The Exceptional and the Ordinary

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Maybe the Few Outstanding Are Worth It All

Some educational institutions focus on the excellent students, put most of their energies into those expected to go on to great things, giving desultory attention to the more average or ordinary students. While I think most of us find the extreme version of such a view upsettingly intolerable, Meshech Hochmah gives us reason not to slip to the other extreme.

He notes a Baraita on Sanhedrin 111a, focused on Shemot 6;7-8 (in our parsha) quoting Gd as promising to take the Jews out as a nation and bring them to the Land. R. Simai notes only two of the male adults over twenty who left Egypt made it to Israel, and says the verse means to tell us only a similar fraction, two of 600,000, managed to leave Egypt. [Rashi cites another version of the idea in Bo and Beshalah, that only one out of five Jews got out, or an even smaller percentage. I discussed it in my book As If We Were There: Readings for a Transformative Passover Experience.]

This strand certainly assumes many Jews died without ever leaving Egypt, a sobering thought. The comparison to arriving in Israel tells Meshech Hochmah something more surprising (to me), that Gd was saying, in advance, it would all be worth it just for those two of 600,000. The ten plagues, the Splitting of the Sea, all of it, was aimed and done on behalf of the tiny few who would make it out, and then the tinier few who would complete the journey.

[To be clear: he is assuming all the support in the desert was for those two, Yehoshu’a and Calev. I might have said it was for all the kids who left Egypt younger than twenty, all those born in the desert, possibly all the women, whom some Midrashim think were not included in the decree to die in the desert. Similarly, even if only a very few Jews left, I would have said the plagues, etc., were for them and all their descendants, to set up the Jewish nation with yetzi’at Mitzrayim as permanent backstory. He is focused on the idea it’s worth it for those two special people.]

And So In the Future

Helping his claim, Rava says the same proportions will be true in the future redemption, which Hoshe’a 2;17 refers to as being like the day we left Egypt. Meshech Hochmah says hundreds of thousands of those who “hate Gd,” [a term that includes many people who I fear do not realize their lack or rejection of observance counts as hating Gd] will be lost, and it will be worth it for those who make it.

Moshe Rabbenu makes the point (Meshech Hochmah reads the Torah to say) in Devarim 4;34, when he speaks of all the miracles Gd had done le-einecha, to your eyes (in your sight). While the whole nation saw those miracles, only two standing there had been adults at the time, and it was for them, to learn proper discipline and faith.

[Before I summarize his coda to the comment, two points: 1) Just above this section of that page in Sanhedrin, Resh Lakish read other verses in Scripture to the same effect, that only a sadly small percentage of Jews will experience the future redemption, and R. Yohanan had objected lo neiha lei le-Maraihu de-amrat lehu hachi, their Master is not pleased you said this to them (the Jews), followed by almost the same interaction between R. Kahana and Rav. So while Meshech Hochmah is certainly not misquoting, there is room to think other significant amoraim saw the matter differently.

2) It is, however, certainly true that a prominent strand of Midrash thinks a much smaller percentage of Jews left Egypt than we would like to acknowledge, and it is true before our eyes that were the Exodus from Exile I believe we are currently undergoing to end today, a much smaller percentage of Jews would have gotten out than we would have hoped. Food for thought, whether or not we take it in Meshech Hochmah’s direction.]

He closes with the note that the believer should not despair when s/he looks at the generation and sees only a precious few worthy of Gd’s redemption, because even those few are enough to bring Gd’s blazingly clear providence, to light up the world with the truth of Gd’s power, presence, etc.

He ends on a more hopeful note, then, that the redemption can come at any time, even if only a tiny percentage of Jews are at all deserving of it, and I think he means some of the rest of us might be fortunate enough to be swept up in it as well. But I hope it sobers any of us who are not sure we are among the special few, and also spurs us to consider how we balance the desire to help the many, educationally, while cultivating the few, giving them what they need to grow to their full potential.

The Most Powerful Nation on Earth

Verse 7;3-5 has Gd say He is going to harden Par’oh’s heart, perform many wonders, so that Egypt will know Gd is Gd, and the Jews will leave. Meshech Hochmah points out Egypt was the most respected, advanced, and well-organized kingdom on earth at the time [he was living in Latvia, part of the Russian Empire, but even then not a contender for these adjectives]. Gd was making a point to Egypt because if they conceded Gd’s power and role in the world, the rest of humanity would take note.

It would also help the Jews, teaching them to shuck wrong ideas and character traits they had absorbed from their surrounding culture, would cleanse and prepare them for a fuller relationship with the one True One.

[Two points, again. First, I’m pretty sure he meant the comment to have contemporary resonance; whether or not he did, I do, in that the most powerful and advanced nations on Earth, possibly in every generation, develop a hubris that leads them away from Gd. For our contemporary example, while in many ways, the United States speaks of Gd, its handling of life doesn’t reflect it. If you’re on the right of me, you’ll think of one set of ways, if you’re to the left of me, you’ll think of others, and you might be right either way.

Second, this comment seems to add nuance to the one we saw before. While in the end it would only be two of 600,000 who got out, and it was worth Gd’s while—as it were—to perform the signs and wonders for them, there was a broader purpose, educating the Egyptians and through them the world, with the hope it would free the Jews from the negative elements of Egyptian culture, maybe letting more of them out.

So he’s not as elitist as that comment seemed, nor as focused only on Jews as we might have thought.]

Susceptibility to Plagues

With the plague of boils, Par’oh’s sorcerers’ defeat is complete. They could not stand before Moshe, we learn in 9;11, because they were affected by the boils (Mesheh Hochmah thinks they are mentioned first because it hit them first). Ramban had already noted the further embarrassment for a sorcerer [today we would say a public health official] in being unable to protect oneself from a plague, a step beyond not being able to replicate it.

He however assumes they were also shamed by their inability to cause Moshe boils, although Moshe was right there, not in Goshen (to where their powers might not have extended, he means). It should have been easier to cause it to him because he had already had tzara’at (back when Moshe first started on his mission, Gd had made his hand white with tzara’at as proof of his being a messenger of Gd), yet they could not.

R. Meir Simhah is assuming that having had one skin issue makes a person more likely to contract another one, even though these plagues aren’t really natural. He may have meant that if the sorcerers can do them, they must function something like naturally, or that even in the non-natural, having been hit by one plague makes a person more likely to get another one. It’s not the focus so I don’t know how far he would have taken it, but it’s an example of how even the supernatural is seen as having rules in some way parallel to those in nature.

For Va-Era, we have questions of who we care (or are able) to educate, and how far miracles stray from the natural, making it harder or easier for education to succeed.

About Gidon Rothstein

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