Did Israel Deserve Redemption?

Jewish texts have much to say on this subject.

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"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).

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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.