Everyone likes a story of an underdog succeeding, a happy ending after a difficult struggle. There are usually two variations on the theme. One is that of personal transformation, overcoming personal difficulties and becoming a better individual. Another is salvation from a bad situation. The former is about personal change and the latter is about a person emerging from suffering. The Talmud (Pesachim 116a) prescribes that the beginning of the...

Exodus: Salvation or Transformation?

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I. Two Exodus Stories

Everyone likes a story of an underdog succeeding, a happy ending after a difficult struggle. There are usually two variations on the theme. One is that of personal transformation, overcoming personal difficulties and becoming a better individual. Another is salvation from a bad situation. The former is about personal change and the latter is about a person emerging from suffering.

The Talmud (Pesachim 116a) prescribes that the beginning of the magid (story) section of the Haggadah begin with negative historical facts about the Jewish people. The sages Rav and Shmuel debate with which story we must begin. Rav states that we must start by telling how our forefathers were idolators while Shmuel holds that we begin by stating that we were slaves in Egypt. In practice, we follow both. After the four questions we say “Avadim hayinu — we were slaves” and then we subsequently say “Mi-techilah ovdei avodah zarah — our forefathers were idolators.”

The differing visions between these two rabbis of the Haggadah plot seem to reflect the types discussed above. Rav sees it as a tale of transformation. We were originally idolators and through the long period of enslavement and Exodus we changed into monotheists. In this vision, the turning point is “Va-nitzak” — and we cried out to God from the difficulties of the slavery. Rather than turning to idols, the enslaved Jews prayed to the one, true God.

Shmuel, however, sees the story as one of salvation. The Jews were slaves and God freed them. In this telling, the turning point is “Va-yotzi’enu” — and God took us out of Egypt. Occurring twice in the Haggadah — once in “Avadim hayinu” and again in “Arami oved avi” — this passage marks God’s physical redemption of the Jews from slavery.

II. Theological Salvation

However, Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Chametz U-Matzah 7:4) interprets Rav’s dictum in a way that reconciles the two approaches. Maimonides describes the ancestral idolators as “Deniers, mistakenly following nonsense and fervent idolators.” First they denied God’s existence; then in their disbelief they were confused by faulty thinking, which led them into idolatry. While Rambam is certainly not excusing their disastrous theological error, he is explaining that the process which brought the forefathers to idolatry was one of coercion. They fell into idolatry. It was not a choice but an external circumstance. In this interpretation, the Exodus story is one of salvation from a situation of idolatry into monotheism.

According to the Rambam, the turning point in the Haggadah remains “Va-nitzak.” However, rather than serving as a a sign of communal growth away from idolatry, it shows the theological salvation from the errors of idolatry. God redeems the Jews from idolatry into the path of monotheism.

According to both the plots of transformation and theological salvation, the story’s ending seems less than happy. Not long after leaving Egypt, the Jews reverted to idolatry with the Golden Calf episode and continued to periodically return to this ancestral sin. However, a similar objection can be raised to the salvation plot. Throughout the centuries, Jews were exiled and conquered. The seder of a Jew in Auschwitz or Siberia was certainly ironic, in some ways similar to that of an idolatrous Jew. While we tell the Exodus story as a single unit, the plot continues throughout the ages until the time when we no longer need to say “Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem.”

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

8 comments

  1. I really liked this post.

    I also think that this is, if anything, an argument that the Rambam misunderstood the mahloket between Rav and Shmuel.

  2. 1) The Rambam’s words in hilchot chametz umatza do little to support the thesis of this post. “Kofrim” sounds like willful denial, even if subsequent errors were unintentional. However, there is a strong basis for this thesis in the first chapter of hilchot avodah zarah, which should have been mentioned.

    2) The Rambam, and the haggadah, put the transition from idolatry to God-worship at the time of Avraham – after Terach – not, apparently, at the time of yetziat mitzraim. If so, the connection between yetziat mitzraim and leaving idolatry is not clear (Sefer Yehezkel alludes to idolatry by Jews in Egypt, but I don’t think any of the above refer to that).

    I think the answer is that if your master is an idolater, then your master’s master is an idol, and your actions indirectly go to serve this idol. Thus David said כי-גרשוני היום מהסתפח בנחלת ה לאמר לך עבד אלהים אחרים (David would never willing worship idols, but as he saw it, living among idolaters was tantamount to that), and the gemara in ketuvot (?) says that one who lives outside Israel is like one who has no God. IIRC this is also behind Chazal’s interpretation of “le’eker mishpahat ger” in parshat Behar.

    So starting with Avraham Jews wanted to serve God, but only after yetziat mitzraim could they fully actualize this desire.

    3) For most of this post I was wondering “how could this idea possibly be turned into a denunciation of LWMO?” Thankfully we have at least one serious post that’s not on that particular topic.

  3. The Nesivos Shalom describes both a communal and personal “yetzia ” from mitzrayim.
    A time for each individual to emerge from their own personal”metzar” or distress.
    This can lead to salvation or lead hopefully to transformation.

  4. The debate between Rav and Shmuel on the focus of our retelling the story of our people, i.e. liberation vs. transformation is part of their differing views of the nature of the Jewish people. Shmuel is the one who stated that the basic difference between the situation now and in messianic times will be the absence of any subjugation then to outside rule. He, apparently, believed that given the absence of such foreign rule and influence, Jews will naturally become spiritual and torah observant. It’s a decidedly optimistic viewpoint.

    Rav, in contrast, believed that the messianic redemption will not occur without a prior transformation in the lives and thoughts of the Jewish people. External liberation is insufficient; an internal transformation must occur. Once the latter occurs, the physical liberation will follow. That first, transformative step is the difficult one. Once accomplished, however, the gate to greatness is opened wide. That is also, apparently, why he believed that David was the greatest person who ever lived, or will live. David did not always lead an exemplary life, from Rav’s viewpoint, but he exemplified the power of repentance and attachment to GOD. Shmuel, in contrast, viewed Moshe as the greatest individual since he was the selfless conveyor of GOD’s teachings to his people. All that is required for greatness is the faithful, unhindered adherence to those teachings

    At the sedarim, we follow both approaches. This is not merely a familiar path taken whereby we include divergent views in our prayers. It may bespeak a view that physical liberation will inaugurate the messianic age, but the hard work of self and national transformation must follow. The absence of external constraints and the leadership of a great, charismatic figure will greatly facilitate such a transformation. That figure will be the one whom R’ Yochanan named as the greatest person. Hopefully, all will be come clear in our days.

  5. I think Rav and Shemuel are leshitasam. “דאמר שמואל אין בין העוה”ז לימות המשיח אלא שעבוד מלכיות בלבד” (Berakhos 34b) IOW, Shemuel defines ge’ulah in terms of removing oppression. Rav, OTOH, is the one who tells us to expect our shuls and batei medrash to fly to Israel. The same physical vs spiritual view of redemption.

  6. If one reads the Hagaddah carefully, despite the fact that we recite both Rav and Shmuel’s versions-there is an emphasis on a spiritual transformation and liberation as the ultimate purpose, as opposed to merely physical liberation and sovereignty.

  7. Steve Brizel- I agree that the emphasis of the Haggadah is on the spiritual transformation and liberation of clall Yisrael. This is the spirit of the commentary of Maharal, Harav Kook, Rav Tzvi Yehudah all ZTZL and their disciples (R’Aviner, R’Ariel,R’Vishlitzky etc. all SHLYTA.
    Neo Chassidut (R’Ashlag ZTZL on the Tanya)sees the emphasis as being on the spiritual transformation of the PRAT within clall Yisrael. Here Pharaoh is the Yetzer Hara,the personal ego to whom the soul has become enslaved. The Exodus of the individual spirit is a preequisite for the liberation of the Nation as a whole.

  8. Wow, superb weblog format! How lengthy have you been blogging for? you made running a blog glance easy. The full glance of your website is magnificent, let alone the content material!

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