Meriting the Exodus

Meriting the Exodus
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei – פרשת ויקהל-פקודי
March 13, 2021 – כט אדר תשפא
This essay is sponsored by Josh & Deena Davis in memory of Bernard Davis (Dov ben Yitzchak Z”L); by Edite Vieira in memory of Maria da Conceicao de Jesus Sebastiao.
Meriting the Exodus
Scripture reports that the process of fashioning the Tabernacle, its vessels and accoutrements, the priestly vestments, and all the sundry items needed for the sacrificial cult ended on a positive note: “And Moses saw all the tasks, and look, they had done it as the Lord had charged, thus they had done it, and Moses blessed them (Exodus 39:43).” Rabbi Joshua ben Levi compared the phrase “Moses saw” with a similar expression about God’s first stirrings to liberate the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. “And God saw the Israelites, and God knew (2:25).” RJBL asserted that it was in the merit of their future service to God in the Tabernacle that the Israelites experienced the Exodus (Midrash Tehillim 114). Further Scriptural support for this notion is mustered from the verse “And they shall know that I am the Lord their God Who brought them out from the land of Egypt for Me to abide in their midst (Exodus 29:46).” Rashi and Ibn Ezra explain this verse to mean that the Exodus was conditional on the Israelites’ soon thereafter taking on the burdens of the sacrificial cult in the Tabernacle.
A related Midrashic text cites the Divine promise “If you go by My statutes and keep My commands… I shall place my Tabernacle in your midst (Leviticus 26:3,11).” The Exodus was conditioned on Israel’s heeding God’s commands so that He might bring His presence down from the Heavens and rest in a terrestrial abode situated in the center of the Israelite camp (Tanhuma Bechukotai 5). A late Midrashic text questions the juxtaposition of the Exodus and the Tent of Meeting in the verse introducing the wilderness census. “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 1:1).” The homiletic answer is that the Exodus occurred in the merit of Israel’s later construction of the Tent of Meeting (Midrash Aggadah Numbers 1).
Rabbinic literature is replete with competing -- and occasionally complementary -- theories about the source of merit in respect of which the Israelites were taken out of Egypt. Rabbi Nehemiah said that Israel was redeemed because of its future merit of accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai. He compared the phrase “And God saw the Israelites” with a similar expression about Israel’s sensory experience during the Sinaitic Theophany. “And all the people were seeing the thunder (Exodus 20:14).” Further support for this view is derived from God’s words to Moses at the burning bush: “When you bring the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain (3:12).” Alternatively, proof that the Exodus occurred in merit of Israel’s acceptance of the Torah can be found in the first utterance of the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage (20:2).”
Rabbi Judah said that Israel was redeemed in light of the merit of the blood of the Paschal Lamb and the covenantal blood of circumcision. He cited a verse featured prominently in the circumcision liturgy, “And when I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live (Ezekiel 16:6).”
Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob said that Israel was redeemed in merit of the sacrificial act by Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. They chose to be thrown into a fiery furnace – from which they were miraculously saved -- rather than prostrate themselves before a graven image. Rabbi Eliezer compared “And God saw the Israelites” with the prophetic statement, “For when he – this is, his children – behold what My hands have wrought in his midst, they will hallow My name (Isaiah 29:23).” In this view, the children refer to those unblemished, heroic Jewish lads in the court of the Chaldeans (Daniel 1:4). But the sages disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation, asserting that “in his midst” instead implies that the Exodus happened in the merit of the children of Isaiah’s own generation.
Other Midrashic texts suggest that Israel was redeemed from Egypt in the merit of the Patriarchs. The smearing of the blood of the Paschal Lamb on the lintel is understood as a reference to Abraham, the greatest of all converts, while the smearing of the blood on the two doorposts refers to Isaac and Jacob (Exodus Rabbah 1).
Several other theories about the merit under-girding the Exodus expound upon the verse from Tehillim that “God restores the lonely to their homes, sets free the imprisoned, safe and sound (Psalms 68:7).” The word בכושרות, which refers to prisoners bound in chains, is homiletically interpreted to read בכשרות, that God set free an imprisoned nation in the merit of the kosher ones. Who are the kosher ones? The various answers given include a) Jacob, b) the Matriarchs, and c) the tribe of Levi, which did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf and was not counted in the general Israelite census (Numbers Rabbah 3).
A widely known theory is that Israel was redeemed from Egypt in the merit of the righteous women of Israel. At the height of Egyptian persecution, and in light of the drowning by the Egyptians of Israelite male newborns, the Hebrew men gave up hope of national survival and refused to co-habit with their wives. The righteous women ensured group continuity by overcoming their husbands’ reluctance by seducing them. The women fed and washed their tired husbands and copulated with them in the sheepfolds (the walled enclosures in which sheep are penned). Having been impregnated, the women carried their fetuses to term, gave birth under the apple trees, and miraculously kept their children out of the hands of the Egyptian murderers (Sotah 11b).[i]
Another popular Aggadic tradition is that the Israelites merited the Exodus because, for the duration of their lengthy stay in Egypt, they did not change their ethnically Hebrew names, did not change their vernacular language, and did not give over their women to promiscuity (Numbers Rabbah 13). Other recensions add that they did not bear tales and they maintained their monotheistic faith (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 47).
All these homiletic explanations lack real grounding in the Pentateuchal text. The explicit textual rationale for the Exodus is God’s promise to Abraham at the Covenant between the Parts. The founding Hebrew patriarch was told that his descendants would be strangers in a foreign land and would there be enslaved, but that, after four centuries, they would be redeemed and returned to the Promised Land (Genesis 15:13-16). Scripture in effect refers to this promise in the verse immediately preceding God’s act of “seeing” the Israelites: “God heard their moaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 2:24).” Before engaging in its homiletic flourishes, the Midrash acknowledges this most basic of reasons for the Exodus, and cites a later Biblical verse that God acted “for the sake of My name, that it might not be profaned (Ezekiel 20:9).” In other words, since God promised Abraham that there would be an Exodus -- which promise is set forth in the plain words of the Torah -- it would be a Chillul Hashem were heathens able to say that that promise had not been fulfilled.
What motivated the sages to posit so many different explanations why the Israelites merited the Exodus? Why was the straightforward answer deemed insufficient?
One possible view is that the sages did not regard favorable Divine promises as absolutely binding God. Rather, such promises are conditional. They are contingent on the continued righteous behavior of the would-be recipient of Divine favor. This approach is employed in defense of Jacob’s nervousness when encountering Esau upon Jacob’s return to the Land of Canaan after a twenty-year absence. “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed (Genesis 32:8).”  However, in light of God’s prior promise to him, “I will protect you wherever you go (28:15),” the natural inquiry is: Was Jacob’s anxiety indicative of incomplete faith in that promise? No, says the Talmud. On the contrary, his nervousness is to be commended because he feared that his personal sins might have compromised him in terms of his being afforded that Heavenly protection.  Thus, the Talmud turns something that might have been seen as a spiritual failing (Jacob’s ostensible lack of faith in the earlier Divine promise) into, instead, an exemplary level of fear of sin (Berakhot 4a). Similarly, the assumed spiritual descent of the Israelites in Egypt would have negated the force of the Divine promise to Abraham were it not for some other (past or future) source of merit (like the merit of rituals performed at the hour of redemption, the merit of future pious acts, or the merit of Israelite heroes).
More likely, though, the multiplicity of theories about why the Israelites merited the Exodus came to the fore because rabbinic preachers, over several centuries, used the Exodus to elevate the importance of other Judaic concepts and historical personalities in the minds of their congregants and other audiences. For millennia, even the marginal or unlettered Jew has understood the centrality of the Exodus to Judaism and Jewish people-hood. By asserting that the Exodus occurred in the merit of some other action, belief, or worthy person, that referent necessarily becomes endowed with greater Judaic significance. A homilist may have felt it necessary to raise the prestige of Jewish women, strengthen Jewry’s commitment to circumcision, fight the ravages of linguistic and cultural assimilation, push back against declining levels of chastity, remind people of the spiritual greatness of our forebears, or recall the glories of the long-lost sacrificial service. All these aims could be achieved by drawing exegetical connections, however strained they might be, to the Exodus.
With the approach of the month of Nisan and the holiday of Passover, we hope that the story of the Exodus has as much meaning for us as it did for the generations of Jews who have preceded us.
[i] This legend was the basis for the name of the Haredi women’s political party, U’Bizchutan (“in the merit of”), that in the Knesset elections in 2015 received 1,802 votes.