Did Israel Deserve Redemption?

Jewish texts have much to say on this subject.

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The Passover seder is built upon the idea of expanding and applying Jewish tradition, seeing ourselves as if we ourselves have participated in the Exodus from Egypt. In this article, the author explores a rabbinic midrash--a rabbinic interpretation of a particular question concerning the biblical instructions for conducting the first Passover seder in Egypt. Using this question as an exegetical hook, the midrash explores much larger issues of whether Israel merited redemption or whether God's redemption of the people was essentially an undeserved act of grace. In explaining the rabbinic midrash, the author describes and models a conversation that brings these essential questions about redemption into the present. In effect, he creates modern midrash on a midrash.

Why were the Israelites redeemed from Egypt? Perhaps the most obvious answer is that "the Israelites were groaning under the bondage" (Exodus 2:23; cf. 3:7-9, 16-7) and God sought to redeem Israel from the hardship of Egypt and bring them to the land of Israel.

Yet Jewish tradition preserves other explanations as well. Connected with these descriptions of God as the redeemer from oppression are explicit statements that the redemption from Egypt comes from the God who made a covenant with the Patriarchs. "God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob"(Exodus 2:24).

passover storyThe "covenant between the pieces" (Genesis 15:13-4), reveals to Abraham that his descendants "will be strangers in a land not theirs," and after 400 years, they will be set free. This view explains the Exodus as one element in a divine plan that was revealed in a covenant to Abraham.

Reward for Adherence to Commandments

The rabbis, however, inherited and adopted the theology expressed in Deuteronomy that reward comes from adherence to the mitzvot (commandments). Deuteronomy is explicit about the connection of observing the mitzvot and conquering and remaining on the land of Israel, so how could Israel have been redeemed from Egypt without having observed mitzvot? This question is asked in a Tannaitic midrash from the second or third century CE.

To preface the midrash, it is necessary to examine Biblical commands concerning the first Passover. Note the dates mentioned in the book of Exodus.

"The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying:

This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it is for you the first of the months of the year.

Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month they shall acquire for themselves each one a lamb for the family, a lamb for the household…

You will watch it until the 14th day of this month and the whole congregation of the community of Israel will slaughter it at twilight.

They will take from the blood and place it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which you will eat it" (Exodus 12:1-3, 6-7).

On the 10th day, the Israelites are to buy a lamb. They hold onto the lamb for four days, and then slaughter it on the 14th. Why do they have to buy the lamb early? Or, put another way, why do they have to wait four more days to be redeemed after they have already bought the lamb? This question serves as an exegetical hook for a midrash that really addresses the larger question of whether Israel merited redemption.

"'And you shall keep it' (Exodus 12:6). Why did Scripture make the purchase of the lamb four days prior to the slaughtering? Rabbi Matia b. Heresh said, 'I passed over you and saw you and behold, it was your time of loving' (Ezekiel 16:8). The time of the promise that God had made to Abraham concerning the redemption of his children was up. But the people did not have any mitzvot to perform in order to be redeemed, as it says, 'your breasts were formed and your hair was grown, but you were naked and bare' (Ezekiel 16:8), bare of any mitzvot." (Mekhilta d'Rabbi Ishmael 5).

Nothing to Merit Redemption

According to the Mekhilta, God promised that the people would be redeemed at a certain time, but they had not done anything to merit redemption. The Mekhilta then reframes the reader's perception of the Exodus narrative by referencing the prophecy of Ezekiel who describes Israel in harsh terms. Ezekiel describes Israel as an abandoned baby girl, unwashed and unswaddled, "abandoned in an open field" (Ezekiel 16:5), whom God takes care of out of compassion.

As the passage quoted by the Mekhilta indicates, the girl grows into a young woman, and then God betroths the girl. The extended metaphor continues with the girl becoming unfaithful to her husband. Although the Mekhilta does not quote these particular verses, it will become clear that Ezekiel's negative perception of Israel in Egypt informs this midrashic discussion. The Mekhilta continues with R. Matia b. Heresh's conclusion to his problem. Israel had no particular merit, and…

"Therefore the Holy One gave them two mitzvot--the blood of the paschal lamb and the blood of circumcision--to perform in order to be redeemed, as it says, 'I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, and I said to you, "In your blood, live; in your blood, live!"' (Ezekiel 16:6) For this reason Scripture required the purchase four days ahead of time, for one cannot obtain reward except through deeds."

The repeated phrase "In your blood, live!" is understood as two different mitzvot concerning blood; the same phrase is recited at a circumcision ceremony. The negative view of an Israel lacking merit, however, is not allowed to stand unchallenged. The Mekhilta quotes the opposing view of R. Eliezer haKappar:

"Did not Israel possess four mitzvot [while they were in Egypt]…: that they were sexually pure, that they did not gossip, that they did not change their names, and that they did not change their language!?"

While the image of a non-assimilating, morally virtuous Israel is, perhaps, appealing to a modern audience, these particular examples are somewhat suspect. The proof for sexual purity is a reference to a child of an Egyptian man and an Israelite woman (Leviticus 24:10), which, the midrash assumes, must have been the only case of improper behavior. The proof that they maintained their names is strange considering Joseph took on an Egyptian name, Tzafenat Pa'aneah (Genesis 41:45).

Furthermore, according to a midrash attributed to the third century Rabbi Alexandri, the Israelites were shameless gossips. After Moses slays the Egyptian taskmaster, the arguing Israelites rebuke him saying, "Do you intend to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian" (Exodus 2:14). This causes Moses to come to conclude not only that the Israelites had been gossiping about his action, but that God allowed Israel to remain enslaved precisely because of the sin of gossip (Exodus Rabbah 1:30).

Israelite Idolaters?

Nevertheless, the argument that Israel was not entirely lacking merit forces the Mekhilta to pose once again the question of why the lamb was bought four days before the slaughtering. The Mekhilta responds:

"Because the Israelites in Egypt were steeped in idolatry. And the law against idolatry outweighs all other of the other mitzvot … Therefore Moses said to them, stop worshipping idols and adhere to the mitzvot!

The tradition that, during the long exile in Egypt, Israel had become idolatrous also derives from Ezekiel, "I also said to them, 'Cast away, every one of you, the detestable things that you are drawn to, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt--I the Lord am your God.' But they defied Me and refused to listen to Me" (Ezekiel 20:7-8).

If these successive passages are indeed one extended conversation, then the argument that idolatry outweighs the other mitzvot would reject Eliezer haKappar's argument that Israel was meritorious in Egypt. This would ultimately support R. Matia b. Heresh's opinion that the four days were to provide Israel with the opportunity to perform the two mitzvot of circumcision and the paschal sacrifice in order to prove their merit.

The passage from the Mekhilta concludes with a different explanation of the four-day gap. R. Judah b. Beteira argues simply that it was hard for the Israelites to part with their idols. A later midrash builds upon this idea, recognizing that the slaughtering of the lamb was both a political and a theological affirmation of loyalty to the God of Israel.

"When the Holy One told Moses to slaughter the paschal lamb, Moses objected, '…Do You not know that the lamb is an Egyptian god? ' (cf. Exodus 7:22). God replied, 'On your life, Israel will not leave here until they slaughter the Egyptian gods before their very eyes, that I may teach them that their gods are really nothing at all" (Exodus Rabbah 16:3).

The perception of Israel as idolatrous in Egypt may be uncomfortable, but it explains a great deal, including the name of the holiday. As Bible scholar Menachem Leibtag has noted, "One 'passes over' something that he is supposed to 'step on.' Had the Israelites been righteous, there would not have been a punishment that required 'passing over.'" It also provides a little more context for Rav's explanation that the journey from disgrace to glory celebrated on Passover begins with idolatry, "In the beginning, our ancestors were idolaters…" (Bavli Pesachim 116a and the Passover Haggadah).

Ultimately, however, these midrashic arguments force us to confront our own perceptions of redemption and reward. Do people deserve liberation or support because they are oppressed? Must people take some action on their own in order to effect redemption? How much time is needed to reject dysfunctional habits before requiring some one to move to something better? What idols limit our own perception of freedom? These are old questions, asked by ancient midrashim, which deserve renewed answers.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.