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D'var Torah: Shabbat Chol haMoed Pesach

Since today’s Pesach reading is in Exodus and since we just read this part nine weeks ago, I won’t talk about today’s parashah specifically—I’ll talk about the general theme of Pesach, that is, the theme of redemption. So we can ask the question, why were the Israelites redeemed from Egypt? The answer that seems most obvious is that “...the Israelites were groaning under their bondage. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.” (Ex 2:23–24; also see Ex 3:7, 9, 16) and God’s plan was to redeem Israel from Egyptian servitude and lead them to eretz Yisrael (Ex 3:8, 17). But the Torah tells us more: according to the covenants God made with the patriarchs, God is to be Israel’s redeemer from oppression. This is most clearly stated in Genesis 15:13–14, in the so-called “covenant between the pieces,” where God reveals to Abraham that his descendants “will be strangers in a land not theirs,” and after 400 years, they will be set free. Later, in Deuteronomy, the theology is expressed that reward only comes from adherence to the mitzvot—in Deuteronomy the connection between observing the mitzvot and conquering and remaining in the land of Israel is made absolutely explicit. But the Israelites in Egypt observed no mitzvot at all!

The tanna’im, the rabbis of the Mishnah, observed the problem the exodus poses of redemption without mitzvah observance and asked how Israel could have merited redemption from Egypt without having observed any mitzvot. Answering this question, like all such troubling questions, was obviously a job that only a midrash could handle. In the halakhic midrash on Exodus called the Mekhilta, the rabbis essayed an attempt at an answer. But before we look at their answer, we need to review the commands in Exodus that concern the first Passover.

First, the month: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it is for you the first of the months of the year.” Then, the sacrificial lamb: “...on the tenth of this month they shall acquire for themselves a lamb for the family....” Then, the process: “You will watch (or guard) [the lamb] until the fourteenth day of this month and ... slaughter it at twilight.” And the finale: “...take from the blood and place it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house...” (Ex 12:2–3, 6–7).

These instructions give rise to many questions, not the least of which is the requirement for a four-day mishmerit—watching period between acquiring the animal and its sacrifice. So, implied the rabbis, here were mitzvot that had no apparent purpose other than providing an opportunity for the people to obey some commandments! In modern terms, this meant that God was giving the people a “bye”—an opportunity to observe some free mitzvot that would gain them the opportunity to be redeemed. But some rabbis didn’t buy this idea, and the Mekhilta quotes the opposing view of R. Eliezer haKappara:

Did not Israel possess four mitzvot [while they were in Egypt]…: that they were sexually pure, that they did not gossip, that they did not change their names, and that they did not change their language?1

We can safely discount R. Eliezer’s four-mitzvah theory. Where does the idea of sexual purity come from? Well, Leviticus 24:10 refers to a child of an Egyptian man and an Israelite woman which R. Eliezer assumes must have been the only case of improper behavior (because he believes that this case was cited in the Torah only because it was unique). What about gossiping? Here we need to look to another midrash, this one attributed to the third-century R. Alexandri, who claimed that the Israelites were shameless gossips. How did he deduce this? When Moses attempts to stop the arguing Israelites, they rebuke him, saying, “Do you intend to kill us as you killed the Egyptian?” (Ex 2:14). This led Moses to conclude that the Israelites were gossiping about him, and further, he concluded that God allowed Israel to remain enslaved precisely because of the sin of gossip.2

What about changing names? We only need to look to Joseph and note that he took an Egyptian name, Tzafenat Pa’ane’ah (Gen 41:45). Hey—even Moses himself kept his Egyptian name. How about language? Just read the modern midrash (cleverly disguised as a novel) by Rav Doug Moffat to learn that while in Egypt the Israelites had forgotten the “Old Language” (Betzalel ch 10 pg 75).3 Our midrash does consider the language question, but the reasoning is so contrived that, I assume, by striking the first three mitzvot from the theory as non-existent, it was considered to be enough to invalidate the whole theory. For the rabbis, those three strikes meant—you’re OUT. (I think that this is where the baseball minhag comes from, but proof of this will need more research. Maybe I can find a midrash to help.)

But what about those four days of watching the lamb—how could observing this waiting period be considered to be a mitzvah? Our authority, the Mekhilta, responds:

Because the Israelites in Egypt were steeped in idolatry. And the law against idolatry outweighs all of the other mitzvot … Therefore Moses said to them, stop worshiping idols and adhere to the mitzvot!4

Huh? This is a classic case of midrashic misdirection. Just change the subject and hope the reader won’t notice. Actually, one rabbi did make a case for the four days. He said that observing the four days would allow the Israelites the opportunity to perform the two mitzvot of circumcision and the paschal sacrifice in order to prove their merit.5 Well, at least that reason isn’t just smoke and mirrors.

As you might guess, there’s lots more in this vein; I won’t attempt to strain your credulity any more on this topic so let’s move to a related topic from this same midrash.

If the Israelites needed to observe just one mitzvah to be able to be redeemed, like watching a lamb for four days, and if some of them didn’t keep even this simple one, then how were those unbelievers to be redeemed? Ah, this is another weighty problem that only a midrash can satisfactorily address, and the Mekhilta comes charging to the rescue. If we examine Exodus 13:18b, we see that it reads: “... the children of Israel went up from Egypt chamushim.” Most translations render the last word as “armed,” and that is its p’shat meaning. But the Mekhilta notes that the word actually means “five” (chamesh), and interprets the verse to mean that only one in five Israelites merited redemption from Egyptian servitude. So Moses led only a fifth of the Israelite population into the desert! Not only that; the one-in-five fraction is the largest number the midrash mentions. Hey—I’m not making this up! Let me read you the section:

Another opinion says “chamushim went up” means one in five. Some say one in fifty. Some say one in five hundred. Rav Nehorai says: “[I swear by] the Temple service! It was not one in five hundred that went out [but fewer]. It says, ‘I made you into myriads like the grass of the field’ [Ezek 15:7], and it says, ‘The children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and became huge’ [Ex 1:6]—a woman would give birth to six at one time. And you say that one in five hundred went out? [I swear by] the Temple service! It was not one in five hundred that went out [but fewer]. Rather, many Jews died in Egypt. When did they die? During the three days of darkness, as it says, ‘People could not see each other’ [Ex 10:23]. They were burying their dead, and they thanked and praised Adonai that their enemies could not see and rejoice at their downfall.6

According to this midrash, between 80% to 99.8%—or even a greater fraction—of the Israelites did not leave Egypt. What reasoning underlies this astonishing claim? Well, according to Shemot Rabbah (yet another midrash—see how this chain of authority builds?), “There were sinners among the Jews who had Egyptian patrons, and they had wealth and honor there, [so] they didn’t want to leave.”7

Later commentators, including Abraham ibn Ezra, explained that these numbers applied to the generations either before or after the exodus and referred to those Jews who failed to accept the mitzvot and therefore were never redeemed from their spiritual “slavery.” But I like to play with numbers, and I calculate that, according to the Mekhilta, the Jewish population in Egypt before the exodus would have exceeded 126 million. Since the world population at the time of the exodus was only about 100 million,8 accepting the Mekhilta’s population statistic would mean that every member of today’s world population must have a Jewish ancestor. But obviously enough Jews were redeemed from Egypt to have allowed us to be here today to celebrate our redemption.

Shabbat shalom v'chag pesach sameach.

April 2011


Bibliography: Jacob Z. Lauterbach, ed. Mekhilta De-Rabbi Ishmael: A Critical Edition, Jewish Publication Society of America, 2004.

1. Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, Tractate Pischa, Ch. V; see also Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 32:5, quoted by Rav Huna speaking in the name of bar Kappara,
2. Shemot Rabbah 1:30
3. Douglas G. Moffat, In God's Shadow,, 2011.
4. Mekhilta, op.cit.
5. R. Matia b. Heresh, quoted in Mekhilta, op.cit
6. Mekhilta, op.cit., Tractate Beshalach, Ch I
7. Shemot Rabbah 14:3
8. Eli Barnavi (ed), A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, Knopf (Schocken Books), 1992, p. 1

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