Were We Worthy of Redemption?
Were we worthy of redemption from Egypt? The obvious response is yes. After all, why else did God take us out? Moreover, a classic series of midrashic teachings support this notion. Two such texts (Shemot Rabba 1:28, Vayikra Rabba 32:5) teach that the Jews were redeemed because they did not change their names nor their language, and they remained modest in sexual matters. Other midrashim indicate that the Jews observed Shabbat (Shemot Rabba, ibid.). The Talmud (Sotah 11b) asserts that the Jews were redeemed due to the efforts of "the righteous women of that generation." And the rabbis famously stressed the Jews' heroism in having slaughtered their captors' deity (see Tosafot Shabbat 87b s.v. ve'oto).
The twentieth chapter of Yechezkel, however, seems to belie this cheery optimism. The prophet records God's thundering rebuke:
And I said unto them: Cast away every man the detestable things of his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. But they rebelled against Me and would not listen to Me; they did not cast away the detestable things of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt... (Yechezkel 20:7-8)
We were redeemed, in other words, despite our sins, specifically the audacious refusal to discard our icons. Indeed, a more careful examination of the rabbinic literature seems to corroborate this darker story. Let us recall the classic midrash, for instance, that a fifth of Jews died during the plague of darkness due to lack of faith. Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (41) teaches that the Jews only discarded their idols after crossing the Red Sea, implying that they had kept the icons when fleeing Egypt. And yet another source (Shemot Rabba 21) records that the angel Samael prosecuted the Jews as they were leaving Egypt, arguing before God that the Jews were idolatrous and unworthy of redemption.
We have, then, a tale of two Exoduses. Were we deserving of freedom or not? Is there any way to reconcile the flatly contradictory rabbinic accounts? How are we to account for the verses in Yechezkel?
The thought of the recently deceased, eminent philosopher Michael Wyschogrod z"l, might prove fruitful in untying these knots. As laid out in his stimulating book The Body of Faith, Professor Wyschogrod insists that God's love for the Jewish people, Abraham in particular, lies at the crux of our faith. If asked "why be a Jew" we ought answer simply "because God loved us and chose us." If asked why God chose to give us the Torah the response would be the same. Abraham's election, in other words, is the seminal event in biblical history.
This much is explicit in Deuteronomy (7:6-8), as Rabbi Meir Soloveichik points out in a 2009 article on Wyschogrod's thought in the journal First Things. Moses explains to the Jews, "God chose you... not because you were more in number than any people, for you were the fewest of all people; But because the Lord loved you, and because He would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers.” In the words of Professor Wyschogrod, “If God continues to love the people of Israel and it is the faith of Israel that he does it is because he sees the face of his beloved Abraham in each and every one of his children.”
At first glance, Wyschogrod's accent on Abraham's election offers an easy solution to our problem. The generation of the Exodus may not have been deserving; God redeemed them anyway, due to His commitment to the beloved patriarch.
This account, however, is a bit too easy. First, as noted above, a series of midrashim do look to justify the redemption on the basis of merit. Second, the Torah itself implies otherwise. It is surely not insignificant that upon receiving the laws governing the Korban Pesach, the Jews "kneeled and bow down. And [they] went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron" (Shemot 12:27-8). By stressing the people's obedience, including their having smeared the blood on the doorposts, the Torah itself seems to impute toward the Jews a degree of worthiness.
A modification is therefore in order. Although fundamentally God redeemed us not because we were truly deserving but due to His loving commitment to Abraham, we were required nonetheless to identify with Abraham's legacy in a meaningful way. Midrash Shir ha-Shirim (1) makes the point well:
Another interpretation: I am blackened in Egypt and I am beautified in Egypt. I am blackened in Egypt - "They rebelled against me and did not desire to listen to Me" (Yechezkel 20). And I am beautified in Egypt - with the blood of the Pesach and the blood of circumcision, as [the verse] states, "And I passed over you and I saw you wallowing in your blood. And I said to you, through your blood you shall live - this is the blood of the Pesach; And I said to you, through your blood you shall live - this is the blood of circumcision" (Yechezkel 16).
Picking up on the requirement that "no uncircumcised male may eat" the Korban Pesach (Shemot 12:48), the midrash proposes essentially the dichotomy we have laid out. On the one hand, the Jews were undeserving of redemption, having clung to idolatry and spurned the word of God. At the same time, through blood, an ancient symbol of covenantal commitment, the nation demonstrated its essential dedication not only to the command of Moses (Pesach) but also to the legacy of Abraham (circumcision). Despite their considerable shortcomings, they remained essentially steadfast in their allegiance to the Abrahamic concordat. And precisely because of God's love for Abraham, that commitment was enough to secure their salvation.
As I have noted elsewhere, God's love is an underappreciated but fundamental tenet of our faith. The Exodus reminds us that it is perhaps only on the basis of God's love for Abraham, and our identification with that legacy, that we can rationalize the redemption.