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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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Shemot 5763/ December 28, 2002

An Hour of Favor

Devorah Ganz
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 deliverance.[1] 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 opened."[2] The heavens opened despite no real change in the behavior of those who were enslaved and were now about to be redeemed.

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 Rabbah 32:

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 patriarchs' merits.[3] Even the matriarch Sarah is credited in the Midrash[4] for the 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 it."[5]

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 sense.[6]

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" (ibid.12), meaning:

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 leave Egypt.[7]

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 3.3):

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 question.

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.[8] 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 hands?"

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.

[1] 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 captivity,..."
[2] Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, part 1, 1976, p. 18.
[3] 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."
[4] Leviticus Rabbah 32.
[5] Mekhilta Ba-Hodesh, Yitro Parasha à, s.v. Rebbi.
[6] As set forth by Maimonides in Hilkhot Teshuvah.
[7] Rashi ad loc.
[8] See Isaiah 45:9-10.