Did Israel Deserve Redemption?

Jewish texts have much to say on this subject.

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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:

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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.