Did Israel Deserve Redemption?

Jewish texts have much to say on this subject.

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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.