Let’s Rethink the Exodus

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Almost two years ago, I published As If We Were There: Readings for a Transformative Passover Experience. An element of that book (but not the whole, by far, so you can still feel comfortable securing a copy to read; if you enjoy these columns, it would be a great chizzuk to me to know that people also purchase my writings when I produce them) was the many comments of Ramban’s that cast Yetzi’at Mitzrayim in a different light than I think most of us usually assume.

For the next few weeks, then, I will stray from my usual practice of seeking a variety of Ramban’s comments, and will instead focus on those that confront us with unusual perspectives of that which we might take for granted.

Check Our Assumptions About Monarchy

I have long thought that Americans’ view of monarchy is jaundiced by the history of the British monarchy in the eighteenth century and its treatment of the colonies. It does not help that almost all monarchies today are symbolic, and all dictators oppressive tyrants. It leads many to believe that kingship with any power must be kingship with absolute power, and that must be bad.  

That matters to Orthodox Jews because the consensus of halachic thought holds that the Jewish people is commanded (under certain conditions) to have a king. One way out is to argue for the complete exceptionalism of the Davidic line, that Davidic kings (even better, Davidic kings of the future, Mashiach and his descendants) can do well in a position that everyone else abuses.

Ramban to Shemot 1;10 offers a more important idea, that kings were not nearly so absolute as we think (since Ramban lived under a monarch, his assumptions about Par’oh likely also reflect truths of his experience as well).

The Slow Erosion of Rule of Law

Ramban wonders why Par’oh didn’t just kill all the Jews if he wanted to be rid of them. His first answer is that it would be too great a betrayal to murder a nation granted rights of residence by a previous king. More, the people would not allow him to commit such a terrible crime (and there were already enough Jews that it would take a difficult and bloody war to accomplish).

Instead, he went with subterfuge. He took a tax of labor (as many kings do, such as Shlomo in I Melachim 9;21—Ramban does not explain how that would rid Par’oh of the Jews, but I think he might mean it would interfere with their population growth). Second, he told the midwives to kill the male babies, a crime even the mothers themselves might not spot (since infant mortality was common—although once every Jewish boy was dying, you’d think they’d begin to suspect).

Once those options failed, Par’oh tells his people to throw Jewish male babies in the river. Ramban still cannot accept that he decreed that, nor that he told his own officers to carry out this order, because it would look too bad for it to come from the palace.  His view is that Par’oh told the people to do it, and guaranteed them that when the Jewish parents turned to the authorities for help, those authorities would drag their feet, require the Jews to bring perfect evidence of the crime and its perpetrators. Once protected by the king, the Egyptians went to work looking for Jewish babies, which is why Yocheved could not hide Moshe.

Hobbes Would Have Been Proud

Ramban’s assumptions remind us of the tenuous grip some societies have on civilized behavior (my heading aside, Avot 3;2 presents a very similar worldview in the name of R. Chanina Segan HaKohanim). For Ramban, evil governments can achieve much or all of their aim by removing or suspending the rule of law, and then using technicalities of the law itself to excuse themselves from reacting to evil that occurs.

Worse, he thinks that all that kept the Egyptians from murder was fear of the government, that as soon as they were assured the government would bureaucratize any complaints to oblivion, they were more than willing to do their part. [This doesn’t quite fit his assumption that the people would not have put with Par’oh or his agents doing it; he may have thought people will do themselves that which they would not tolerate from their government, which I see as another indictment of human nature].

The Lasting Impact of the Trauma

Ramban reminds us of what Chazal already noted, that this decree did not last long—it had not been promulgated at Aharon’s birth, and he was only three years older than Moshe, and it seems to have stopped after Moshe’s birth. Chazal had suggested that Par’oh’s astrologers advised him to do this as a way to nip the Jewish people’s redeemer at birth; once they missed out on that, there was no point to continuing.

Ramban throws that in at the end, after ideas he seems to find more convincing, that Par’oh’s daughter prevailed upon her father to stop this, after she adopted Moshe [people often become more sensitive to issues once they reach their own family], or that once word got out that Par’oh was behind this, he had to revoke the decree.

This incident served as the background for the officers’ complaint to Moshe and Aharon in 5;21, that the two of them have given a sword in the Egyptians’ hands to kill them. Ramban thinks they were saying that the last time the Egyptians instigated widespread killing of Jews, it petered out for lack of justification. Now, Moshe and Aharon have given them one.

It’s an example of how tradition thought this killing of the babies continued to reverberate. [I first noticed it in the Haggadah, where we say that amaleinu, one of the aspects of our misery that led Hashem to decide to redeem us, meant the banim, the sons. Since Moshe was eighty at the time of the Exodus, that assumes that a short period of murder eighty years before was still so much on the Jews’ minds (and Hashem’s) that it played a significant role in the Exodus.]

Finding Room for an Exodus

The Haggadah’s idea that Hashem saw aspects of our situation and decided to save us is reflected in another comment of Ramban’s. 2;25 refers to Hashem seeing the Jewish people. Rashi says that “saw” meant that Hashem turned His attention towards them, as it were, and no longer he’elim einav, hid His eyes, from them. Ramban applauds that for how it accords with the simple reading of the text, that it took some special attention from Hashem to bring the redemption.

That explains why verses 24-25 include four verbs about Hashem, that He heard their cries, remembered the covenant, saw, and knew (and then in 3;7, tells Moshe He has known their pains). Without an effort by Hashem to find reason to take them out, their own actions would have meant the exile had to continue, even though the time Hashem had decreed had finished (Ramban repeats this idea in Shemot 12;40, when the verse says the Jews were in Egypt for 430 years, whereas Avraham was told they would be in exile for four hundred years. Ramban says the Jews in fact stayed longer than they should have, because of their sins).

Yechezkel 20;5 makes clear that that was true of the Jews. Hashem says that when He appeared to the Jews in Egypt, He made one condition on the promise to take them out, that they rid themselves of their various idols. And they refused. Hashem had intended to punish that, says the verse, but refrained so that other nations would not be able to point to the Jews’ punishment as proof of Hashem’s nonexistence or weakness. Ramban thinks the Jews’ cries also helped, a reminder that even terrible sinners, deserving of lasting punishment, are helped by sincere prayer, at least somewhat.

A first few assumptions about the Exodus to reconsider: How powerful was Par’oh (and who gets the leftover blame if we cannot lay it all at his doorstep)? What does Egyptians’ willingness to collude tell us about them (and people in general) when it comes to innate morality? What role did the months of baby-killing play in the Jewish experience of Egypt? And, finally, how much Divine compassion did we need to get us out of Egypt?

About Gidon Rothstein

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