadership. A prime characteristic of members of the Sanhedrin and those who merit visitation by the Divine is the willingness to bear the personal costs of staring down injustice, retaining compassion for those whom evildoers try to turn into their “cause.”

In 12;35-36, the Jews follow Moshe’s command and ask the Egyptians for gold and silver. Ramban thinks that’s more than avarice, it indicates an admission that they had been wrong to blame Moshe for the slow start to the process. He turns a casual verse about money into a crucial moment of the redemption, when many people came to sign on to the truths Moshe had been espousing for months, and recognized they should have done so earlier. Leaving us to wonder when we would admit that our rejection of some idea had been wrong, come to see that a call for us to change our behavior or worldview was in fact exactly on point.    

The Jews didn’t only succeed in the Exodus, as we’ll see tomorrow. Without ignoring or minimizing their failures, we should remember the strengths they brought, their retained awareness of their past, their seeing themselves as links in a chain, their having held on to key components of that chain—names, language, dress (and/or sexual morality), awareness of the coming redemption and the words the redeemer would say, and of Hashem’s punishing those who aim to harm them.

Some groups did even better. The Levites stayed true to their heritage as servants of God (and avoided slavery, as we’ll see tomorrow); the officers of the people held fast to their sense of connection with their fellow Jews, even at personal cost.

These are the positives we brought to the Exodus story. As we relive the tale, we should be sure to do no worse. Or even to do better.