Between the Lines—Bo

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Exodus Rabbah 15:12

ד"א (שמות י''ב) החדש הזה לכם ר"מ אומר לי ולכם היא הגאולה כביכול אני נפדיתי עמכם שנא' (שמואל ב' ז) אשר פדית לך ממצרים גוים ואלהיו. וקבעו החדש הזה לי ולכם שאני רואה דם הפסח ומכפר עליכם שנאמר (שמות י''ב) דברו אל כל עדת בני ישראל. ותהא שמחתכם שלימה אפילו מי שהוא עני.

Another explanation of "This month shall mark for you . . . (Exod. 12:2)": R. Meir said: [It is as if God says that] 'the redemption is for Me and for you'; as if to say: 'I have been ransomed with you,' as it is said: "Whom You ransomed for Yourself out of Egypt—the nations—with their God." (2 Sam. 7:23) 'Affix this month for Me and for you, because I will see therein the blood of the Passover and will make atonement for you,' as [the next verse] says: "Speak to the entire community of Israel . . . (Exod. 12:3)." 'May your joy be complete and include even the poor.'

When a midrash like the one above seems to make extraordinary claims, like God's need to redeem God's own self from Egypt along with the Israelites, as though both were enslaved there, one must examine closely both what the midrash describes and how it arrives at its interpretation. In this case, Rabbi Meir applies a close literary lens to two seemingly superfluous terms—lakhem ("for you all") and kol ("all [of Israel]")—in order to convey a fuller sense of what redemption from Egyptian slavery truly entails. Rabbi Meir challenges the plain sense of both terms, asserting that these words convey a redemptive message of utmost inclusivity: even God and the poor, the most and least powerful actors in this narrative, must take part in the Passover ritual.

What exactly is redemption? There are two main definitions for this English word. On the one hand, the term signifies the act of saving or being saved from some negative state, like evil or sin. This is the meaning of geulah, the first term that Rabbi Meir uses. On the other hand, redemption can also mean gaining or regaining possession of something through an exchange, as with a ransom. That is one common understanding of the p-d-h Hebrew root, which Rabbi Meir employs to demonstrate first the semantic range of redemption and then the dual nature of God's redemptive act. That concept of mutuality hinges on a clever play on words.

In order to appreciate how Rabbi Meir transforms his source material, one must read the verse he quotes (2 Samuel 7:23) in its entirety:

And who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation on earth, whom God went and redeemed as His people, winning renown for Himself and doing great and marvelous deeds for them and for Your land—driving out nations and their gods before Your people, whom You redeemed for Yourself from Egypt.

Instead of reading the term elohav as a reference to "their gods," Rabbi Meir rereads this term as "its God"—meaning the God of Israel, as reflected in the midrash above. According to this reading, God becomes both the subject and the object of redemption. The next statement makes an even more radical claim: that future Passover sacrifices will atone for God's role in the suffering that Israel endured in Egypt as part of the divine plan for making Abraham's descendants into a nation. That interpretation requires, though, that Israel must include all members of its community, as we must embrace all of our spiritual kindred to reenact the way in which God took part in our redemption.