The Bumpy Road To Redemption

The complicated beginnings of the Exodus from Egypt establish the expectation that redemption is often not a smooth process.

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Moses asks the timeless question of the problem of evil: why do the innocent suffer and why do the guilty prosper? Could the Israelites have sinned? Or, are they suffering to make them deserving of greater reward, as it says, In order to afflict you and in order to try you, so as to benefit you in your end (Deuteronomy 8:16)? Could the Egyptians possibly be entitled to some reward for some good they have done? Or, are they being prepared for greater punishment later?

Moses Receives An Explanation

God's answer to Moshe concludes our portion:

And God said to Moses, "Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, that with a strong hand will he release them, and with a strong hand will he expel them from his land" (6:1).

And now the process of deliverance is underway. 

The fundamental question about this episode remains: Why did God allow this to happen? How did this suffering further the goal of liberation?

Different Perspectives

Again, the commentaries focus on the different elements of these events:

Chizkuni (R. Chizkiya ben Manoach, mid 13th century commentator) focuses on the Egyptian people: When the slaves spread out through the whole land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw (5:12), the slaves must not have found the straw easily, which means that all the Egyptians prevented them. This demonstrated the complicity of the Egyptian people in the oppression of the Hebrew slaves. The Egyptians could not subsequently complain that they did not deserve to be punished along with Pharaoh.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (19th century German scholar) focuses on Pharaoh: Despite the reasonable requests made by Moshe to Pharaoh, he stubbornly refuses. Therefore, it is evident what kind of a hard-hearted man Pharaoh is, and thus, the only way to deal with him will be through the plagues.

Rabbenu Chananel focuses on Hashem: As a result of this episode, Pharaoh and the Egyptians will be punished even more, and the Israelites will be rewarded even more. This event occurs so as to demonstrate Hashem's justice in the world. 

Indeed, all three explanations show Hashem's justice: Chizkuni emphasizes that the Egyptian people deserve punishment; Hirsch points out that Pharaoh could not be reasoned with; and Rabbenu Chananel argues that Hashem rewards the deserving and punishes the guilty.

A Prototype for Liberation

We might add: The liberation from Egypt is the prototype for all future liberations, although it is the most miraculous of them all. Still, it is the model by which all future redemptions would be measured. If the Egyptian redemption had occurred smoothly, then whenever in the future the Israelites would require salvation, any setbacks would signify that no redemption is forthcoming, and the Jewish people would despair.

The way of God is not always understood, even by those who are closest to Him, except perhaps in retrospect. There is Divine justice, but the road to salvation is not always direct. There will be hazards along the way, fluctuations of fortune, setbacks and loss of hope. But redemption will come. And when it does, every part of the journey will be understood and justified.

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Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Avraham Fischer is a rabbi at Darche Noam Institutions.