At the End of the Exile

Jews have in them a mingling of hope for redemption and despair of its ever happening. But when encountering death, we are on the brink of new life!

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Pharaoh finally capitulated and drove the Children of Israel out of Egypt, “the Children of Israel went up armed from Egypt” (Exodus 13:18). The word “chamushim” (armed) catches our attention: grammatically, the letter shin should have a dagesh (a dot) in it, but the dagesh is missing.

Hence the Midrash homiletically relates the word “chamushim” (armed) to “chamesh” (five): “Only one in five [Jews left Egypt], and some say only one in fifty [chamishim], and some say one in 500; Rabbi Nehorai says: By G-d! Not even one in 5,000 left! And when did they die? – In the three days of [the Plague of] Darkness, during which the Jews buried their dead while the Egyptians were sitting in darkness. Israel thanked G-d and gave praise to Him because those who hated them did not see their punishment and rejoice over it” (Tanhuma, Beshallach 1).

A parallel Midrash (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Bo, Masechet de-Pis’cha 12) is slightly less pessimistic. In this version, Rabbi Nehorai says: “By G-d! Not even one in 500 left!” – 10 times less pessimistic than the Tanhuma.

The Mechilta cites this to explain why “the nation bowed their heads and prostrated themselves” (Exodus 12:27) after the Plague of Darkness and before the Slaying of the Firstborn.

The Mechilta also cites Rabbi Nehorai’s rationale. The prophet Ezekiel, speaking in G-d’s name, says: “I caused you increase as abundantly as the growth in a field” (Ezekiel 16:7), and the Torah says: “The Children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and became mighty – very very much so” (Exodus 1:7), which the Midrash interprets to mean that in those early generations in Egypt, every Jewish woman gave birth to six children with every conception (Sh’mot Rabbah 1:8 and Tanhuma, Sh’mot 5 et. al.).

With such high fertility, there should have been several million Jews by the fourth generation, the generation of the Exodus. Yet the Torah tells us that only 600,000 men of fighting age left (Exodus 12:37), which suggests a total population of no more than two or three million.

So the Children of Israel had survived generations of slavery and genocide, and they had been miraculously saved from eight plagues. The Mishnah tells us that “ten miracles were wrought for our fathers in Egypt” (Pirkei Avot 5:5), and all of the major commentators (the Rambam, Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, Rabbeinu Yonah of Bartenura, Tosfot Yom Tov, Tiferet Yisrael) agree that the ten miracles in Egypt were not the ten plagues in and of themselves, but rather that in each case we were saved from the plagues.

So after being distinguished from the Egyptians by not suffering from the first eight Plagues, then to have such a high death-toll in the ninth Plague, the Plague of Darkness, should have been horribly demoralising for the Children of Israel. Even according to the minimum estimate, that four out of every five Jews died, that still gives us a death-toll way higher than the Egyptians suffered.

I suggest two approaches to this, the first undeniably gloomy, the second more hopeful.

The first approach is one of the lessons form the Shoah. After brutalisation beyond anything that we can even begin to imagine, the Jews themselves were often reduced to such desperation that they themselves held their own lives cheap. They had been so desensitised by Nazi sub-human bestiality that they could no longer weep over anything, not even over their own loved ones who had been murdered.

To cite just one example out of uncountable, Elie Wiesel, in his vivid account of his experiences in the Holocaust Night (1960), describes an Allied bombing raid on the IG Farben facilities near Auschwitz on 20th August 1944: “If a bomb would have fallen on the blocks [the prisoners’ barracks], it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life. The raid lasted over an hour. If only it could have lasted ten times ten hours!”.

The Jews in Egypt must have been in a similar situation with a similar mindset – a mingling of hope for redemption and despair of its ever happening. Any strike against the oppressors was a cause for joy and resurgence of hope, even if Jews died during that strike.

Hence the depiction of the Plague of Darkness: “No man saw his fellow, neither could any man rise from his house for three days – but for all the Children of Israel there was light in their dwelling-places” (Exodus 10:23). The Targum Yonatan renders, “…for all the Children of Israel there was light to bury the evil ones who were among them who died, and for the tzaddikim to occupy themselves with mitzvot in their dwelling-places”.

The Midrash similarly says: “Why was darkness inflicted upon them? – …There were sinners in Israel; and there was darkness for Egypt and light for Israel for them to bury the sinners who were in Israel, so that the Egyptians could not say: Just as plagues were inflicted upon us, so were plagues inflicted upon them” (Eliyahu Rabbah 8).

The other approach is far more optimistic. This week’s parashah records that as the Children of Israel were approaching the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit, the Pillar of Cloud “came between the Camp of Egypt and the Camp of Israel; thus were the Cloud and the darkness, and it illuminated the night, and the one did not approach the other all night” (Exodus 14:20).

The Midrash expounds: “It separated between the Camp of Egypt and the Camp of Israel… Anyone who is in darkness can see anyone who is bathed in light, and Israel were bathed in light, just as when ‘no man saw his fellow’ [in the Plague of Darkness]. From here you understand [the prophecy of] the future time to come, ‘Arise, shine, because your light has come, and the Glory of Hashem shines upon you; for behold! – darkness will cover the earth, and thick cloud the nations – but upon you Hashem will shine, and His Glory will be visible upon you’ (Isaiah 60:1-2)” (Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 14).

Even though the Plague of Darkness brought terrible bereavement upon Israel, it was the harbinger of imminent salvation.

This recalls another Midrash: “‘Hashem will answer you on the day of distress’ (Psalms 20:2) – on which day? – On the day which everyone acknowledges is the day of distress for the highest and the lowest, the day which even the Ministering Angels are afraid of… G-d says to the idolaters: Come and adjudicate with Israel, as it says ‘Bring forth your quarrel, says Hashem – present your claims, says the King of Jacob (Isaiah 41:21)… Another interpretation of ‘Hashem will answer you on the day of distress’, explaining it by a parable: This is like a father and his son who were walking along the way, and the son became exhausted. He said to his father: Father! Where is the city? He replied: My son! The sign you have is that if you see a cemetery in front of you, then the city is nearby. Thus the prophet says to Israel: If you see yourselves overwhelmed by distress, then you will immediately be redeemed, as it says ‘Hashem will answer you on the day of distress’” (Yalkut Shimoni, Psalms 680).

It seems puzzling that the Midrash would take a cemetery of all things as the clearest sign of approaching the city. But actually it is wonderfully comforting: death is not the end, it is a sign that we are approaching our destiny.

The opening verses of Parashat Beshallach record that “Moshe took Joseph’s bones with him, because he had firmly adjured the Children of Israel saying: G-d will assuredly remember you, and you will bring my bones up from here with you” (Exodus 13:19).

While the other Jews were busy collecting valuables and provisions from Egypt (Exodus 12:35-36), Moshe was busy searching for Joseph’s sarcophagus. Which had been buried in the River Nile (Targum Yonatan, Exodus 13:19; Mishnah, Sotah 1:9; Tosefta, Sotah 4:7; Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshallach, Masechet de-Vayehi, Introduction; Sh’mot Rabbah 18:10, 20:19 et. al.).

A very poignant Midrash relates that “when [G-d] descended to Egypt and Israel’s redemption had come, all Israel were busy with silver and gold; meanwhile Moshe was going round the city, labouring for three days and three nights to find Joseph’s sarcophagus, because they couldn’t leave Egypt without Joseph. Why? – Because thus he had adjured them before his death, as it says ‘And Joseph adjured the Children of Israel saying: G-d will assuredly remember you, and you will bring my bones up from here with you’ (Genesis 50:25)” (D’varim Rabbah 11:7)

Upon miraculously finding Joseph’s sarcophagus, Moshe was ready to lead the nation out of Egyptian slavery and into national independence, first in the Sinai Desert and then in the Land of Israel. Bet we could only achieve our national destiny of redemption after finding Joseph’s remains.

“I you see a cemetery in front of you, then the city is nearby”, and if you find Joseph’s sarcophagus, then the redemption is nearby.

Judaism totally rejects the depressing and indeed paganistic idea that “in the midst of life we are in death”. No, no, absolutely no! The contrary is true. When encountering death, we are on the brink of new life!

The tragic deaths of 80% – at least! – of the Children of Israel in the Plague of Darkness guaranteed to the survivors – the worthy survivors – that the redemption was close.

Our generation has survived the greatest horror ever inflicted; we survived and thrived, and the redemption was at hand.

Are our tribulations over yet? – Clearly not. Yet the worst that we are undergoing today is but the sign that we are drawing swiftly ever-nearer to our eternally-destined redemption.

And as then, so today. Redemption is our national return to our homeland. Redemption means leaving exile.

And as then, so today. Every single Jew, everywhere in the world, has the free choice to remain behind and to be lost to Jewish destiny (G-d forbid, or to leave exile and to be part of the Redemption.