Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Parashat Shemot 5763/ December 28, 2002
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.
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Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Shemot 5763/ December 28, 2002
An Hour of Favor
Department of Bible
The teachings of our Pentateuch as well as our prophets
repeatedly stress elements of Divine providence, among them, that there is no
reward without good deeds, and that repentance precedes
Given these beliefs, earlier and
later rabbinic authorities have asked on what merit the Israelites were
delivered from Egypt.
Our parasha, Shemot, which from the beginning strikes the dual
themes of slavery and redemption, provides no evidence of change, either moral
or religious, in the behavior of the Israelites that could merit their
deliverance as its reward. Quite the contrary, until 2:23 the name of G-d is
strikingly absent from the text which, Nehama Leibowitz felt, reflected the low
level of religiosity in that generation: the oppressed and downtrodden masses
did not feel the presence of the Lord in their midst at all. "Suddenly
the darkness was pierced by a powerful beam of light. The impenetrable barrier
that had separated the upper and lower worlds fell down. The heavens
The heavens opened despite no
real change in the behavior of those who were enslaved and were now about to be
The Sages were aware of the sharp transition from
bondage to redemption as expressed in Exodus Rabbah (1.42):
"G-d looked upon the Israelites" - another
interpretation of "G-d looked": they had no good deeds to present
as reason for being delivered, as is explained in Ezekiel (16:7): "I let
you grow like the plants of the field; ... and your hair sprouted," and
when the time came for redemption, "you were still naked and bare,"
without good deeds; therefore it says, "G-d looked," for they had no
good deeds by which to merit redemption.
If so, lacking good deeds, by what merit were they redeemed?
The Sages, and following them medieval commentators, tried to answer this
question in a variety of ways.
One approach was indeed "to look", to seek out
some "merit" of the Israelites, as in Exodus Rabbah (1.16):
"According to Rabbi Akiva, by virtue of the righteous women of that
generation the Israelites were delivered from Egypt." The righteousness
of these women was expressed in the measures they took to bear sons in spite of
the harsh conditions and edicts of the Pharaoh.
Another example of this approach is provided by Leviticus
On four merits they were redeemed: for not changing their
names, or their language, for not telling gossip, and for not having a single
woman among them who was improper in her sexual behavior.
Some commentators attribute the exodus to the
Even the matriarch
Sarah is credited in the Midrash
exodus from Egypt. Similarly, but with greater generalization, the Sages and
following them Ibn Ezra interpreted the redemption as coming in the wake of
repentance done by the Israelites. For example, take the Mekhilta:
"'And G-d took notice of them [lit. And G-d knew]' - He
knew that they had repented, but they themselves did not know
Ibn Ezra's commentary on Exodus 2:23 follows a similar
line: "The Israelites had repented." Ibn Ezra's remark is
based on a verse in Ezekiel, which states that the Israelites worshipped
abominations in Egypt and that therefore the Lord oppressed them. It is from
this sin that they repented before being redeemed.
Those explanations which provide some sort of
"merit" such as that of the Patriarchs do not answer the question,
why was that specific generation rewarded with deliverance and not an earlier
one. So far as having repented before the Exodus, Scripture provides no
evidence of this, at least not in the conventional
Rashi takes a totally different approach. He suggests seeking
the answer to our question, "By what right was Israel redeemed", not
in their past but in the future. Rashi reads Moses' question, "Who
am I ... that I should ... free the Israelites from Egypt?" (Ex. 3:11) as
meaning "By virtue of what do they merit being redeemed?" This is
followed by the Lord's response: "And when you have freed the
people from Egypt, you shall worship G-d at this mountain"
I have a great purpose in this, My bringing them forth, for
they are destined to receive the Torah on this mountain three months after they
In other words, G-d was delivering them from Egypt "on
credit" for their future behavior, not because the generation of the
exodus was any better than its predecessors. The justification for redemption
lay not in their past actions, but in their future destiny. The shortcoming of
this interpretation lies in the fact that while G-d knew beforehand that they
would accept His Law at Sinai, He also knew of all the other bad things they
would do along the way, for which they surely did not deserve to be given such
credit. Indeed, the Sages questioned this shortcoming (Exodus Rabbah
S.v. ra'oh ra'iti ("I have
marked well")-the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: You see
only one thing, but I see two. You see them coming to Sinai and accepting My
Torah.... ra'oh ra'iti-this refers to seeing the
incident of the golden calf.
In short, we see that none of the commentaries provides an
unequivocal answer, and each raises additional difficulties. Therefore, we
suggest looking elsewhere in Scriptures to find an approach to our
It turns out that at least twice in the course of Jewish
history we experienced redemption that was neither contingent on repentance nor
an outcome of it. These redemptions did not fit into the pattern of
"return unto Me and I shall return unto you," but rather were
encapsulated in the words, "Come back to Me, for I redeem you" (Is.
44:22). Both in the exodus from Egypt and in the return to Zion from Babylon,
redemption preceded repentance.
Isaiah, with his words of consolation that brought tidings of
redemption to the exiles, did not stipulate repentance as a precondition. His
emphatic call, "Comfort, oh comfort My people," was not preceded by
a demand to return to the Lord. The prophet was well aware that it is
problematic to bring tidings of redemption to a people living in exile, a
punishment for misdeeds. So he did not stipulate a system of reward and
punishment, so familiar to the people in the words of the prophets. Isaiah
spoke to the people in exile of a new concept, a "time of grace."
G-d, who had turned away from them in other eras, now wished to redeem His
people. This was a "window of opportunity" between the Holy One,
blessed be He, and the Jewish people. This was the Lord's decree which
had to be accepted unquestioningly.
In answer to our question about the merit of the Israelites,
we can say that in fact they did not merit it, except that a new age had arrived
- a time of grace in the eyes of the Lord. He rules history and we are
called upon to submit and accept His edicts. We are not able to grasp His will,
just as a son cannot grasp the will of the father who begot him, nor can matter
grasp its creator.
The ways of the Lord, in
punishment as in mercy, are beyond our human comprehension. Therefore, we must
accept the answer of the prophet from the mouth of the Lord (Isaiah 45:11):
"Thus said the Lord, Israel's Holy One and Maker: Will you question
Me on the destiny of My children, will you instruct Me about the work of My
Thus we are to understand the exodus from Egypt, and likewise
the exodus from Babylon. In both instances, the period of punishment had come to
an end, the age of redemption had arrived: "Thus said the Lord: In an
hour of favor I answer you, and on a day of salvation I help you" (Isaiah
49:8). In light of this, perhaps even in these difficult times one can hold out
and await the future redemption.
For example, see Deut.
30:2: "and you return to the Lord your G-d, and ... heed His
command," then "the Lord your G-d will restore your
Studies in Shemot
, part 1, 1976, p. 18.
Exodus Rabbah 8: "Go
tell them in My name, which is the quality of mercy with which I treat them
because of the merits of their ancestors."
Mekhilta Ba-Hodesh, Yitro
As set forth by Maimonides
in Hilkhot Teshuvah