Why were the Jews redeemed from Egypt?
I’ve heard 2 answers that seem to conflict, and a third that we’ll look at in a minute.
The first answer, from a midrash, is that bnei Yisrael were redeemed by the merit of three things: they kept their Jewish names, clothing and language. Very, very nice. We like this answer. We teach it to our kids.
The second answer, from the Zohar, is that bnei Yisrael had reached the 49th level of tumah, impurity. If Hashem had waited another minute, the Jewish people would have been lost completely. We definitely know that the Jews were comfortable in Mitzrayim. They they did avodah zarah, and it seems like they were almost totally assimilated.
So which is it? Were the Jews impure and totally assimilated? Or were they like some kind of holy Chassidim, wearing special Jewish robes and refusing to integrate into Mitzri society?
Moshe, by the way, asks the same question.
When he says to Hashem at the burning bush, “And Moses said to G-d: 'Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?"” (3:11)
וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה אֶל הָאֱלֹקִים מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם:
Hashem answers, “And He said: 'For I shall be with you, and this is the sign for you that I have sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship G-d on this mountain.'”
וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ וְזֶה לְּךָ הָאוֹת כִּי אָנֹכִי שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ בְּהוֹצִיאֲךָ אֶת הָעָם מִמִּצְרַיִם תַּעַבְדוּן אֶת הָאֱלֹקִים עַל הָהָר הַזֶּה:
This, Rashi tells us, is actually two answers, because Moshe has actually asked two questions. Very good questions.
The first question Moshe asks is, “Who am I that I should go to Paroh?”
His second question is, “And that I should take the Children of Israel out?” In other words, why do they deserve it?
We’ll look at Hashem’s answer – His TWO answers – in a little bit. But Moshe’s first question deserves a deeper look. Who exactly is he?
When Moshe asks, “who am I?” This isn’t false modesty. On the face of it, he’s totally the wrong person to go to Paroh. Even if we question that midrash that the Jews in Egypt were living in a ghetto, wearing their own clothes, speaking their own language and keeping their Jewish names… we know that Moshe sure wasn’t.
He was dressed like a Mitzri prince, until he fled, and now he’s probably dressed like a shepherd of Midyan. He grew up in Paroh’s palace; it’s not likely that he spoke the language that the Jews did, at least, not very well. And his name… well, midrashim give us several names Moshe was known by as a baby, most notably, Tuvya, but the name the Torah uses, the name Hashem uses, is a Mitzri name: Moshe.
So, on one level Moshe is absolutely right. He’s the wrong redeemer for such a holy people. He’s nothing like them. And he knows that they probably won’t believe him if he stands up and says it’s time to go.
Rashi suggests that they might follow him anyway, because they’d follow anybody to get out of slavery. But Moshe knew they wouldn’t have enough faith to follow him as far as eretz Canaan. They all knew knows the people there were too strong to beat.
But that’s where Hashem’s answer comes in. Hashem’s two answers.
Hashem’s first answer is: “this” – the burning bush. This is the sign that Moshe is worthy, Moshe is ready to go speak with Paroh.
Hashem’s second answer is: “the Jewish people will come to the mountain,” to Har Sinai, to receive the Torah.
Neither of those answers really addresses Moshe’s questions. They’re both about Hashem, right? Not about Moshe or the Jewish people. Yet that is the very core of the answer. Moshe is worthy because Hashem chose him and appeared to him at the bush. The Jewish people are worthy because Hashem has a plan for them.
The Ramban doesn’t love Rashi’s answer, by the way. Maybe because Har Sinai is way off in the future, so it’s not a great sign. The Ramban believes it’s all about fear. Moshe is afraid to go to Paroh – so Hashem assures him that He’ll be with him. And the Jews will fear the other nations until they stand at Har Sinai. Once they get there, they’ll receive a revelation so mind-blowing, they’ll be prepared to follow Moshe anywhere.
For both Rashi and Rambam, however, the Jews haven’t necessarily done anything special… and they don’t NEED to do anything special. They are Hashem’s, and once Hashem has a plan for you, you don’t need to worry or fear anything.
So why couldn’t Moshe see this? I mean, this is Hashem talking to him. If the One who made the whole universe tells you to do something, why would you think you couldn’t?
This is where a third answer comes in.
Why were bnei Yisrael redeemed from Mitzrayim?
In gemara Sotah, it says that by the zechus of “nashim tzidkaniyos,” righteous women, we were redeemed from Mitzrayim.
I’m sure you’ve heard this before. Sometimes, it’s offered half-heartedly as a salve to women who feel excluded from the Torah. But this is no weak balm, this is strong, strong ointment for the Jewish soul.
When Moshe stands at the bush and says, “Hashem, what are you talking about?” he joins a long, long, long line of Jewish men who cannot see Hashem’s plan. Great men.
Like Moshe’s father Amram. When Paroh said he would throw the baby boys into the Nile, Amram said, according to a midrash, that it was better not to be married at all, and he split up with his wife Yocheved. This is a holy man, the grandson of Levi, ancestor of all the kohanim. He should have been in touch with what Hashem was up to, but he wasn’t. It was his daughter, Miriam, says the midrash, who told Amram he was worse than Paroh, because he was eliminating the girls as well.
Of course, he got back together with his wife, and Moshe was born, and the rest is history.
Going back, though, we see blindness in every single generation. There is no exception. Sarah sees something unsavoury in Yishmael and sends him away, against Avraham’s wishes. Rivka sees something important in Yaakov and arranges for him to get Yitzchak’s bracha instead of Eisav.
And Yaakov, in turn, is blinded to Hashem’s plan by his grief over what he thinks is the death of Yoseif. Midrashim tell us that he lost his ruach hakodesh and couldn’t communicate with Hashem at all during Yoseif’s absence. If he had, he would have known Yoseif was still alive.
But he didn’t.
So how did he find out? A bas kol – literally, a “daughter voice,” the voice of his granddaughter, Serach. A midrash tells us that – in order not to kill him with the shocking news – his sons arranged to break it to him gently in a song: “Yosef is alive… in Egypt…” It was a great song, and it wasn’t a man who was singing it.
So we see that in every generation, the male leaders of the generation were blinded to Hashem's true plan. And in each generation, righteous women sang out, intervening to carry out the plan. This is not just midrash. In almost every case, this is pshat, plain and simple.
Even the very strange story of Yehuda and Tamar, where Yehuda delays giving his youngest son in marriage to his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar so she can have a baby. Tamar knows what’s at stake, so she conceals her identity, arranges a clandestine meeting with him and bears his own child 9 months later.
Today, we sing this in Lecha Dodi: that geulah, the final redemption will come “al yad ish ben Partzi.” That last part – the descendent of Peretz. Tamar’s son, through Yehuda.
That’s what Tamar knew that Yehuda didn’t; Yehuda was standing stood in the way of geulah, redemption, and she had to step in to make it happen.
Oh, and – also in Lecha Dodi – when we sing “al yad ben Yishai”? That’s the father of David HaMelech, descended from another man – Boaz, who, in the story of Ruth and Naomi, who had to be tricked and coaxed by righteous women into making history happen.
Which brings us to someone who may have been the most significant woman in this week’s parsha, a parsha full of important women: Paroh’s daughter Bitya (or, as she’s more commonly know, Batya).
In kids' versions of the story, she’s completely silly and naive. "Oh, what's this - a baby? In the river?" And then, "Oh, you know a woman who can nurse him?" Like she’s a two-bit actor playing a role, not very well.
In real life, I doubt she could have been so naive. She knew exactly what was going on.
She found the baby floating on the Nile. What do we know about the Nile in ancient Egypt? It was a god. By throwing the babies into the river, the soldiers were absolving themselves and letting their god decide if the babies would live or die. Most died, but it was the river’s fault, not the soldiers’.
Pharaoh himself claimed to be a god, too - the god of the Nile, in fact.
So by telling the Mitzrim that Moshe was taken out of the water, Batya was doing two things, both very smart: She was announcing to the world that he was a Jewish baby (everyone knew who was being thrown in the water). Singing out boldly that the water had saved him.
Indeed, giving him a name that meant "drawn from the water," announced that he, too, was a sort of a god or demigod. It was a royal, kingly name - the word "Moses" is related to the root of the name "Rameses" as well.
Batya established Moshe soundly within the Mitzri framework and belief system, building him into a great man… a man who would one day stand before Hashem at the bush and ask, “who am I?” So who was he?
He was Mitzri, Egyptian through and through. He spoke the Mitzri language, wore their clothes, and had a name and background that proclaimed his importance in Mitzri society.
Which made him exactly the man to lead the Jews out of Egypt. We see something like this a little later in the Torah when we learn about the Para Aduma, the red heifer. It’s called the “quintessential chok” – a law we can never understand. The water is impure, but has the ability to purify others.
Moshe Rabbeinu was steeped, absolutely soaked, in Egyptian tumah, impurity. He had reached the 49th level, for sure. But he had the ability – because he was chosen by Hashem – to purify others.
The Jews couldn’t see that when he came back to Mitzrayim and stood before them. Oh, I’m sure they loved him to bits. They must have innately trusted him, because they adored all things Egyptian. They just didn’t believe that he was the redeemer.
They huddled. They whispered. They chatted. And they said – let’s go to the “gadol hador.” Who was not, as it turns out – according to a midrash – a gadol at all but a gedolah: Serach bas Asher, the same daughter of Asher who had, as a young girl, unblinded Yaakov with the news that Yoseif was still alive in Mitzrayim.
They told Serach, “So there’s this guy, says he’s the redeemer. He did all kinds of great tricks.”
“Hmm,” she said. There were lots of magicians in Mitzrayim, and they could all do tricks.
“He told us ‘pakod pakadti,’ that he’s sent from Hashem.”
“Yup, that’s him.” She knew right away.
The words were more important than the signs; the song, rather than the vision. Serach knew it was easy to fool these men with flashy visions – less simple to trick them with words.
Which brings us back to the main question. Why were the Jews redeemed from Mitzrayim?
Rashi’s explanation of Hashem’s second answer to Moshe seems most true to me. He saved them because He had a plan. They may have preserved their clothing, names and language but they were very, very impure. A midrash says when they crossed the Yam Suf, a malach demanded of Hashem, “these [the Mitzriyim] are idol worshippers and these [the Jews] are idol worshippers. Why are you killing these and saving these?”
There’s nothing special about the Jews. To say anything else would make us a weird kind of racist (because what kind of race lets you convert and become a full member?). Or rather, the only thing special about us is our partnership with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. We were redeemed through the righteous women who heard Hashem’s tune and sang in perfect harmony.
It’s tough to figure out what the takeaway is. If the Avos couldn’t see Hashem’s plan, how can there be any hope for us?
There are two ideas I think we can use here.
The first is, I think we often fundamentally misunderstand who Hashem is and what He wants from us. But he tells Moshe right away, well, after introducing himself at the bush. He says, “I have heard their cries because I know their pains.”
אֶת צַעֲקָתָם שָׁמַעְתִּי מִפְּנֵי נֹגְשָׂיו כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת מַכְאֹבָיו:
This word “know” is nothing abstract and theoretical. This is the “know” that Adam used when he “knew” Chava. It is physically and spiritually deep. When we are in galus, it pains Hashem. Why did Hashem speak to Moshe from a thorn bush? A midrash says he surrounded himself with pain, suffering the Jewish people’s pain along with them.
Hashem is our twin, midrashim tell us. We suffer together, and rejoice together. (Remember the kruvim? On top of the aron, facing each other, embracing when things were good between Hashem and bnei Yisrael?)
When we are not free, Hashem is – in some way – not free in the world. And now that we are free, it’s our responsibility to take that message, the message he promised Moshe we would hear at Har Sinai, and bring it with us out into the world.
This partnership with Hashem isn’t just an interesting thing about us, as Jews. It’s all there is to know. I believe that is what those righteous women heard, throughout the generations. May we merit to walk in their footsteps, sharing His light in the world.
Six years ago today, as the 19th of Teves was beginning, at night, I was in Yerushalayim and I found out my father died. I had had a beautiful birthday, a wonderful day out in Israel with the big kids. I managed to get them lost, but we found our way back. I loved being here. “There’s nowhere else like it in the world,” my father wrote on a postcard.
My father’s connection to Judaism was strange. He was raised as a cultural Jew. “Jewish” was something you were, period. Jews were special because… well, because. It’s that weird kind of racist. Pride in a Judaism without any specific beliefs or practices.
Just like the Jews in Mitzrayim, he’d lost his Jewish name – Pinchas, but everyone called him Paul – and knew so little Hebrew that he transliterated brachos into Yiddish to make them easier to read. His clothing, well, it wasn’t specifically goyish, though it was often second-hand, shabby and embarrassing to me as a teenager.
Yet I believe Judaism cried out to him his whole life. He drove us to Hebrew school every Sunday, he bought kosher dishes so his grandkids could eat in his house, he learned to say kaddish for his parents and never, ever missed Yizkor. And then, sat down in his 60s to actually learn the language – the Jewish language, at last, before coming to Israel for the first time.
When he and his brother Albert were almost as old as they’d ever get to be, dying fast in their mid-60s, my father insisted on bringing Albert to shul for an aliyah. Together, they were called up – by their Jewish names: Yechiel Pinchas and Anshel. Wrapped in tallis and tefillin, my father – in his Jewish clothing.
After my father died, I’d look out the window every time I heard a bicycle bell. Maybe for a year, maybe longer. Now, I’m far from that window, far from that house, far from that bicycle, and growing farther, in distance and time.
Yet even though I’m gone, he is there, forever. I hear the bell, I look outside, and there he is, turning the corner. I run to the porch and he waves as he rides past. If he comes in, which he sometimes does, if there’s time, we sit on the porch while the kids play inside or sleep. Sitting and talking, or just watching the world quietly.
He’s still there – but now I’m here. How did we get to Israel? My father sent us. I don’t know if he fully meant to. He had some strange ideas before he died. But I am grateful that one of his strange ideas was to send us to Israel – all expenses paid, all six of us, the vacation of a lifetime.
And I can’t help thinking of Yaakov. Even when he was blind, shut off from Hashem’s voice, a small voice still got through – the voice of Serach bas Asher.
I know my father loved Israel. I know he was happy here twice – once by himself, and once with my mother. Perhaps those happy memories were a “small voice” for him in the overwhelming and confusing face of illness and death, telling him that the Jewish people were alive and well and rebuilding the Promised Land at last.
Moments of clarity are rare and fleeting at the best of times. But those small voices are there for all of us, every single day, every single hour.
May we hear the song, may we listen, may we merit the ultimate redemption very, very soon.