Redemption as an education in faith
Here’s a long and complex midrash (Ex. Rabbah 15:18) that must be read in its entirety before it can be decoded. Classifying each of the many elements in play and then working out their relationships to each other is no small task. But there’s enormous satisfaction once the job’s done.
“And God spoke to Moses and Aharon in the land of Egypt…” (Ex. 12:1) For whom did God reveal Himself in Egypt? For Himself.
This can be compared to a house guest who, due to his employer’s actions is caught and imprisoned. His master said to him: “Do not fear, I will come and take you out.” The master sent his servant to take the house guest out but the innkeeper did not want to release him. The master said: “the inn keeper did well, for I had promised that I would take him out, but instead, I sent my servant.”
So too, God said to Abraham: your children will be enslaved in Egypt and afterwards I will redeem them, as it says (Gen. 15:13): “You should surely know that your descendants will be strangers…” and it says (ibid, 14): “And also the nation which shall enslave them I will judge.” God sent Moses to redeem them and Pharaoh did not agree. God said: Pharaoh has acted appropriately for I said to Abraham “I will judge” – Is Moses “I”? Or is Aharon “I”? Did I not say (Psalms 81:11) “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” ?
Alternatively: For whom did God reveal Himself in Egypt? For Moses.
Rabbi Nissim said: This can be compared to a priest (kohen) who had a garden of figs and in that garden there was a patch that possibly contained human remains (“beis hapras” – an area into which a kohen may not go for fear of contamination). The kohen sought to eat the figs. He said to someone: “Go and say to the sharecropper working there that the owner of the garden told you to bring two figs.” He went and did as he was instructed. The sharecropper replied “Who is this owner of the garden? Go to your work!”
The kohen said (to the person he’d sent): “I will go to the garden.” They said to him: “You are going to this defiled place?” He replied: “Even if there were a hundred impurities I would go so my servant should not suffer shame.”
So too, when the Jews were in Egypt, God said to Moses (Ex. 3:10): “Go and I will send you to Pharaoh.” Moses went, and Pharaoh said to him (ibid. 5:2): “Who is this God that I should listen to His voice. I never knew this God…Go to your burdens.”
God said: “I will go to Egypt.” As it says (Yeshaya 19:1): “A prophecy concerning Egypt.” The angels said to Him: “You are going to Egypt, to a defiled place?” He replied “I will go so my messenger, Moses, will not be shamed.” About this it is written: “And God spoke to Moses and Aharon in the land of Egypt…” (Ex. 12:1)
Now we can try to catalog some of the more obvious problems that face us:
- What role does “the employer” play in the first story? Is he synonymous with “the master” (i.e., with God)? If he is, why make things more complicated by giving Him a new name?
- What crime did the the house guest commit?
- Who was the “house guest’s” host and what relationship do his accommodations have to his employment (after all, whatever power his innkeeper had over him seems connected to what happened at work)?
- What, precisely, did the “master” offer the innkeeper for the release of his prisoner and what excuse did the innkeeper use to justify his refusal (note that the second story makes this element quite clear, but here we’re left on our own).
- Why, in both stories, did the master promise to personally intercede, but later only sent an agent? It can’t be due to simple laziness, as that would hardly be applied to God in the midrash’s resolution!
- Why are figs – and especially such an apparently insignificant number – used to represent the Jewish nation in the second story?
- Why did the sharecropper order the messenger back to work? We have been given no indication until now that this messenger was anything more than the kohen’s casual acquaintance or that he had any connection to the garden. And even if he was a worker, what business does a simple sharecropper have ordering him about?
Here’s another problem:
- Why two separate stories? God’s desire to personally oversee His people’s redemption – even at extraordinary cost – would seem to be a unifying theme that could have been taught using only one scenario.
Of course, it’s important to note the subtle differences between the two stories:
- In the first story, the key problem isn’t the master’s (or God’s), but rather the house guest’s incarceration. In the second story, however, the kohen himself (i.e., God) needs the figs: he’s primarily trying to solve his own problem rather than someone else’s. Yet, paradoxically, this second story exists to explain how God personally intervened in Egypt for Moses – not for Himself. It’s in the first story (whose context explains God’s intervention for Himself) that the house guest is the altruistic target of his master’s action.
- In the first story, the man sent to gain the house guest’s release is described as a servant (or, more literally, a slave). His feelings don’t seem to play any role in the master’s later decision. However in the second story, the one sent to get figs is described simply as “someone” and not (initially at least) as a servant.
- The first narrative does not record any objections to the master’s final plan. However, the second story (and its resolution) has friends (or angels) expressing their shock at the plan.
And another problem:
- Let’s assume that the goal of this midrash is to explain why the Torah added “in Egypt” when describing God’s message to Moses and Aharon. The stories, then, connect this introduction to the redemption. But the actual redemption is only discussed much later in verse twelve. Shouldn’t “in Egypt” also have some connection to the verses that immediately follow?
Not such a simple midrash. Let’s see if we can make some sense of it all.
I think it’s fairly obvious that the house guest refers to the Jews in Egypt, who did after all originally go as guests. The innkeeper would then, of course, be Pharaoh. But who is the employer and what did he do to cause the Jews’ imprisonment?
The one individual mentioned in the midrash’s resolution who has no obvious corresponding figure in the story is Abraham. Couldn’t he be the Jews’ “employer” in the sense that he was charged by God with the task of shaping his family for their eventual role as the nation of Torah? Remember: when God told Abraham about the coming exile (Gen. 15:13), it was so that his preparations should ensure that the exile experience should be productive – see Deut. 4:20
And you, God took and brought you from the iron furnace, from Egypt, to be for Him a nation…
Rashi: “From the furnace” …a tool for purifying gold.
So, when they endured the purifying test of Egyptian slavery, the Jews were, in a sense, doing Abraham’s work. And it was indeed under Abraham’s (and God’s) instruction that they were imprisoned.
Why does the first story describe the master’s messenger as “his slave” while in the second story, the character playing the similar role is simply “someone”? Perhaps because a slave, being nothing more than an extension of his master, feels no personal shame if his task fails. The master therefore doesn’t need to worry about a slave’s feelings and can focus instead on his own needs. Because, however, the kohen in the second story sent a friend or colleague, he assumed a moral responsibility for his wellbeing. Thus, when things went wrong, he felt the need to restore his friend’s honor. The resulting contrast between the two stories emphasizes the deep concern God had for His trusted “friend” Moses. We’ll have more on that later.
Why, if both the master and the kohen represent God, are they both portrayed as initially failing to keep their word? And once we’re on the subject, why did God Himself appear to change His mind? I believe that this sequence of events was a device designed to highlight the key lessons of each midrash. If God had immediately and personally redeemed the Jews (or if the kohen and the master had immediately done what they were supposed to do) then we would never have been aware of those particular special qualities. It’s a teaching tool.
Why two stories? Because we’re being taught two distinct principles:
That God’s word is perfectly reliable.
Had God promised to personally redeem us from Egypt and then done it, we would have been grateful. But to see Him “compromising” other values by “entering” the defiled seat of Egyptian government (as more clearly described in the second half of the midrash), drives home the point with even greater strength. We, God’s nation, must be absolutely clear that His word is absolute.
That God cares deeply about His loyal followers.
That this “compromise” was primarily undertaken for Moses’s honor, speaks eloquently to the special relationship that can follow greater loyalty. Another key aspect of Torah life.
What connects the laws of sanctifying the new month mentioned at the beginning of Ex. 12, to the redemption that, according to the midrash, seems to be its goal? Rabbi S.R. Hirsch observes that by noting the regular rebirth of our moon, and its ascent into brightness and prominence, the Jewish people is to similarly aspire ever-again to rebirth and growth; to rising above the failures of the past. And through the fact that this monthly observation may actually be manipulated by the Jewish people (through their representatives in the Sanhedrin), we are taught that we’re not slaves to nature, but free men able to rise above our past.
Finally, why were “two figs” chosen to personify the Jews in Egypt? Let’s think: the overall principle taught by this part of the midrash is God’s concern for Moses. Since God’s appreciation of Moses and his many virtues is the focus, it makes sense to minimize others around him to reduce distraction (especially since Chazal do equate the value of Moses with that of his entire nation).
Here is the original text of our midrash:
דבר אחר בארץ מצרים בשביל מי נגלה הקדוש ברוך הוא בשביל עצמו משל לבן בית שנתפס על ידי בעל מלאכתו ונחבש אמר לו אדונו אל תירא אני בא ומוציאך שלח עבדו להוציא ולא רצה הפונדקי לשלחו אמר יפה עשה הפונדקי שאני אמרתי לו אני מוציאו ולא פקדתיו שאני משלח את עבדי כך אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לאברהם עתידין הן בניך להשתעבד במצרים ואחר כך אני גואלן שנאמר (בראשית טו, יג) ידוע תדע כי גר יהיה זרעך וכתיב (שם שם, יד) וגם את הגוי אשר יעבודו דן אנכי שלח הקדוש ברוך הוא משה לגואלן ולא רצה פרעה אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא כראוי עשה פרעה כי אני אמרתי לאברהם דן אנכי וכי משה אנכי או אהרן אנכי לא אמרתי אלא (תהלים פא, יא) אנכי ה’ אלקיך המעלך מארץ מצרים:
דבר אחר בשביל מי נגלה הקדוש ברוך הוא במצרים בשביל משה אמר רבי נסים משל לכהן שהיה לו גינה של תאנים ובאותה גנה היה בית הפרס בקש לאכול תאנים אמר לאחד לך אמור לאריס שבעל הגינה אומר לך שתביא לו שתי תאנים הלך ואמר לו כך השיבו האריס מי הוא בעל הגנה לך למלאכתך אמר לו הכהן אני אלך לגנה אמרו לו למקום טמא אתה הולך אמר להם אפילו יש שם מאה טומאות הולך אני ולא יתבייש שלוחי
כך כשהיו ישראל במצרים אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה (שמות ג, י) לכה ואשלחך אל פרעה הלך ואמר לו (שם ה, ב) מי ה’ אשר אשמע בקולו לא ידעתי את ה’ (שם שם, ד) לכו לסבלותיכם אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא אלך למצרים שנאמר (ישעיה יט, א) משא מצרים אמרו לו מלאכי השרת למצרים אתה הולך למקום טומאה אמר להם אלך ולא יתבייש שלוחי משה הדא הוא דכתיב ויאמר ה’ אל משה ואל אהרן בארץ מצרים לאמר: