Our Ancestors in Egypt

Vayera By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 27, 2001 / 5761 | Torah Commentary

We are accustomed to thinking of our ancestors in Egypt as people of virtue and character. Neither in times of prosperity nor persecution did they abandon the unconventional faith of their progenitors. It is a view that we owe to the Passover Haggadah, which each year affirms for us at the Seder that despite the long sojourn in a foreign land, the identity of our ancestors remained undiluted. The midrash that constitutes the form in which we narrate the story of the Exodus to our children, expounds the phrase, “and there [in Egypt] he became a nation (Deuteronomy 26:5),” as referring to Jewish distinctiveness. The underlying force of the Hebrew word for nation, “goy,” denotes a national group bearing its own identity. In other words, as the descendants of Jacob grew in number, their undiminished sense of apartness welded them into a cohesive and visible minority. The world-class civilization of Egypt did not swallow them through assimilation.

A related midrash makes the same bold claim with greater specificity. The Israelites in Egypt were distinguished by four virtues rarely found among other nations: they practiced chastity, did not speak ill of each other and preserved their names and their own language (Mekhilta de Rabi Yishmael, 5). Again the blanket nature of the statement implies that even when entrapped in slavery, the Israelites were able to exercise enough autonomy to cultivate and transmit their distinctive values to their children. And this is surely how we would prefer to imagine our ancestors in the Egyptian chamber of horrors, bloodied but unbowed.

But this is not the only view of how Jacob’s clan deported itself. The world of midrash, like that of the Talmud, reverberates with divergence and disagreement. The study of Torah has always spawned a multiplicity of readings. Our first interpretation derives from a single word in the prayer to be recited by the pilgrim bringing his first fruits to the Temple, the biblical text on which the Haggadah rests; the second is triggered by a phrase in this week’s parasha, and thus derives directly from the narrative depicting the Exodus.

Moses had not underestimated the difficulty of winning the confidence of the Israelites in his redemptive mission. Setbacks only increased their skepticism. At God’s behest, Moses addresses the people again, this time lacing his speech with a series of four strong verbs of divine deliverance: “I will free you. . . I will deliver you . . . I will redeem you. . . I will take you. . . (Exodus 6:6-7)” The intensity of the repetition is intended to accentuate the certainty of the promise, and when the Rabbis sought a scriptural base for the practice of drinking four cups of wine at the Seder, they alighted on these four expressions of national redemption (P.T. Pesahim 10:1). Nevertheless, Moses’ own contemporaries were unmoved. Cryptically, the Torah reports that, “They would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage (Exodus 6:9).”

In his eleventh-century commentary, Rashi chose to interpret the phrase “mikotzer ruah – crushed spirits” literally, as shortness of breath. That is, for someone in great agony, like the Israelites collapsing under the weight of oppression, breathing itself becomes ever more difficult. On the other hand, a midrash in the name of R. Yehuda ben Betayra, a colleague of R. Akiva and contemporary of the Bar Kochba revolt in 132 C.E., offers a far darker reading: “Is it conceivable that one who receives good tidings does not celebrate? For example, if we were to learn that we just had a son or our master was about to set us free, would we not rejoice?”

This, of course, is exactly how the Israelites reacted to the proclamation of Moses, stolidly. The problem was not their physical condition, R. Yehuda dared to speculate (perhaps having in mind those Jews of his own day who failed to rally to the messianic pretensions of Bar Kochba), but rather a deep-seated attachment to idolatry. Their indifference sprang from assimilation, not from suffering. They were unprepared to leave the “fleshpots” of Egypt (Mekhilta 5).

An anonymous midrash elsewhere enunciates the same critical view. What was the purpose of the ninth plague, which covered Egypt with an impenetrable darkness? Less to inflict further punishment on the Egyptians than to conceal from them what was going on in Goshen where the Israelites lived. This midrash asserts that many Israelites had no intention of leaving because they had garnered Egyptian patrons who bestowed upon them wealth and status. It was to eliminate these wayward Israelites without detection by the Egyptians that God needed the three days of darkness (Rashi on Exodus 10:22; B’reishit Rabba 14:3).

The proposition that Moses in Egypt confronted an audience of idolaters, however, was too radical for the Rabbis to invent out of whole cloth. Its origins in fact are biblical, though not to be found in Exodus, which appears uninterested in the religious state of the Israelites at the time. Our main source is the eccentric Prophet Ezekiel, and it is to him that R. Yehuda ben Betayra turned to substantiate his indictment with a prooftext: “Cast away, everyone of you, the detectable things that you are drawn to, and do not defile yourselves with the fetishes of Egypt – I the Lord am your God. But they defied Me and refused to listen to Me . . (20:7-8).” Delivered in 591 B.C.E. in Babylonia, some five years before the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the final deportation of Judahites by Nebuchadnezzar, this bitter prophecy rehearses the recurring repudiation of God by Israel, first in Egypt, then in the wilderness and eventually in the promised land. Israel’s predilection for idolatry was not to be seen as erupting suddenly after the Exodus but as a failing that pre-dated it. The miracles of the Exodus did not transform those redeemed into resolute monotheists overnight.

Moreover, it is this view, held both by Ezekiel and Joshua (24:14), that Maimonides appropriated in his reconstruction of the history of idolatry. At the outset, humanity had a monotheistic world view, but quickly fell into worshipping objects and forces of nature until it had grown progressively oblivious as to the ultimate source of all existence. Though Abraham recovered the pristine faith in God without benefit of revelation and disseminated it widely, his descendants in Egypt sank back into idolatry, except for the tribe of Levi. In short, monotheism hung by a thread till God drafted Moses to honor the covenant with the patriarchs and to ground reason in revelation. For Maimonides, then, the purpose of Torah is to rid the world of idolatry (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, ch. 1).

But it is a war without end. Human nature is weak and susceptible to reversals. Maimonides opted for the deterioration of Abraham’s faith in Egypt because he rejected what he deemed to be a dangerous illusion: that miracles could change the nature of humanity or even a single people. Israel was prone to idolatry before and after the Exodus. The history of Israelite inconstancy attests to the constancy of human nature, a reality that will go unaltered till the days of the Messiah. In the interim, a life of Torah gives us the strength to wrest a few victories along the way.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-era are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld