The Exodus - "Peshat" and "Derash"
Parashat Vaera focuses on the ten "makkot," the plagues that bring havoc and destruction upon the land of Egypt in response to Pharaoh's refusal to free the Hebrew slaves. This extended process of ten plagues reveals that God's plan involves more than His nation's freedom. If He intended solely to liberate the slaves from Pharaoh's rule, a single miraculous blow would have sufficed. But, as the Almighty Himself tells Moshe, He has an additional goal in mind, as well: "The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring the Israelites from their midst" (7:5). Last week, we read of Pharaoh's defiant response to God's order to set the slaves free: "Who is God that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know God, nor will I let Israel go" (5:2). The redemption process must therefore entail an exhibition of divine strength that brings the Egyptian empire to its knees.
Our shiur this week will address the question as to whether any corresponding process was necessary on Benei Yisrael's part. Did God demand anything from them to earn their freedom? Were they charged with any religious responsibilities or obligations as prerequisites for their emancipation? Much later in Tanakh, in the book of Yechezkel, we find explicit proof to the fact that God had, indeed, called upon the Hebrew slaves to repent: "When I made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt… I also said to them: cast away, every one of you, the detestable things of his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the fetishes of Egypt" (Yechezkel 20:5,7). In the Chumash itself, however, no such explicit indication is to be found. We will try to demonstrate that the "peshat," or straightforward reading of the narrative in the book of Shemot, and the "derash," the homiletic tradition of our Sages, point us in two opposite directions. As we will see, this issue serves as a beautiful example of the interplay between these two levels of interpretation, which will hopefully enhance our appreciation for the study of peshat on the one hand, and for the brilliance and power of derash, on the other.
There are two possible indications of an obligation on Benei Yisrael's part in preparation for the Exodus, one in Parashat Vaera, and another in Parashat Bo. We will study each instance and contrast the peshat approach with the homiletic interpretation.
II. "Ani Hashem" - The Midrashic Approach
Parashat Vaera opens with the longest recorded address delivered to Benei Yisrael since the bondage began. Moshe and Aharon had appeared before Pharaoh to demand the release of the slaves, only to see the hardship intensify: the slaves were to themselves find straw for the production of bricks. As Benei Yisrael now experience the most intense suffering they have faced, God bids Moshe to convey to them the following promise of redemption:
"Therefore, say to the Israelite people: I am God. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and I will give it to you for a possession - I am God." (6:6-8)
The following verse records the people's response to Moshe after he delivers God's message: "Moshe told this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to Moshe out of their crushed spirits and difficult labor."
To what do Benei Yisrael fail to "listen"? What in this prophecy demands a positive response on the part of the people, a response that they do not deliver?
The earliest source revealing the Midrashic approach to this issue is the homiletic translation of Yonatan Ben Uziel, which attributes the slaves' negative response to the "foreign worship that was with them." Though Targum Yonatan does not elaborate, he appears to view Moshe's prophecy to the people as a religious charge of sorts, one which they could not accept due to their having accustomed themselves to pagan worship.
This approach is far more explicit in the Midrashim, particularly in the compendium, "Midrash Ha-gadol": "This is what Moshe told the Israelites: Circumcise your foreskin, withdraw from the paganism of Egypt, purify yourselves, and accept the Torah. They said to him, do you ever find a slave who acquires for himself two masters? Behold, we are servants to Pharaoh; how can we violate his decrees? We are scared!" Thus, God's message as conveyed by Moshe called upon Benei Yisrael to abandon their idolatry and return to the belief in, and service of, the one, true God.
This interpretation gives rise to the question, where in this prophecy do we find any allusion to such an order? A review of God's promise transmitted to Moshe reveals that it is just that - a promise, without any accompanying demands. How does the Midrash find in this prophecy an order to return to monotheism?
The answer seemingly lies in the expression that both begins and ends this prophecy: "Ani Hashem" - I am God. Very often, the use of a term at both the introduction and conclusion of a given unit of text points to the central theme - or at least a central theme - of that unit. Applying this principle to the opening section of our parasha, "Ani Hashem" defines the primary message Moshe is to convey to the people. Two twentieth-century writers (Rav Yoel Herzog of Paris, "Imrei Yoel"; Rav Zalman Sorotzkin of Israel, "Oznayim Le-Torah") suggest that this two-word chorus serves as a strong admonition to Benei Yisrael to once and for all reject Egyptian paganism and return to their monotheistic roots. In order to earn the promises of freedom and independence encircled by the declaration, "Ani Hashem," the nation was to internalize the notion that only the Almighty is the true God.
This Midrashic approach may find support in another verse towards the beginning of Parashat Vaera. Shortly after Moshe's unsuccessful address to the nation, God speaks to Moshe and Aharon: "God spoke to Moshe and Aharon and commanded them to Benei Yisrael and Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to deliver Benei Yisrael from the land of Egypt" (6:13). At first glance, this verse appears entirely incomprehensible: it never specifies the command issued to Moshe and Aharon with respect to the nation. We know that this command involved Moshe and Aharon's return to Pharaoh to demand his release of the slaves, but not what it entailed with regard to the Israelites. The Midrash Lekach Tov explains as follows: "This command [related to] idolatry, as it says in Yechezkel (20:7), 'Cast away, every one of you, the detestable things of his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the fetishes of Egypt'… " (This explanation appears as well in the Mekhilta on Parashat Bo.) Despite Moshe's initial failure to extricate the Israelites from idolatry, God here urges Moshe to repeat his charge to the people, to prepare them spiritually for redemption.
In summary, the Midrashic approach to this prophecy which introduces Parashat Vaera interprets it as a command to Benei Yisrael, ordering them to abandon their idolatrous practices and embrace monotheism. Three features in the text point to this approach: 1) the fact that Benei Yisrael did not "listen" to Moshe, implying that he had issued some specific order; 2) the emphasis on "Ani Hashem"; 3) the undefined "command" to Moshe and Aharon.
III. "Ani Hashem": The Peshat Approach
Most peshat-oriented commentaries, however, explain this unit much differently. Rather than adopting the Midrashic reading of this prophecy as an exhortation concerning paganism, the commentators by and large view it as a message of hope and consolation. "They did not listen to Moshe" does not mean that the people disobeyed an order. Rather, as Rashi explains, "They did not accept consolation." Just as Yaakov resisted the efforts of his children to console him after learning of Yosef's alleged death (Bereishit 37:35), so do the pressures and torment of slavery prevent Moshe's comforting words to reach the hearts of his audience. Whereas the people responded with enthusiasm to his initial address to them, as recorded in Parashat Shemot (4:31), the added hardship that resulted from Moshe's meeting with Pharaoh engendered a sense of frustration and skepticism among the people. This time, Moshe's promises of redemption meet upon deaf ears. Elsewhere is his writings (Sefer Ha-pardes; Siddur Rashi), Rashi derives from this incident a general piece of advice as to how to express consolation: one must offer encouragement with modest, realistic hopes for the future. An embittered soul cannot accept promises of glory and ecstasy; he can at best hope for an improvement of his current condition. Overwhelmed by the horrors of slavery, Benei Yisrael cannot accept Moshe's guarantee of total freedom and an independent state in their ancestral homeland.
The term "Ani Hashem" is likewise understood differently by the advocates of peshat. Rather than a charge and order to the people, "Ani Hashem" may reinforce the message of hope Moshe here conveys. Rashi, for example, understands this phrase as emphasizing God's dependability, His commitment to follow through on His promise - an approach taken in one form or another by other commentators, as well. (See, for example, Rav Sa'adya Gaon, Ibn Ezra and Seforno.)
The final basis for the Midrashic approach, the ambiguous verse concerning God's "command" to Moshe and Aharon, also lends itself to alternative interpretations. Rashi, in his commentary to this verse, and the Rambam, in his guidelines regarding the conduct of community leaders (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 25:2), explain that God here calls on Moshe and Aharon to exercise patience in their dealings with Pharaoh and the people. Responding to Moshe's exasperation expressed in the preceding verse (6:12), God commands him and his brother to execute their duties indulgently, with the understanding that a bumpy road may lie ahead. Perhaps closer to the straightforward reading of the verse is the interpretation suggested by the 15th century exegete, Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, in his classic work, Akeidat Yitzchak. He cites convincing textual precedent to the usage of the verb form "tziva" (command) to mean "appointment," or the conferral of stature. Rabbi Arama thus suggests that in response to Moshe's frustration, God grants him and Aharon a heightened level of prominence and stature among both the Israelites and the Egyptians, such that they earn credibility in the eyes of both parties.
Yet another interpretation appears in the works of several famous commentators, including the Chizkuni, Ibn Ezra and Rabbenu Yosef Bekhor Shor (all from the Tosafist era - 13th century), as well as Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel (15th century). These writers note that God suddenly addresses not only Moshe, but his brother, Aharon, as well. God here responds to Moshe's complaint in the immediately preceding verse regarding his verbal disability. He thus orders Moshe and Aharon to go together to the Israelites and to Pharaoh to convey His message, with Aharon serving as spokesman and orator.
We have thus distinguished between the peshat and derash readings of God's prophecy to Moshe at the beginning of Parashat Vaera. The simple reading of the text indicates that God here bids Moshe to brings words of encouragement and hope to the embittered Hebrews. According to the homiletic approach, Moshe here demands the people's return to God as a prerequisite to redemption. What distinguishes between peshat and derash, here and in many other instances, is the weight given to that which we can read only in between the lines. Homiletic reading will lend as much exegetical significance to information referred to only subtly by the text as it will to that which appears explicitly in the narrative. Thus, the deeper meaning of "Ani Hashem," for example, can define the entire purpose and function of this narrative. The fact that God here makes no explicit reference to a call for repentance does not inhibit the Midrash from pointing to such a call as the central message of this prophecy. A peshat approach, by contrast, presupposes a sense of proportion between the centrality of a given component in a textual unit and the clarity of its expression within that unit. Thus, were repentance to constitute God's primary message in this prophecy, it would have earned far more explicit mention.
IV. The Paschal Offering: the Midrashic Approach
If the issuance of a command to Benei Yisrael in our parasha is not immediately evident from the text, the following parasha, Parashat Bo, explicitly records specific orders issued to the people. In chapter 12, God introduces the detailed laws concerning the korban pesach, or paschal offering, that Benei Yisrael were to sacrifice on the night of their emancipation. As the Egyptian firstborn are stricken with God's deadly plague, the former slaves remain in their homes, partaking of the sacrificial meat. The paschal ritual also requires smearing the sacrifice's blood on the door posts of every home. What purpose does this offering serve? Why does the Almighty require the slaves to perform this rite before embarking on their march to freedom?
The answer appears to be provided by God Himself: "For that night I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I am God. And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt" (12:12-13). As this offering has earned the title, "pesach," generally translated as "pass over," we may assume that its primary function was to ensure that God would pass over the Israelites' homes, rather than including them in the deadly plague. Somehow, the sacrificial blood saved Benei Yisrael from the destroyer. How?
The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 16) explains that as Benei Yisrael had previously disregarded the command to repent, they must now, once and for all, demonstrate their loyalty to God before realizing their freedom. They must therefore slaughter a sheep, the Egyptian deity, thereby exhibiting their resolute rejection of Egyptian paganism. The blood on the door post would thus signify the merit of their repentance which would protect them from the plague. Having themselves worshipped idols, the Hebrew slaves are themselves liable for divine punishment. They protect themselves by actively disavowing their pagan beliefs. (This element of "teshuva" - repentance - as the primary purpose of the paschal sacrifice is most fully developed in the work, "Ha-ketav Ve-hakabbala.")
V. The Paschal Offering: The Peshat Approach
Here, too, however, it would seem that a more straightforward, peshat reading may be advanced. Indeed, one of the most premier advocates of peshat among the early medieval scholars, Avraham Ibn Ezra, adopts such an approach (in his "peirush ha-arokh"). Commenting on 12:7, Ibn Ezra cites and rejects the view that the paschal ritual involves the public renunciation of Egyptian theology. He writes that, quite simply, the blood serves as a sign to the destroyer which would protect the Israelites inside the home. It bears no symbolic significance beyond its basic function of keeping the plague away. The Ibn Ezra does not fully explain why Benei Yisrael need protection or how the blood provides it, but the Seforno (Italy, 15th century) alludes to a possible explanation. He draws a parallel between the Exodus from Egypt and the rescue of Lot, Avraham's nephew, from the destruction of Sedom (Bereishit 19). Just as Lot had to flee the city, lest he be "destroyed by the city's iniquity" (Bereishit 19:15), so do the Israelites face the threat of death at the hands of plague in Egypt. When a plague of destruction is unleashed against a given region, even the righteous - such as Lot - are at risk; they must therefore leave the condemned area and thereby escape devastation. (In our shiur for Parashat Noach, we explained that God decreed annihilation upon the entire world; it was therefore necessary for Noach to seclude himself in a "world unto its own," where he would rise above the floodwaters and survive. Noach escaped the deluge by isolating himself and his family in an area deemed separate and apart from the rest of the world.)
The paschal ritual thus serves as the means by which Benei Yisrael isolate themselves from the rest of Egypt. The blood on the door post does not reflect any spiritual rehabilitation, but rather, as the verse states, it constitutes a "sign" designating the home as "off limits" to the plague.
One may wish to raise a basic objection to this approach: if the paschal offering is necessary merely to isolate Benei Yisrael, why does God not have them leave before the plague? Would it not have been simpler for them to flee from the country before the arrival of the destroyer?
As several verses indicate, God specifically sees to it that Pharaoh would personally drive the slaves from Egypt, rather than have them leave defiantly. In response to Pharaoh's arrogance and denial of divine authority, God orchestrates the events in such a way that Pharaoh will acknowledge his own helplessness and subservience to God and free the slaves.
We consider this interpretation the more straightforward reading because, like the peshat reading of the introductory verses of Parashat Vaera, it does not presuppose the centrality of non-explicit data. As the verse makes no mention of repentance, and this theme emerges only through the reader's association between the paschal lamb and the deity of Egypt, a peshat outlook would avoid placing it at the center of this ritual. Instead, the peshat approach affords primary importance to the information explicated by the text: the blood prevents the plague from entering the home.
Once again, we find peshat and derash "arguing" as to whether God requires a process of spiritual rejuvenation on Benei Yisrael's part before the Exodus. The Midrashic approach claims that the "paganized" slaves must renounce polytheism as a prerequisite to their redemption, whereas the straightforward reading implies that no such process is necessary.
VI. Two Angles
The most basic problem arising from the straightforward reading of the Exodus narrative involves Yechezkel's prophecy. As noted earlier, Yechezkel explicitly records God's call for repentance and return to monotheism and Benei Yisrael's refusal to comply. Why does Sefer Shemot omit this? If God finds it necessary to convey this information to the people around the time of the Temple's destruction, why does it not earn mention in the Biblical narrative?
The answer may be found in the opening verses to our parasha: "God spoke to Moshe and said to him, I am God. I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as E-l Sha-ddai… I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan… I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites… and I have remembered My covenant" (6:2-5). As it continues the unfolding story introduced in the book of Bereishit, Sefer Shemot tells of the fulfillment of God's promise to Avraham: "You shall know that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed… but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth… And they shall return here in the fourth generation… On that day the Lord made a covenant with Avraham saying, 'To your offspring I assign this land'… " (Bereishit 15:13-18). God remains unconditionally faithful to His covenant and stands committed to redeeming Benei Yisrael regardless of their worthiness, or lack thereof. From this perspective, it matters little - if at all - whether Benei Yisrael worshipped idols or retained their fidelity to God. Their spiritual condition has no effect on God's commitment to the patriarchs or the covenant promised to them. In the prophecy that introduces our parasha, God bids Moshe to inform the people that He has come to fulfill His covenant to their forefathers. According to the simple reading of the text, the fulfillment of God's promise would unfold unconditionally, "with no strings attached."
The Midrash, however, seeks to bring the narrative closer to the reader's perspective, revealing the Torah's eternal, religious message applicable in every time and place. It therefore emphasizes the angle that emerges from Yechezkel's prophecy. The Almighty's unconditional commitment to His covenant in no way exempts us from our responsibilities towards that covenant. In His inaugural prophecy to Moshe, God informs the prophet that after leaving Egypt Benei Yisrael will "serve God on this mountain [Sinai]" (Shemot 3:12). Rashi, following the Midrashic interpretation, explains that God here responds to Moshe's question as to the merit rendering the people deserving of freedom. The Almighty responds that the mission they will receive upon achieving their freedom itself renders them worthy. It is this element of the Exodus that the Midrash seeks to emphasize: the obligations and responsibilities associated with redemption.
Whereas the peshat reading portrays the Exodus as an unconditional fulfillment of the Almighty's promise to the patriarchs, the Midrash focuses on the ultimate purpose it serves. God redeemed His people because they, the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, are the nation that represents Him to the rest of mankind. Just as the Almighty remains loyal to His side of the covenant, so must Benei Yisrael perpetuate the legacy of the patriarchs and demonstrate their loyalty to their religious heritage.