Our understanding of the story of the Exodus is framed in assumption, projection, and fantasy. After 210 years of displacement, slavery and persecution, we assume that the Bnai Yisroel wanted to be free of Egypt. In doing so, we project our own feelings that had we been in the same situation, we would have desired freedom from Egypt. However, that was not the case. The Jews certainly desired to be free of pain and persecution. They wanted safety for their families and they longed for the basic necessities of life. However, they did not desire freedom from the land of Egypt. They desired freedom within the land of Egypt. Thoughts of escaping to a better place, a promised land, a land of their ancestors, did not exist in the minds of the masses, and those who dreamt such a dream lived more in the world of fantasy than reality. As the authors of the Hagadah wrote, “If G-d had not taken us out of Egypt, we our children and our children’s children would still be beneath the rule of Pharaoh.”
From the very first verses in this week’s Parsha we see that the Jews did not want freedom in the conventional sense of the word. The verses reveal that Moshe’s hold on the Jews was extremely fragile, and that the Jew’s determination for freedom was very tenuous.
“It happened when Pharaoh sent out the people…”
Had Pharaoh not forced us out of Egypt, we would still be there. G-d’s method for taking us out of Mitzrayim was to have Pharaoh force us out. We would have never left Mitzrayim on our own.
“G-d did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, because it was near, for G-d said, perhaps the people will reconsider when they see a war, and they will return to Egypt.”
At the first signs of adversity the Jews might have turned away from a land flowing with milk and honey and returned to the arid, dusty alleyways of Goshen.
The map of ancient Canaan places the land of the Plishtim along the Mediterranean shore, due west of present day B’er Sheva. If G-d had led the Jews from Egypt into Israel along the shoreline, they could have arrived in less than seven days. They would have stood at the southwestern border of Canaan and seen the Promised Land. The Plishtim would have fought to protect their territory, but the Jews would have been victorious. Yet, the verse clearly states that G-d did not trust how the Jews would have reacted. At the first encounter with armed resistance the Jews might have turned away from freedom and returned to Egypt!
Keep in mind that this verse was stated before the miracle of Kriyas Yam Suf – Parting of The Sea of Reeds. That means that the Jews would possibly have chosen to return to the status quo of slavery rather than fighting for their independence. On the threshold of victory they would have turned back! To appreciate the mindset of the Jews at the time of the Exodus we must analyze what their thoughts about freedom and the “Promised Land” were at that time.
Rashi (6:16) references the Medresh that tells us that the process of enslavement started after the death of Layvie. Layvie was the last of the Yakov’s 12 sons to die. Until his death, Pharaoh could not begin his program of “forgetting Yoseph” and all that Egypt owed to the family of Yakov. Layvie, who died at 137, was approximately 5 years older than Yoseph, and therefore lived approximately 22 years longer than Yoseph who died at 110. Yoseph was 39 when Yakov came to Egypt. He ruled another 71 years. If we subtract 71 + 22 from the 210 years that the Jews were in Mitzrayim we find that the Jews were “enslaved” for 117 years.
The severe persecution started with the birth of Miriam who was 85 years old when the plagues began. That means that the “hard labor” was 85 of the 117 years. Therefore, Pharaoh’s program of enslavement took 32 years to be fully implemented.
To appreciate the impact of those years on human psychology, imagine that we have been severely persecuted since 1914. Imagine if the process of being alienated from American society and made into second-class citizens started in 1884.
Imagine that there was no Israel, as we know of it, beckoning us and offering hope and salvation.
Imagine over 100 years of societal alienation and anti-Semitism. What would be our thoughts on freedom and escape? I am not talking about individuals breaking away and escaping. I am imagining families with children and grandparents, possibly great-grandparents, sharing a common history of pain and hopelessness. What would we dream about?
Let’s even suggest that there is a legend of ancestors who first came to America from a promised land flowing with milk and honey. Forced to leave their Promised Land, they came to America and settled.
These founding fathers of our nation were G-dly people who left a legacy of hope and expected return to a foreign place known as Canaan. They were great men who served our country (America) as ministers and advisors, but who died without ever realizing their dream of return.
There is even a legend of a redeemer who would one day return to free us and take us to this mythical Promised Land.
How many of us would tenaciously hold onto the hope of being freed of the shackles of slavery and returning to the land of our ancestors? Or, would we be dreaming of freedom in our land, the United States of America?
Imagine if following the Civil War, President Lincoln had emancipated the slaves and told them they were free to return to the land of their ancestors. How many would have returned to Africa and elsewhere? Would that have been freedom or quintessential racism?
Imagine an America without democracy and a Bill of Rights. Would the slave dream of leaving America and returning to the shores of Africa? Or, would he desire freedom from oppression and slavery and the right of becoming full-fledged citizen in the only land he ever knew?
The Jews in Egypt only knew Egypt; they did not know Israel. If they dreamt the dream of freedom it was to be full-fledged Egyptian citizens removed from pain and persecution. In fact, in the entire story of the Jews being in Egypt and leaving Egypt, the Torah does not record a single instance of the Jews asking to be free, asking to leave Egypt! The only statement of national reaction prior to the exodus is in Parshas Shemos 2:23-25.
“And it was during those many days… The Jews groaned because of the work and they cried out.”
The verse does not even say what they cried out or to whom they cried. The verse simply says they cried out “and G-d heard their moaning and G-d remembered His covenant with…” The verses describe a nation despondent and hopeless. A people suffering the indignities of persecution and the debasement of humanity created in the image of G-d.
Did they hope for a redeemer? Did they dream of the hills of Judea and the lush valleys of the Gallil? Or, did they wish for the safety of children, the cessation of pain, and the freedom to walk the streets of Goshen as citizens and subjects of Egypt and Pharaoh?
At the end of Bereishis, Yakov demanded that Yoseph bury him in Canaan. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains Yakov’s motive for doing so.
“During the seventeen years that he had lived in Mitzrayim Jacob may have noted the powerful influence which the acquisition of property was beginning to exercise upon his descendants. He might have seen that they had begun to regard the Nile as their Jordan, that they no longer considered their sojourn in Mitzrayim as an exile… It would be sufficient cause for Jacob to say to them: “You may hope and wish to live in Mitzrayim, but I do not even want to be buried there.” (The Pentateuch pg. 198)
If during the lifetime of Yakov the Jews had begun to physically and emotionally assimilate into Egyptian society, what had they become 100 years later!
On the word “Chamushim” (13:18) Rashi references the Mechilta and the Tanchuma that explain it to mean 1/5 of the Jews. The remaining 4/5 died during the three days of darkness.
Why did they die? Because they did not want to leave Egypt! After all was said and done, after 10 miraculous plagues and the spectacle of Egypt being brought to her knees, the majority of the enslaved Jews did not want to leave! Their notion of freedom had nothing to do with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov. Their notion of freedom had nothing to do with ancient legends and fanciful redeemers. They simply wanted to be free “like everybody else.”
In the end, even the brave and the committed needed to be treated with kid’s gloves. Adversity and difficulties would quickly strip away their facade of courage and trust and expose the fear and uncertainty.
Therefore, G-d did not lead them by way of the Plishtim…”
Copyright © 2001 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.