Shmot: Hastening Redemption, Rejecting Redemption

Today, we hear the same arguments that the Israelites used in Moses' time.

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Daniel Pinner,

The name of the second Book of the Torah, Exodus, is a direct translation of its original name – Sefer Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Book of the Exodus from Egypt. This Book is the direct continuation of the Book of Genesis, which is why it begins by repeating the names of the twelve sons of Israel who had gone down to Egypt and the fact that there were seventy men in all who had gone down there, even though their names and numbers had already been specified in Genesis 46:8-27 (Ramban, Introduction to the Book of Exodus and Commentary to Exodus 1:1; Rabbeinu Bechayyei, commentary to Exodus 1:1).


Parashat Sh’mot (and therefore the Book of Exodus) opens with the death of Joseph in the year 2309 (1451 B.C.E.). Parashat Sh’mot concludes with the eighty-year-old Moshe beginning to confront Pharaoh at the very start of the process of redemption, slightly less than a year before the Exodus, in the year 2447 (1313 B.C.E.), 138 years later. In the entire Chumash, the only parashot which span longer periods are Bereishit (1,536 years) and Noach (547 years).


The Torah depicts the horrendous slavery to which the Egyptians subjected us; the Talmud and the Midrashim add other even more gruesome details, which we will not go into here.


But we will mention here one historical event which the Torah does not recount, but which the Tanach alludes to (Psalms 78:9, 1 Chronicles 7:20), and which is mentioned in several Midrashic and Talmudic sources (Sanhedrin 92b; Sh’mot Rabbah 20:11; Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 2:1 [7]; Yalkut Shimoni, Beshallach 227; Yalkut Shimoni, 1 Chronicles 1077; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Beshallach, Masechta de-Vayehi 1; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay 13; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 48; Targum Yonatan, Exodus 13:17 et. al.).


Thirty years before the Exodus, 200,000 men of Ephraim decided – erroneously – that the time for redemption had come; they took up shields, spears, and weapons, and they left Egypt. They reached Gath, a Philistine city in Canaan, and there they were all slaughtered by the Philistines, as a result of attempting to hasten the redemption ahead of the time that G-d had decreed.


Their error was based on a misunderstanding of G-d’s covenant with Abraham. Centuries earlier, when G-d had forged the Covenant between the Parts with Abram (not yet Abraham), He had told him: “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will oppress them for four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13). The men of Ephraim knew their family’s history, and when 400 years from the time of that promise had elapsed, they decided that the time of oppression was completed, they upped and left Egypt, and came back home to Israel.


And because they tried to hasten the redemption ahead of G-d’s schedule, they were massacred.


Thirty years went by, and Moshe – who had been absent for decades, ever since killing the Egyptian slave-driver (Exodus 2:12) – suddenly burst back onto the Jewish scene in Egypt, announcing that the time of redemption had come.


Distressingly, though, too many Jews rejected both Moshe and his message of redemption. For this rejection they had three reasons: practical, sociological, and theological.


The practical reason they rejected him was that when he first confronted Pharaoh with his audacious demand: “Thus says HaShem, G-d of Israel: Send out My nation” (5:1), the immediate consequence was that Pharaoh increased their work-load. If preciously the Egyptians had provided them with the straw that they needed to manufacture bricks, the Hebrews now had to go out to fetch the straw for themselves, yet they still had to produce the same daily quota of bricks (5:6-11).


Their practical claim against Moshe, then, was that he had exacerbated the Egyptian oppression. But had they really forgotten Pharaoh’s former decree of genocide against the Jews?! Sure, this extra decree was harsh; but was it worse than having their baby boys thrown into the Nile?!


Their sociological reason for rejecting Moshe was that he was not really “one of us”. He was an outsider, certainly not raised as a devout Jew. He was an assimilated Jew, raised in Pharaoh’s palace and later living as a Midianite. What did he know of Jewish history, Jewish destiny, Jewish traditions, Jewish folklore, Jewish law, Jewish suffering? What business did this Egyptianised Jew, who had spent most of his life in Midian, who had never spent a single day as a slave, whose flesh had never been cut by a whip, have interfering with the status quo?


Their theological reason for rejecting Moshe and his message of redemption, recorded in Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 2:1 [8], was their interpretation of G-d’s promise to their ancestor Abram. “Your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs…for four hundred years”, but since Jacob and his ten sons had come down to Egypt, only 210 years had elapsed. Therefore Moshe, they reasoned, was trying to hasten the redemption ahead of G-d’s schedule. They had to remain in Egypt for another 190 years, they argued, in order to fulfil the Divine decree.


Moshe’s response to this claim was simple: “Since He delights in your redemption, He does not take account of your calculations” (Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah ibid.).


Only in retrospect would they truly understand G-d’s promise to Abram: the 400-year countdown began the day that Isaac was born, thirty years after the covenant had been forged. Isaac was Abraham’s first descendant; and though G-d had already promised him the Land of Israel, it was not yet theirs – hence Isaac was already a stranger in a land not his. During the 190 years which had passed from the day that Isaac was born in 2048 (1712 B.C.E.) until the day that Jacob went down to Egypt in 2238 (1522 B.C.E.), the clock was already ticking.


And then there were other Jews who had far baser motives for wanting to remain in Egypt. “There were sinners among the Israelites who had Egyptian patrons; they had wealth and honour, so they did not want to leave” (Sh’mot Rabbah 14:3; Tanhuma, Va-eira 14).


What is remarkable about all these arguments against redemption is how they have persisted throughout these long millennia. We stand today, living the return to Israel…and still hearing the identical claims that Moshe heard thirty-three-and-a-quarter centuries ago.


The practical claim against Zionism today is that it has exacerbated anti-Semitism in places where Jews always lived in peace with the majority population. We have heard from so many Jewish opponents to Zionism that Jews traditionally lived in peace among Moslems until Zionism stirred up Jew-hatred among them.


But have they really forgotten the suffering that Moslems have inflicted upon Jews since the inception of Islam?! Two-and-a-half centuries ago, long before Zionism began to incite Islamic or Arab Jew-hatred, the Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar) wrote: “Behold the Ishmaelite exile! Happy is he who has not seen how they enslave Israel and embitter their lives! Not enough that they refuse them any sustenance, they then demand: ‘Measure out the tribute and bring it to us!’ It is bad enough when a man is robbed of what he has; they demand of him what he doesn’t even have. And they force him to drink of this cup until he dies” (commentary to Leviticus 6:2). And this from one of the greatest rabbis for generations before and since, who was born and raised in Morocco, who knew only too well what life under Moslem Arabs was like.


Indeed, the Zionists incited persecution of Jews in the same way that Moshe did.


The sociological reason for rejecting the return to Zion in our generations is that many of the leaders of Zionism were not really “one of us”. Many were indeed outsiders, certainly not raised as devout Jews. We have heard the argument from too many ostensibly religious Jews who oppose Zionism on ostensibly Torah grounds: What could an assimilated Jew, raised in secular society, know of Jewish history, Jewish destiny, Jewish traditions, Jewish folklore, Jewish law, Jewish suffering? What business does a secular Jew, who spent most of his life in European secular society, have interfering with the status quo? – As if this is an argument against leaving exile!


And the ostensibly theological reason for rejecting the redemption in our generation is, of course, that secular Zionism attempts to hasten the redemption, to bring it ahead of G-d’s planned time.


Does anyone, then, know when G-d plans the redemption to occur? If the precedent of the Egyptian redemption is to teach us anything, it is that even when we have a seemingly clear and unequivocal timetable – 400 years of exile, no more and no less – we still do not know when the end time is scheduled for. How much more so, then, when we have no predestined timeframe whatsoever!


What happened to those Jews in Egypt who refused to leave? The Midrashim (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el ibid.; Sh’mot Rabbah 14:3; Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 2:1 [13]; Tanhuma, Beshallach 1; Yalkut Shimoni, Bo 208 et. al.) record that those Jews died in the ninth Plague that G-d inflicted upon Egypt, the Plague of Darkness (Exodus 10:21-23). The reason was simple: G-d did not want the Egyptians to witness the Jews being killed, so He did so under cover of darkness.


Those Jews who rejected G-d’s redemption and preferred to remain in Egypt – and the Midrashim record that they were fully four-fifths of the Jews! – died in exile in darkness, and were lost to the Jewish nation forever. For sure, some of the redemption-rejecters were assimilated Jews, those “sinners among the Israelites who had Egyptian patrons; they had wealth and honour, so they did not want to leave”. But the others had convincing arguments against Moshe and the redemption. They were not the secularists, or the assimilationists, or the Reform Jews of their generation. To the contrary – they were the most religious, indeed the “ultra-Orthodox”, of their generation. Those who died for rejecting redemption wore the blackest of hats and the longest of beards.


But we still have to address those 200,000 warriors of Ephraim who left Egypt thirty years ahead of time, and who were slaughtered when they reached Israel. Do they not constitute a warning of what happens to Jews who attempt to hasten the redemption? At the very least, do we not learn from them that hastening the redemption is as dangerous as rejecting it when its time comes?


Well, no. Because those same Midrashim tell us what the end of those 200,000 Ephraimites was. More than nine hundred years after they were massacred, the prophet Ezekiel would be shown his famous prophetic vision of a valley filled with dry bones (Ezekiel chapter 37). As he watched, G-d infused these dry bones with the breath of life; He put sinews on them; He clothed them with flesh and skin, and they came back to life. These were the bones of those 200,000 Ephraimite warriors.


Yes, they had transgressed G-d’s decree by returning to Israel too early, and for this they were slaughtered. But they were also to be the very first ones to be resurrected from the dead.


As then, so today. Of course we hear arguments against the return to Zion. But these arguments are as old as the redemption from Egypt.