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…

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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.