Sefer Shemot begins the story of Bnei Yisrael becoming a nation, forged in the crucible of Egyptian slavery. In a previous shiur we had the opportunity to discuss how a single individual, Moshe Rabbenu, emerged from this situation and developed the personality and leadership tools to confront Paro and lead Am Yisrael from Galut to Geula. In this shiur I would like to focus on Am Yisrael, and their emergence as a nation deserving of salvation.
The key passukim in our Parsha which point to this development can be found at the end of the second perek of Sefer Shemot (2:23-25):
“And it was that over the course of this extended period of time that the king of Egypt died, and Bnei Yisrael sighed as a result of their slavery and they cried out, and their cry for help went up to God from their slavery. And God heard (VaYishma) their groaning, and God remembered (VaYizkor) his covenant with Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov. And God saw (VaYa’ar) Bnei Yisrael and God knew (VaYaida).”
There can be no doubt that these passukim represent a major turning point in the Parsha. Firstly, these three passukim are offset by a petucha on one side and a satumaon the other, indicating that it is a discrete parsha. Moreover, when God appears to Moshe at the burning bush in the desert, he uses three of the four verbs (ra’ah, sha’ma, and ya’da) which appear in our passukim when explaining to Moshe why He is about to intervene. The fourth verb (zachar) will be used in Perek 6. This indicates a clear link between the parshiot. Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, it is logical that these passukim serve as a transition.. We have just read how Moshe seems to be settling into a peaceful life as a shepherd in Midyan when suddenly we, along with the narrative, are abruptly brought back to the goings on in Egypt. Paro has just died and Bnei Yisrael’s cries of anguish pierce the heavens, and God chooses to act. The connection between the first two chapters we have just finished reading and the chapter that we are now beginning is obvious. And so is the question. Why does Hashem choose to act now?
This question is asked by Ralbag in a very pointed fashion. Commenting on the lessons (toelet) which can be drawn from the parsha, Ralbag notes that the first lesson is the power of prayer. It is appropriate that when an individual is in despair that he cry out to Hashem, as perhaps Hashem will recognize his anguish and have mercy. And what is my proof, asks Ralbag? Just look at Am Yisrael, who were highly undeserving of being saved, and nonetheless Hashem heard their cries.
What is the source of this idea that Am Yisrael was undeserving of salvation? The Midrash of course is rife with suggestions. Since I wish to focus on Pshat, one small example from the Tanchuma that Rashi quotes will suffice to demonstrate the “Midrashic” point. Commenting on the passuk (2:14) that Moshe realized his act of killing the Egyptian had become known (achain noda hadavar) Rashi quotes the Tanchuma as explaining that Moshe was wryly commenting to himself. I finally understand, says Moshe, why this nation deserves to be enslaved. If they are talebearers and speak lashon hara, it is clear why they deserve to be punished. This is just one example amongst many suggestions of Am Yisrael’s shortcomings that can be found in the Midrash. All this just serves to sharpen our original question. If Bnei Yisrael are undeserving of Geula, and therefore Hashem has allowed them to continue in their current state, what has changed in light of Am Yisrael’s crying out to him at this juncture? Surely they have prayed before! Are things so much worse now then they were at the time of Moshe’s birth, when the Egyptians were murdering newborns?
In order to determine what triggered the change in Hashem’s attitude we must return to the first of the passukim which we are analyzing. What is the connection between the death of the king and Bnei Yisrael’s sighing over their fate? Rashi refers to the Midrash in Shmot Rabba in order to answer this question. Basing itself on the concept that an individual who is stricken with leprosy is considered to have died, the Midrash suggests that Paro had not actually died but had been diagnosed with leprosy. The Midrash continues to explain that Paro’s physicians prescribed bathing in the blood of children as a remedy. Paro promptly complied with his doctors instructions, abducting and murdering Jewish children in order to supply himself with his daily fix. This explains Am Yisrael’s reaction to the “death” of Paro. Rather than improving their situation, their plight had just worsened, hence their anguished cries to Hashem.
While acknowledging, Rashi’s approach, Ramban suggests that we can explain why Paro’s death triggered greater despair amongst Am Yisrael via the pshat in the passuk. Ramban notes that when a group is enslaved they naturally hope for the death of the tyrant who has oppressed them in anticipation of an improvement in their lot. When that hope proves unfounded the original sense of despair is compounded. This, says Ramban, is exactly what happens to Am Yisrael when Paro dies. When they realize that their hopes of an improvement in their situation have been frustrated they sink ever deeper into the throes of despair. Hence their anguished cries to Hashem.
While Ramban’s explanation is logical, it ultimately falls short in answering our original question of why God relates differently to Am Yisrael at this point. Could it only be because their perhaps overly optimistic hopes have been frustrated and their prayers are therefore more anguished that Hashem starts to pay attention? Is it only a question of degree?
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch adopts the approach of Ramban, but adds a critical element to the analysis. Rav Hirsch suggests that Am Yisrael had not pinned their hopes on a new king per se, but rather on the ability of state institutions to right an historic wrong. From Am Yisrael’s perspective, Paro had “hijacked” Mitzrayim, successfully scheming to demonize the Jews in Egyptian eyes and thus trapping them in enslavement. The expectation was that with the passing of Paro, Egypt would revert to the same philo-semetic country that it had once been, with a restored place of honor reserved for Yosef’s descendents. When this doesn’t happen, when the Jews realize that what had begun as personality based policy has now morphed into official state policy, their despair knows no bounds. At this point they turn to Hashem with true anguish and vigor.
Rav Hirsch’s analysis is reminiscent of a critical episode in Yosef’s life, when, after correctly interpreting the dream of the Paro’s head butler, he naively places his faith in the butler’s good will. Surely, reasons Yosef, in his gratitude toward me the butler will put in a good word and have me released from prison. As we know, Yosef finds his hopes dashed and his imprisonment unending, as the butler consciously chooses to ignore the man who had helped him in prison. Yosef learns the hard way that he can only trust in Hashem.
It would seem from Rav Hirsch that this is precisely the lesson Am Yisrael have now bitterly learned and the reason why Hashem changes his response to them. Up until now, Bnei Yisrael have not truly prayed to Hashem for salvation, because they have entrusted their ultimate salvation to the Egyptian state institutions which will surely recover and treat them fairly. Hence, God has ignored them, for they have ignored Him. Only when they recognize that their salvation will only come from Hashem, can the process of Geula truly begin. The power of prayer is truly immense, as Ralbag points out. But only when we understand to Whom we are praying, and in Whom we place our trust.