Israel’s Attitude toward the Exodus from Egypt

  • Rav Itiel Gold
 
 
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In memory of Albert W. and Evelyn G. Bloom, on their Shevat yahrzeits;
parents who taught in word and deed:
"And I will take you as my nation, and I will be your God."  Shemot 6:7
- Shanen and Akiva Werber, Dov and Sandy Bloom,
Elana Bloom and Jeffrey Garrett
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Split Messages
 
The previous parasha ended in disappointment. Moshe's mission to Pharaoh was a failure, which led the people and even Moshe himself, to a kind of despair:
 
And Moshe returned to the Lord, and said: “Lord, why have You dealt ill with this people? Why is it that You have sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt ill with this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all. (Shemot 5:22-23)
 
In response, God tries to encourage Moshe and the people and restore their trust in the process of redemption. For this purpose, God recalls His covenant with the patriarchs:
 
And I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov, as God Almighty … And I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings, wherein they sojourned … Therefore, say to the children of Israel: “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians ….” (6:2-6)
 
It is worth noting that this is the first time that God mentions the promise to the patriarchs in the story of the Exodus. The last time that God revealed Himself to Moshe, in the burning bush in Parashat Shemot, it did not arise at all. There, the only motive for God's intervention is His mercy for His suffering people:
 
And the Lord said: “I have surely seen the affliction of My people that are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their pains; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and large land.” (3:6)
 
Interestingly, there is also no mention there of an exodus to the land of Canaan – the exodus there is to some "good and large land." The promise is detached from any historical context. God's appeal is to the present experience of the suffering people. The message is that God is interested in taking them out of Egypt and bringing them to a better place. It is only natural then that when Moshe appeals to the people, after the revelation at the burning bush, they react to the promise of local deliverance alone, unconnected to the covenant with the patriarchs:
 
And the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had remembered the children of Israel, and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped. (4:31)
 
This splitting of the Divine messages is puzzling. Why does Parashat Shemot speak only about deliverance from suffering, whereas Parashat Vaera speaks about the Exodus as part of the covenant with the patriarchs? The mystery only increases, if we go back a few verses, before the incident at the burning bush:
 
And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage … And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Avraham, with Yitzchak, and with Yaakov. And God saw the children of Israel, and God knew. (2:23-25)
 
When God's mercy awakens, He sees their suffering and therefore wants to save them, but at the same time He also remembers the covenant with the patriarchs.
 
Immediately afterwards, however, at the incident involving the burning bush, the covenant is ignored, which, as stated, is delayed until Parashat Vaera. This disregard of the covenant also finds expression in the comparison between the expressions used in connection with the burning bush and the expressions uses in the verses cited above, when God's mercies are stirred up. Four actions are mentioned in these verses: "And God heard ... and God remembered His covenant ... and God saw ... and God knew." Only the act of remembrance relates to the covenant.  In contrast, the hearing, seeing, and knowing refer to Israel's suffering in the present. Indeed, these three actions are also mentioned at the burning bush and describe in greater detail exactly what God saw, heard, and knew: “I have surely seen the affliction of My people that are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters, for I know their pains.” (3:7)
 
However, the act of remembrance, which relates to the covenant, is missing from the revelation at the burning bush and is pushed to the beginning of our parasha: "And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant" (6:5). 
 
What is the reason for this split in the Divine messages?
 
Disregarding the Disregard
 
The perplexity does not end here. When, at the beginning of our parasha, God finally makes mention of the patriarchal covenant in order to encourage the people, they respond with complete disregard: “And Moshe spoke so to the children of Israel; but they listened not to Moshe for impatience of spirit, and for cruel bondage.” (6:9)
 
God, on his part, does not respond with criticism to the people's disregard of His mentioning the covenant with the patriarchs. Two possible ways to understand the people's disregard can be suggested. The people's disregard may in fact have been improper, and it is difficult to understand then why it did not give rise to Divine criticism in response. Alternatively, the people's disregard may be understandable, for the labor imposed upon them had been greatly increased at the end of the previous parasha,[1] and therefore they could not have been expected to truly listen to a historical oration of any sort. But if their response was so understandable and easily forgiven, why even formulate such a speech?
 
A New Beginning
 
As a continuation of the people's disregard for God's words is the following sequence of verses that are difficult to understand:
 
And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying:  “Go in, speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt, that he let the children of Israel go out of his land” And Moshe spoke before the Lord, saying: “Behold, the children of Israel have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?” And the Lord spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, and gave them a charge to the children of Israel, and to Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt. (10-13) 
 
Because the mission to the people failed, God sends Moshe to Pharaoh. Once again we are witness to Moshe's reluctance to accept the mission because he is of "uncircumcised lips," which is reinforced by the fact that the people did not listen to him. Instead of responding substantively to Moshe's argument, God simply repeats His command to appear before Pharaoh, but this time in a more forceful manner: "And He gave them a charge … to bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt." It is not clear, however, what this command means, and how it addresses Moshe's argument.
 
Later on, the difficulties only increase. Suddenly, and without any connection, the story is interrupted and we encounter a genealogical list relating to Moshe and Aharon:
 
These are the heads of their fathers' house … And these are the names of the sons of Levi according to their generations … And Amram took him Yocheved his father's sister to wife; and she bore him Aharon and Moshe … These are that Aharon and Moshe, to whom the Lord said: “Bring out the children of Israel from the land of Egypt according to their hosts.” (14-27).
 
What is this list doing here? It would seem that its natural place is when Moshe and Aharon first step out on to the stage in Parashat Shemot!
 
The atmosphere here seems to be changing and the feeling is that something new is beginning that requires a renewed introduction to Moshe and Aharon and their families.[2] It is as if we are not familiar with Moshe and Aharon, and we need to be told from where they come. So too the verses that follow the genealogical list evoke the sense of a new beginning:
 
And it came to pass on the day when the Lord spoke to Moshe in the land of Egypt, that the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “I am the Lord; speak you to Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I speak to you ….” And the Lord said to Moshe: “See, I have set you in God's stead to Pharaoh; and Aharon your brother shall be your prophet … But Pharaoh will not listen to you, and I will lay My hand upon Egypt ….” And Moshe and Aharon did so; as the Lord commanded them, so did they. And Moshe was eighty years old, and Aharon eighty-three old, when they spoke to Pharaoh. (1:28-7:7)
 
What is the meaning of these verses? What is the meaning of the solemn opening, "And it came to pass on the day when the Lord spoke to Moshe in the land of Egypt"? That day was a while back, somewhere in Parashat Shemot. The truth is that all the things that appear in the above verses have, in fact, already appeared in a similar manner in Parashat Shemot. God already appointed Aharon as Moshe's spokesperson, they already appeared before Pharaoh, and they already heard from God that Pharaoh would reject their requests. But the verses here present these developments again as a new event, starting from scratch. The mention of the ages of Moshe and Aharon "when they spoke to Pharaoh" reinforces even more the feeling that we are dealing here with people who are accepting upon themselves for the first time the mission of going to Pharaoh.
 
There is no escape from determining that Parashat Vaera is not just a continuation of Parashat Shemot. Something new is beginning. Moshe and Aharon are now sent anew on a mission different from their previous mission. But what is it? What has changed, and why now?
 
How is Israel to be Brought Out of Egypt?
 
In order to understand the new mission, we must go back to the first mission assigned to Moshe, which he received at the time of the revelation at the burning bush. A careful reading of the dialogue between God and Moshe (3:10-18) uncovers differences between God's request and Moshe's response. To facilitate the explanation, we will present a digest of that dialogue, and number its parts, the numbers changing with each change in speaker: 
 
  1. Come now therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring forth My people the children of Israel out of Egypt …
  2. And Moshe said to God: Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?
  3. And He said: Certainly I will be with you …
  4. And Moshe said to God: Behold, when I come to the children of Israel, and shall say to them: The God of your fathers has sent me to you; and they shall say to me: What is His name? What shall I say to them?
  5. a - And God said to Moses: I am that I am … Thus you shall say to the Children of Israel, The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Yaakov, has sent me to you …
b - Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them: The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, of Yitzchak, and of Yaakov, has appeared to me … And they shall listen to your voice. And you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt… (3:10-18)
 
The mission that God imposes on Moshe focuses on going to Pharaoh to bring the people out of Egypt (1). Moshe, however, responds to the request with reluctance, which is connected to his lack of self-esteem in relation to the task (2) – "Who am I?" God tries to reassure him with a promise of support and accompaniment on the mission (3). But then we come to the turning point; all of a sudden Moshe shifts the discussion to the question of how he will present God to Israel, when he approaches them (4).
 
But the truth is that up to that point, God had not asked Moshe to go to Israel at all! The whole request was to go to Pharaoh and demand that he allow them to go out of Egypt (1). But Moshe was apparently interested in going in a different direction. He wanted to first connect with the people and then together with them struggle for their liberation.
 
The reason for Moshe's veering from God's original plan is not explicitly stated, but the immediate context suggests that it is related to his insecurity concerning his standing on his own before Pharaoh. While it is true that God promised His support (3), Moshe apparently feels a need to come as his people's representative, in order to stand up to Pharaoh (4). This connection to the people may also answer the troublesome inner question that Moshe raised: "Who am I?" Standing before Pharaoh through his connection to the people provides an answer: "I am the representative of my people."
 
If we go back further, however, it is possible that see that Moshe's desire also connects to his memories of his attempted rescue operations in his younger days. As we recall, first he succeeded in killing the Egyptian who had struck the Hebrew (2:11). The next day, he tried to advance the situation of the Hebrews, by taking internal action, and separating between the two Hebrews who were fighting. But it was precisely here that Moshe encountered opposition:
 
And he said: Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you think to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian? And Moshe feared, and said: Surely the thing is known. (2:14)
 
On the simplest level, Moshe understood that the murder of the Egyptian had been discovered and therefore he had to flee. But beyond that, one can imagine the hard feelings that he must have felt when he was attacked by the Hebrews, precisely because of his attempt to save them.
 
Moshe's actions stemmed from his thinking that he was dealing with a chance injustice, which had to be changed by way of practical actions. But now he understands that the situation is more complex – the people are not with him. They reject attempts to save them from the outside and improve their situation: "Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?" “Who are you to come and save us?” Paradoxically, there is mental opposition to help that emerges from within, from one of the people. It is easier to be enslaved by Egypt, an external factor, than to be subject to a Hebrew person, even if his intentions are good. A Hebrew person is perceived as an equal and therefore his actions are perceived as arrogance. It is possible that this offensive statement continued to resonate within Moshe until the revelation at the burning bush. Reacting to the statement, "Who made you a ruler," that was cast at him, Moshe himself now says, "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh" – who truly am I without the backing and support of the people?
 
Therefore, Moshe wants to go in a direction different from that suggested by God. Before going to Pharaoh, he wants to go to the people, to create a connection that will lead to a joint approach to Pharaoh.
 
The interesting thing is that God, as an ideal educator, is prepared to change the plan and follow the path proposed by Moshe. As eloquently formulated by Chazal, "A person is led along the path in which he wishes to go" (Makkot 10b). But God's consent to this course of action is qualified. When Moshe asks God how he is to present God's name to the people (3), God answers him (5-a), but suggests that he appeal only to the elders of Israel (5-b), and not to the entire people, as Moshe had proposed (4).
 
Survival Mode
 
Moshe's approach seems to be preferable to God's plan. Why go directly to Pharaoh, and not join first with the people and march off together to Pharaoh? The answer to this question seems to lie in understanding the mental state of the people of Israel during the period of their enslavement. If we go back to the incident involving the fighting Hebrews, we might perhaps get a peek into it. There seems to be something there beyond opposition to Moshe’s intervention.
 
Rashi there (Shemot 2:14) cites a fascinating Midrash, which provides depth to Moshe's statement following the incident, "Surely the thing is known."
 
Now there is known to me that matter about which I have been puzzled: How has Israel sinned more than all the seventy nations, that they should be oppressed by this crushing servitude? But now I see that they deserve this.
 
Something in this incident suddenly clarifies why slavery is appropriate for the people of Israel. When the Hebrew snaps venomously at Moshe, "Do you think to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?" he essentially criticizes Moshe's killing of the abusive Egyptian as well.[3]
 
This opposition to Moshe's actions indicates the mental survival place in which the people were found. Their mental-survival place is associated with a harsh and traumatic external reality, which causes a person to direct all of his faculties to preserving his physical existence. When a person is in survival mode, his thinking becomes restricted and focuses on the questions, how will I survive this day? How will I pass another moment with as little injury as possible? In such a situation, it is impossible to think creatively or for the long-term. It is also difficult to think elevated thoughts. No energy is left for these, as it is entirely directed toward the struggle for survival. Moreover, such thoughts may even be perceived as threatening, as they require pausing for a moment the immediate steps that must be taken in order to ensure survival.
 
This is the mindset expressed by the Hebrew, perhaps as the representative of the people vis-a-vis Moshe: Your attempts to generate a revolt and improve the situation are dangerous. Allow us to survive another day, without rebelling or thinking outside the box. At this point, Rashi alludes to why the people of Israel deserve enslavement. A circular process has been created here – enslavement leads to survival mode, which leads to restricted thinking, which causes the enslavement to continue.
 
This state of mind is apparently what caused God to skip going first to the people of Israel, and what brought Him to send Moshe directly to Pharaoh. The rescue plan is directed straight at Pharaoh, skipping the people who are stuck in survival mode and have difficulty overcoming it. This is also how one can understand why the first Divine message at the burning bush relates exclusively to saving Israel from their suffering in Egypt, while ignoring the patriarchal covenant. The people are in a state of mind that does not allow them to engage in lofty matters, such as the broader historical context and the covenant made with the patriarchs. These things are over their heads of Israel, and perhaps even over the head of Moshe himself.[4] When the people are in survival mode, there is room to talk only about their concrete rescue from suffering.
 
Phase I – Moshe’s Plan
 
As stated, God allows Moshe to follow his preferred path and appeal to the people of Israel. Initially, it seems that his plan is succeeding: "And Moshe and Aharon went and gathered all the elders of the children of Israel … And the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had remembered the children of Israel … they bowed their heads and worshipped" (4:29-31).
 
But very quickly the picture changes. First, contrary to the plan that he would come with the elders of Israel to Pharaoh (3:18), we find out that in the end, only Moshe and Aharon go to him (5:1).[5] Where did the elders disappear to? Rashi explains what apparently happened: "But the elders slipped away one by one from behind Moshe and Aharon until every one of them had slipped away before they arrived at the palace, because they were afraid to go there."
 
Pharaoh responds to his first meeting with Moshe by increasing Israel's workload. He well understands the mental mechanism of survival that suppresses the higher thoughts about liberty. When he realizes that a small crack was created through which winds of new thoughts have penetrated, he seals it up by adding to the workload – activity that will return the people to concrete thoughts about survival:
 
For they are idle; therefore they cry, saying: “Let us go and sacrifice to our God.” Let heavier work be laid upon the men, that they may labor therein; and let them not regard lying words. (5:8-9)
 
His goal is indeed achieved. The people, who had previously entertained elevated thoughts about freedom, very quickly occupy themselves exclusively with gathering enough straw to fill their daily quota of bricks (5:12). At the end of Parashat Shemot we find the officers of the people of Israel who come before Pharaoh with a single request: "Give us straw" (5: 15). The desire to be rescued no longer interests them. When they meet Moshe and Aharon on their way out, they cast harsh accusations at them relating to their ideas about freedom, and express nostalgia for the previous situation. Moshe's plan to mobilize the people collapses and brings even him to despair (5: 22-23).
 
This is where Parashat Vaera opens, in God's final attempt to revive Moshe's plan. To achieve this end, He exploits the last weapon left in His arsenal –the promise made to the patriarchs. It is true that the people are in survival mode, but perhaps, nonetheless, the covenant with the patriarchs may touch their hearts. No alternative is left. God puts in Moshe's mouth a moving speech about the covenant with the patriarchs and sends him off to the people. But even this does not help - "But they listened not to Moshe for impatience of spirit and for cruel bondage" (6:9). Now it becomes clear, apparently even to Moshe, that his plan to leave Egypt by way of connection to the people, has failed. It is, therefore, understandable why there is no Divine anger about Israel's disregard for Moshe's oration. It was created as a last resort in order to save Moshe's plan, the plan that from the outset God had not chosen. There is no room here for anger; all of this was foreseen by God. All that is needed now is to start anew, with the Divine plan - direct action vis-à-vis Pharaoh–which will cause him to send the people out of Egypt.
 
Phase II – The Divine Plan
 
We can now understand the many matters that had seemed puzzling at the beginning of the parasha. Immediately after the failure of the oration, God commands Moshe to return to the original plan of approaching Pharaoh directly: “Go in, speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt, that he let the children of Israel go out of his land.” (6:11)
 
But Moshe still fears approaching Pharaoh directly. The failure of his own plan further weakened his self-confidence:
 
And Moshe spoke before the Lord, saying: Behold, the children of Israel have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips? (6: 12)
 
But in contrast to the incident involving the burning bush, where God allowed Moshe to go ahead with his own plan, now there is no room for reconsideration, and God's tone changes. The discussion is over and God shifts to a forceful imperative:
 
And the Lord spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, and gave them a charge to the children of Israel, and to Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt. (6: 13)
 
The dynamics change. God moves to center stage and begins to play an active role. There is no more waiting for the people of Israel to join the struggle. They are not there. In such a situation, the status of Moshe and Aharon changes. If so far they tried to be part of the people, opposite Pharaoh, now they become God's independent messengers. They are super-leaders, who all by themselves change the course of events. It is apparently for this reason that the genealogical list is inserted here. Moshe and Aharon become much more significant figures in the process, and therefore there is a need to introduce them anew as important and independent characters. At the end of the genealogical list, two more verses describe the new and special standing of Moshe and Aharon:
 
These are that Aharon and Moshe, to whom the Lord said: “Bring out the children of Israel from the land of Egypt according to their hosts.These are they that spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring out the children of Israel from Egypt. These are that Moshe and Aharon. (6:26-27)
 
What we have here is a kind of re-crowning, with the recognition of the immensity of their role. It is also emphasized that the essence of the job at the moment is to speak to Pharaoh, not to go to the people. From now on, the exodus from Egypt will be conducted in a triangle: God – Moshe and Aharon – Pharaoh. The people of Israel will continue to work as usual and watch the struggle for their liberation from the sidelines. Until the plague of the firstborns we will not hear about them at all.
 
The People of Israel in their Infancy
 
It seems that the most appropriate metaphor for Israel at this time is that of a baby in the early stages of life. An infant is entirely focused on his existential–survival needs. He is totally dependent on his parents for his survival, both physical and mental. In the baby's eyes, those amazing characters are performing miracles on his behalf. Amazingly, they feed, clean, and soothe him. He does not have to do anything in order to survive, not even to speak. All he has to do is cry, and these miraculous matters will materialize.
 
So too regarding the people of Israel. Things begin to progress as soon as they cry out (2:23).[6] They are unable to act on their own and any such attempt on their part is doomed to fail. They are in such a primal state that direct Divine intervention is necessary, so that miracles will be created for them. They will just watch from the sidelines how reality works for them. This is how the people of Israel begin their initial development. In the future they will have to mature over the course of a long and complex process. In this process, every developmental step will lead to the transfer of Divine powers to them. Miracles will gradually diminish and demands made of them will increase, as in any maturation process. But now they are still in infancy, in a state of complete dependence. God understands this and allows them to be there. This is the art of education and nurturing – the gentle awareness of when a child should be allowed to remain in a dependent place and when to demand maturation and independence.
 
(Translated by David Strauss)
 

[1] See Shemot 5:7.
[2] The literary convention in which a genealogical list constitutes an introduction to a new theme is common in the book of Bereishit, at the beginning of Parashat Noach and Parashat Vayeshev. See Rashbam, Bereishit 37:2, who explains the significance of this introduction.
[3] To this we may add the unfortunate fact that the information passed on to Pharaoh probably came from the Hebrews themselves, for Moshe was careful that nobody else should see his deeds (2:12). How is it possible that the matter became known the next day to the Hebrew who rebuked Moshe? It may be argued that Moshe did not see that somebody was watching, but it is simpler to understand that when it says, "And when he saw that there was no man," it means that he made sure that there were no Egyptians watching, but he didn't care if Hebrews saw what he was doing. Moshe took it for granted that the Hebrews were in favor of his action. However, when he heard the Hebrew's criticism of his killing of the Egyptian, he realized that he was now exposed to informants among the Hebrews themselves, and in fact it was not long before the whistle was blown on him (2:15).
[4] In light of what we have said that the initial appeal at the burning bush was intended only for Moshe and from him directly to Pharaoh, it seems that God's concrete words are directed even to Moshe himself. This is based on the understanding that in the first stage, he too, like the rest of the people of Israel, was preoccupied exclusively with concrete thoughts about the rescue.
[5] As is explained by Rashi (ad loc.).
[6] See also our comments on Parashat Shemot.