Sotah 11

Both, and.

Having explained a passage from the mishnah on Sotah 8 showing how the biblical Miriam was proportionately rewarded for her good deeds, the Talmud on today’s daf launches into a midrashic exploration of the opening narrative of the Exodus story. The connection may be in Miriam herself, a key figure in the Exodus story, though the Gemara does not limit itself to the parts of the tale in which she appears. In fact, it starts at the beginning.

After listing the names of the members of Jacob’s family who relocated to Egypt, the Torah tells us that “there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). The Gemara gives us two ways to understand that verse:

Rav and Shmuel disagree. One says actually a new king, and one says that his decrees were transformed. 

According to the Gemara, one opinion follows the literal meaning of the text: There was actually a new king. The other opinion suggests that the king acted like he did not know Joseph, even though he did. The king remained the same, but his policies towards the Israelites changed drastically.

Rav and Shmuel suggest two different explanations for why the Israelite sojourn in Egypt devolved into enslavement. One suggests the environment was destabilized by regime change, the other by betrayal. In his commentary on the Exodus 1:8, Rashi doesn’t endorse one reading over the other, instead embedding both readings into the story. 

This is not the only difference of opinion between Rav and Shmuel about how we tell the story of the Exodus. We encountered another back on Pesachim 116 about how to understand the mishnah’s instruction to tell the story of Passover beginning with disgrace and concluding with glory.

What is “with disgrace”? Rav said: At first our forefathers were idol worshippers. And Shmuel said: We were slaves.

For Shmuel, the enslavement in Egypt was the disgrace, so it follows that the glory is the liberation. But for Rav, the disgrace isn’t rooted in servitude, but in idol worship. The glory is the covenant with God that was made possible by the Exodus from Egypt. As with their divergent interpretations of Exodus 1:8, the Talmud here preserves both versions of the story. 

These two disputes between Rav and Shmuel are examples of the power of being additive (holding on to both explanations) rather than selective (choosing one over the other). Rather than choosing one and discarding the other, we retain both — and in so doing, expand the number of ways the story might provide meaning for generations to come.

Read all of Sotah 11 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 9th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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