Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bo 5770/ January 23, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

“Hark!   My beloved!  There he comes”

Dr. Tamar Kadari

Department of Talmud and Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies

 

Inkthis week’s reading (chapter 12) Moses and Aaron give the Israelites explicit instructions as to how they are to prepare for the great night of the exodus from Egypt.   It all begins with a festive introduction, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Ex. 12:2); this proclamation turns the month of Nisan, the month in which they were delivered from Egypt, into the first of all months.  One can imagine how special was the moment in which the Israelites understood that the time for which they had been yearning was now at hand;  they were indeed about to be liberated from their backbreaking life of slavery, about to achieve their longed-for liberation. However, Pesikta de- Rav Kahana [1] presents a surprising description of this moment:

Hark!  My beloved!  There he comes, leaping over mountains, bounding over hills – (Song 2:8)…   Rabbi Judah says:    Hark!  My beloved! There he comes, refers to Moses, when he came and said to Israel, “In this month you shall be redeemed.”  They said to him, “Moses, our Teacher, how can it be that we shall be redeemed?!  Did not the Holy One, blessed be He, say to our patriarch Abraham, ‘and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years’ (Gen. 15:13), but only two hundred and twenty years have elapsed!”  He answered them, “Since He desires your redemption, He does not look closely at your accounting, rather, he ‘leaps over the mountains, bounds over the hills.’  He leaps over the dates and reckonings and leap years.   And in this month you shall be redeemed, for ‘this month shall mark for you the beginning of the months (Ex.12:2).’”

Moses announced to the Israelites that the time for their redemption was at hand. The Israelites responded with skepticism, maintaining that by accurate calculation, in accordance with what had been said in the Covenant of the Pieces, the bondage in Egypt was to last four hundred years.  Therefore, the time for their redemption had not yet come.

Unlike what we understood from the Biblical text, this midrash describes the Israelites as forestalling redemption,.  Why?   What is the point of presenting them thus?  To sharpen the question, we note that the Pesikta goes on to present two more almost identical commentaries built on the same pattern.   In these passages, too, Moses announces that the time for redemption from Egypt has come, and the Israelites raise various difficulties.   According to the remarks of Rabbi Nehemiah, the Israelites claim that they are not yet worthy of redemption, for they are full of the “contamination of idolatry,” and according to the Rabbis, they had no “good deeds” to their merit.  This makes our question all the more poignant, because we see that the Israelites’ refusal to leave Egypt is thrice repeated in the words of several tannaim.   Why describe the Israelites as arguing against themselves?

The Sages apparently wished to emphasize, each in his own way, that the redemption from Egypt took place before its appointed time.  It came before the allotted years of bondage were up, before the Israelites had separated themselves from idolatry, and despite their not having mended their ways.  As Rabbi Judah said, “Since He desires your redemption, He does not look closely at your accounting.Rather, he ‘leaps over the mountains, bounds over the hills.’  He leaps over the dates and reckonings and leap years.”  The Holy One, blessed be He, is presented as being above all these things, even rules which He himself set.  If the appropriate moment has come, He can leap over months and years – i.e., the mountains (like the belly of a pregnant woman [Heb. me`uberet 'a pregnant woman,' is a play on the word ibbur, which means leap year]).  He can look the other way from idolatry and skip over bad deeds.   The use of the verse from Song of Songs to introduce this midrash shows the love that the Holy One, blessed be He, has for Israel.   Like the beloved who longs for his companion, so, too, the Holy One, blessed be He, skips and bounds in order to hasten His long-awaited reunion with Israel as they are redeemed from Egypt.

The surprising part comes in the fourth and last section of this passage from Pesikta, which breaks the pattern of the previous three that dealt with redemption from Egypt and describes another event which has not yet transpired:

Rabbi Yodan said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Yose of Galilee, Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi Eliezer b. Jacob:  Hark!   My beloved!  There he comes – this refers to the Messiah.   When he comes and says to Israel, “this is the month in which you shall be redeemed,” they shall say to him, “Our Rabbi, King and Messiah, how can it be that we shall be redeemed?!   Did not the Holy One, blessed be He, say that he would enslave us to seventy nations?”  He will then give them two answers, saying, “One of you was exiled to Barbariya and one of you to Saramatiya; it is as if you were all exiled.  Moreover, this wicked kingdom drafts soldiers from each and every nation.  If one Samarian comes and enslaves you, it is as if his entire nation had enslaved you.   If one Kushite comes and enslaves you, it is as if his entire nation had enslaved you.   And this month you shall be redeemed, for this month shall mark for you the beginning of the months (Ex.12:2).

The Amoraim, Rabbi Yodan and Rabbi Huna describe the redemption of the future as following the tannaitic pattern of the redemption from Egypt.   Just as the redemption from Egypt occurred before its time, so too, will the future redemption.   In the future, too, the Holy One, blessed be He, will not execute strict judgment, in two ways:   regarding the dispersal of the people of Israel throughout distant lands, the Holy One, blessed be He, will view the exile of individuals as if the entire nation had been exiled. Regarding servitude to foreign kingdoms, the Holy One, blessed be He, will view the army that is raised to persecute Israel as fulfillment of the bondage of the people of Israel to seventy nations, since this army is comprised of soldiers from a variety of nations and each soldier represents his own nationality.  In this manner, the Holy One, blessed be He, will shorten the length of enslavement to other nations.

These Sages who compared the future redemption to the redemption from Egypt took a clear stand on a question on which the views of the Tannaim had been divided, namely, in which month Redemption would come (Rosh ha- Shanah 10b-11a):

It is taught:   Rabbi Eliezer says the world was created in Tishre … in Nisan they were redeemed, and in Tishre they are destined to be redeemed.  Rabbi Joshua says the world was created in Nisan, in Nisan they were redeemed, and in Nisan they are destined to be redeemed.

It appears that the Amoraim, and perhaps even the Pesikta stand by the opinion of Rabbi Joshua, that the Redeemer will appear in Nisan, just as happened in the case of the redemption from Egypt.

Thus the Pesikta is built on the model of “three and four”:  three almost identical tannaitic homilies that deal with the redemption from Egypt and a fourth amoraic one that deals with the future redemption.  Why is this repetitiveness necessary?  Why did the editor present the same idea in the mouth of several Sages?  It seems that the homilies in Pesikta represent positions that were common among the people and the Sages regarding the time of redemption (cf. Sanhedrin 97b).

The first assertion, voiced in Rabbi Judah’s remarks, is that the exile is finite.  The length of the bondage is predetermined (for example, in the case of Egypt, four hundred years).  Redemption will come in due time, irrespective of the spiritual condition of Israel.    Another assertion, voiced by Rabbi Nehemiah and the Rabbis, is that the length of the bondage depends on Israel.   It will be longer or shorter, according to their behavior:  “(If Israel repent, they are redeemed” (Talmud, loc. sit.).  Redemption has no set time.  If the people of Israel mend their ways, redemption will come immediately.   Even in this broad spectrum of views, a clear message of consolation is sent in equal measure in each.   In the case of those who believe in a set time for redemption, or in the case of those who believe that mending one’s ways is essential, the mercy of the Holy One, blessed be He, will triumph and redemption will come as a surprise, before its anticipated time.

Are we seeing here a desire to spread messianic hopes among the people?   Is this a call to messianic activism?   I believe the answer to be negative.   All four passages present the people of Israel as passive.  Their passivity is especially prominent in comparison with the deity’s activism:   He is the one whose voice rings out, who comes, leaping and skipping.  The Holy One, blessed be He, is the one who decides and announces that the time has come, and its arrival comes as a surprise.  The people of Israel are certain that the time has not yet come and argue against themselves in various ways.  Presenting the people of Israel as trying to put off the time of redemption enables the homilist to present his bold statement that the end has come before its anticipated time since the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself will shorten the length of the exile.

Alongside the tone of consolation and encouragement which we detect here there is also a note of restraint, calling for the people to wait patiently for redemption, which will come of its own accord.  There is no point in computing when the end will come, nor is there any point in radical actions by individuals.  These are not the central factors in determining the time for redemption.   The decision that the appropriate time has come is solely in the hands of the Holy One, blessed be He.

                                                                                                                                         



[1] Pesikta de Rav Kahana, “Ha-Hodesh,” 5.7.  Pesikta is a homiletic work from the land of Israel, edited in the amoraic period and built around the special Torah readings for special Sabbaths and holidays..  The passage which we consider here appears in the Pesikta on Parashat Ha-Hodesh, the Sabbath before the week in which the beginning of the month of Nisan falls.  The maftir of this weekly reading is taken from Exodus, chapter 12, parashat Bo (see Tractate Megillah 3.4, Tosefta Megillah 3.5).