February 17, 2017
21 Shvat 5777
Written by: Josh Weissmann – AJA ‘14
Our true release from the bonds of Egypt encapsulated 10 plagues, the miracles at the Splitting of the Sea, wondrous gifts from God in the desert, and concluded with the receiving of the Torah at Sinai in this week’s parsha – Yitro. Of course, the forming of a sovereign nation takes time, for only time can engender ideological and cultural changes in a stubborn-necked people.
The goal of leaving Egypt, however clear we may feel it to be, is ambiguous in the Torah. Frequently God references the purpose of His plagues: “and you will know that I am God” (10:2), “in order that you shall know that the Land is Mine” (9:29), and so on. These explanations tend to overwhelmingly suggests that the impetus for leaving Egypt was to demonstrate God’s mastery to the world. Namely, the unshackling of the Jews was only the mechanism by which God demonstrated this eminence; the Jews were taken out from Egypt not for their sovereignty but for another purpose altogether. Through this lens of the Exodus Drama, the Jews become the puppets designed to reveal the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain.
This series of divine explanations suggests that the true culmination of the Exodus was not, as we often consider, Revelation at Sinai, but rather a distinct event which occurs at the beginning of Yitro. After Moses explains to his father in law Yitro the story of the Exodus, Yitro blesses God and voluntarily offers a sacrifice. That is, that which the non-Jewish world – epitomized by Yitro – heard about, was in awe over, and voluntarily offered sacrifices to, was due to God’s “actions” during his exposure in Egypt. The goal was accomplished, the story finishes here.
Yet the story, indeed, continues. There is a fascinating parallel here to Abraham during the Binding of Isaac, which sheds light onto the nature of the Exodus itself. In this week’s parsha, Yitro proclaims: “Now I know that God is greater than all other gods” (17:11). As God prevents Abraham from taking the life of his only son, He says: “Now I know that you are God fearing” (Breishit 22:12). The phrase “Now I know” appears minimally throughout Jewish liturgy, and only twice in the Torah. It is used almost exclusively regarding man’s understanding of a metaphysical Truth, or in Avraham’s case, God’s understanding of man’s devotion to Him. The 10 tests of Abraham crescendo until the most challenging of all, the sacrifice of Isaac, finally formalized and thus demonstrated Abraham’s unnerving dedication to God. Parallel but distinct, the saving of Israel from Egypt proved to man, not to God, His dominion. ‘Knowledge’ is something that is shared between these two instances: God needs to ‘know’ about man’s interest in the relationship as much as man needs to ‘know’ about God’s.
This parallel neatly relates the Exodus itself to Abraham’s merit. After all, God promised that his children would be strangers in a foreign land only to be saved carrying great wealth. The most concise way to say this is that nationalizing Abraham’s decedents necessitated their eviction from and their passing through the cauldron of Egypt (given some thought, the feeling of eviction and that of passing through the cauldron both occur and contribute differently to the formation of the Jewish national identity). This is precisely the opposite impetus that we had noted before. Whereas previously the purpose of the Exodus was to demonstrate God’s eminence, here it seems that the purpose is to make the Jews into a sovereign people. That is, the purpose of this process seems to be the formation of a Jewish nation, and the plagues, the splitting of the sea, and the miracles in the desert were only a mechanism for achieving that goal.
How can we reconcile this difference? Why would God repeatedly say “in order that you shall know I am God”?
We can suggest a third possibility, one with which we are all familiar. Jews are not missionaries in the classical sense – we do not proselytize, nor do we actively convert. We are messengers; we are People of the Book; we are middlemen between that which is divine and that which is not. Others might infer the Jews to be the ‘chariot’ upon which God’s dominion rests. The formation of such a nation, it seems, not only paralleled but necessitated God’s revelation to the non-Jewish world. In Abraham’s merit, the Jews formed a nation, but by God’s will they represented something far more fundamental. Our Exodus from Egypt was the mechanism for God to touch mankind – for mankind to “know” Him – in the same way that our lasting nationhood is meant to continue that relationship, that eminent reach to God, not just for ourselves but for all mankind; not just in the desert but forever on Earth.
Josh Weissmann - class of 2014, spent a year at Yeshivat Har Etzion, sophomore at Princeton and majoring in Operations Research and Financial Engineering.