I start here with a dark side tradition saw in the Exodus story. By investing a little time and discomfort, I believe we can find our way to a relevant and uplifting message, a comforting way forward fully within our reach, if we choose to take advantage of it.
He Wouldn’t Have Gotten Out
My starting point is the Haggadah’s certainty that the wicked son, the one who excludes himself from the Pesach service, would not have been redeemed from Egypt. The Yerushalmi and Mechilta versions attribute that to his excluding himself from the actions of the community, but the eleventh century Midrash Lekach Tov (and our Haggadot) argues that his doing so shows that he must have denied the essential principle of Judaism, belief in Hashem.
If so, we have two options for what would have led a Jew at the time of the Exodus to be left behind: Yerushalmi and Mechilta imply it’s refusing to join the broader community, Lekach Tov and our Haggadot think that’s a symptom of a deeper problem, denial of our essential faith.
But all are clear that a Jew could have lost him or herself the right to participate in the Exodus, that there was no automatic ticket out. Let’s look at who else didn’t get out, and then at who did get out; I think we will find the standards less stringent than we might think, reminding us of how much Hashem leaned towards taking us out. Which also makes the limits more worth our while to know, to avoid tripping those wires in the future.
They Didn’t Get Out
While we say the wicked child wouldn’t have gotten out, tradition long assumed that many descendants of Ya’akov Avinu in fact didn’t get out. One of the readings Mechilta de-Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai 13 gives for the word חמושים (others are: armed, and that 4/5 of the people who left were converts) is that only one-fifth of the people got out, the rest dying during the plague of darkness, to avoid the Egyptians’ seeing what was happening to them.
What could that many people have done to make them unworthy of leaving? Mechilta doesn’t explain, but Rashi says it was because the Jews of that generation were wicked, and did not want to leave Egypt. It vitally focuses us where we might not have thought to. Denying Hashem by excluding oneself from a required service is a major break, making it less than surprising that Hashem would leave such a person behind. Rashi is saying that disinterest in leaving when the time came would suffice to be left behind.
To see how far-reaching that comment is, let’s see how tradition viewed those who were saved, with the significant problems they brought with them. It will suggest that Rashi’s is right to indicate that deep religiosity was not the crucial factor, just the willingness to go. Yet tradition has it that four-fifths of the people couldn’t find it in themselves to be willing to leave Egypt, the land of their slavery.
A Moment’s Digression On the Historicity of Midrash
To build the rest of this picture, I’m going to cite Talmudic, Midrashic, and commentarial views that do not adhere only to the explicit text. Too many people dismiss such comments as “only” Midrash, as if that leaves us nothing to learn. That’s an error in two ways.
First, sometimes—and we can’t always be sure of which—these Midrashim or Midrash-style Talmudic comments mean to represent a tradition of what actually happened (and it’s not easy to know which). Second, all Midrashim share a perspective of tradition regardless of what actually happened—the Midrash is telling us it would make sense that it happened that way, and we can learn a lesson from it as if it happened. If every source I quote for the rest of this essay did not represent historical fact, it would still teach us tradition’s view of these people.
Which is what should inform us as we think back on them and try to see how what they went through can help us do it better next time. End of digression.
The Erev Rav
Shmot 12;38 tells us that an ערב רב left Egypt with the biological Jews. Onkelos and Rashi understand that to have been a mixed group, from many nations. Rashbam to Devarim 33;3 understands Moshe Rabbenu’s reference to Hashem as אף חבב עמים, a lover of nations, in his opening to Ve-Zot HaBrachah, as meaning the ערב רב. I note that because Rashbam is a pashtan, someone dedicated to the simplest meaning of the text, and the verse in question comes at the very end of Moshe’s life. With all that happened, Moshe refers to these people as those whom Hashem loves.
Tradition also saw them as having caused problems in two crucial incidents. First, as Rashi reports on Shmot 32;4, the verse refers to Aharon shaping the gold into a calf, but tradition suggested that magicians of the Erev Rav came and did it (that’s to explain, I think, why Aharon says to Moshe, 32;24, that he threw the gold in the fire and this calf “came out”). In a later incident, Tanchuma Beha’alotcha 27 has one view that the אספסוף of Bamidbar 11;4 were this Erev Rav, they were the ones who led the rebellion against the man, the complaining for meat that eventually led to what the Torah describes as a מכה רבה מאד, a very great plague.
Other commentators offer other examples (Kli Yakar Shmot 13;17 suggests that the Erev Rav was the reason Hashem couldn’t take the people by way of Plishtim, that they were the ones who would lose heart at the sight of war and want to return to Egypt), but Betzah 32b shows us the long-lasting implications of this Erev Rav. R. Natan b. Abba in the name of Rav tells of Shabtai bar Marinus going to Bavel, hoping for business opportunities. Failing that, he asked for food, which he was also denied. He said that those wealthy people must be from the Erev Rav, because descendants of Avraham have compassion on others.
Sum total, the Erev Rav joined the Jewish people on their way out of Egypt, but are seen as not quite having fully assimilated into the nation. They seem to have played a significant role in the sin of the Golden Calf, might have been those who hankered after meat instead of man, and perhaps failed to develop the compassion that should characterize descendants of Avraham.
And yet, after all that, Moshe still tells us that Hashem loves them.
Datan and Aviram
As far as the literal text of the Torah goes, Datan and Aviram were leaders of Reuven, who joined Korach in his challenge to Moshe and Aharon’s authority, and were swallowed up by the earth to prove them wrong. Even in the text of Bamidbar 16 they seem to have an outsized role within that group—in the night between the challenge and the confrontation, Moshe sends for the two of them, not anyone else (they refuse to come).
Datan and Aviram also reverberate more after the incident. In Bamidbar 26, the Torah counts the Jews, after the plague Bilam lured the Jews into bringing on themselves by fornicating with Moabite women. When the family clans of Eliav are mentioned, the Torah refers to Datan and Aviram, and then reminds us of their role in the Korach encounter, and their having been swallowed up by the earth. It is there, interestingly, that the Torah lets us know that Korach’s sons didn’t die, because Korach himself isn’t part of the list.
So, too, when Devarim 11;6 is referring to wonders Hashem had done before the people—so they should know with Whom they’re dealing—the text refers to what Hashem did to Datan and Aviram, not mentioning anyone else by name.
Their Further Sins
Tradition supplied many more crimes they had committed. Shmot Rabbah 5;20 thinks they were the officers of the Jewish people who upbraided Moshe and Aharon (5;21) for having worsened the people’s lives. (Where, interestingly, they say that Hashem should judge Moshe and Aharon for what they had done; because those who oppose the truth of Hashem convince themselves they are speaking for Hashem!). Later on, Shmot Rabbah thinks it was these two who left man over on the first night it came down, despite the orders to eat it all every day.
Tanchuma Shmot 10;10 starts their litany of crimes earlier, seeing them as the Jews who were fighting with each other on the second day Moshe went out to see his brethren, who responded to his remonstrations by asking whether he planned to kill them as he had the Egyptian, and then told Par’oh that that was what Moshe had done.
Yet they got out of Egypt. Had they not joined Korach, they would have made it to Israel.
The Jewish People as a Whole
Tiferet Yisrael, commenting on mPesachim 10;5, reminds us that the implication of Hashem’s passing over the Jewish homes by virtue of their having offered the sacrifice and placed the blood on the doorposts is that otherwise they deserved the same fate as the Egyptians. In his Boaz commentary, he refers to a Midrash that has the angels complaining that the Jews were no different than the Egyptians, so why was Hashem saving one and not the other?
(I had trouble finding that Midrash, which is widely quoted. Vayikra Rabbah Acharei Mot 23;2, has another Midrash that Tiferet Yisrael also cites, that the Torah’s speaking of Hashem’s taking גוי מקרב גוי, one nation from the midst of another, highlights their being almost identical).
Tradition sees the Erev Rav, Datan and Aviram, and the people themselves as unworthy of redemption, by any standard. Other than Hashem’s, leaving us both hopeful and discouraged.
What It Takes to Get Out
These sources say that it took three steps to be redeemed from Egypt, despite whatever else was going on in one’s life. Accepting the central principle of Judaism, the need to obey Hashem, being willing to do so in the form of the Pesach sacrifice, and then being willing to leave Egypt. Since we were enslaved there, and were the descendants of Patriarchs who built their lives on service of God, we might have hoped these wouldn’t be so hard.
But they were, as tradition represents it (and not forced to do so by explicit texts). Strip our obligations down to their barest minimum, to acknowledging God, offering one sacrifice, and being willing to return to the land of our forefathers, and tradition had it that four-fifths of the people did not manage to do it.
For us, it means that the path forward is both easier and harder than we think. As we try to relive the Exodus at our Seder night or nights, we need to be sure that we are the kinds of people who would accept the central need to serve God, would be willing to offer a Paschal sacrifice if we had the chance, and would be ready to leave wherever we were, good or bad, and go to Israel, when God called us.
And then we’ll have avoided being the wicked son, being among those who would have been left behind in darkness. We’ll be with those who sang praises to Hashem when they were redeemed, when they were saved at the Sea, and started the journey to where Hashem decided we were supposed to live our lives.