Yoni Mozeson
FInding God's hiding places

Midrash Tanchuma Behaalotcha:Why did approximately 8 million Jews die In Egypt

Sometimes, at the Pesach Seder, I feel like there’s an elephant in the room. According to the most conservative opinion in the Midrash, four fifths of the Jews in Egypt died in “Makat Choshech” (The plague of darkness). That’s approximately 8 million people. Yet, during the Seder we don’t mention it. Of course, we are focussed on the miraculous story of the Exodus for those who made it out.

Our Parsha deals, in part, with the duties of the Levites to light the Menorah. While on the subject of Levites, Midrash Tanchuma says that the Levites were loyal to the Torah unlike the rest of the Jews who:

מָאֲסוּ בַּתּוֹרָה וּבַמִּילָה, וְהָיוּ כֻּלָּם עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה “.. hated the Torah and circumcision and all of them were idol worshipers.”

Ironically, Yoseph was deeply concerned about his family maintaining the Mitzvah of circumcision when they came down to Egypt. According to the Midrash, he used his power as Viceroy of Egypt to force the Egyptians to circumcise themselves. He did so just so that the Jews would not feel inhibited to circumcise their children – something unheard of in Egypt. Yoseph knew that it’s very hard to go against the norms of society when you are trying to fit in and be part of the most powerful empire in the world. Unfortunately, as soon as Yoseph died most Jews decided to stop the practice of circumcision. It seems they also practised idolatry and had disdain for the teachings of their forefathers.

If most Jews were so bad how much worse could be the ones who didn’t make it out.

My “Chavruta” Israel Eisenberg, saw a clue in a related but very different question.

The “Rosh” (Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel) in his commentary on Chumash asks “how did Datan and Aviram deserve to leave Egypt. After all, they were the ones who reported to Pharaoh that Moshe killed an Egyptian taskmaster for beating a Jew. Once Moshe realized that they had informed on him, he had to run for his life. Datan and Aviram were a constant thorn in Moshe’s side until their final indignity of being among the ringleaders of the Korach revolt against Moshe and Aharon. However, they possessed an endearing quality that could provide that elusive criteria for who perished and who was redeemed from Egypt. The commentator, the “Rosh,” says that Datan and Aviran, as bad as they were, never gave up hope that they would be redeemed שלא נתייאשו מן הגאולה.

Perhaps this is what the Midrash meant when it said that the only Jews to leave where the one that שֶׁעָשׂוּ תְּשׁוּבָה וְנִתְקַבְּלוּ. “repented and their repentance was accepted.” They repented for distancing themselves from the collective fate of the Jewish People. Although it’s hard to believe, the overwhelming majority of Jews experienced the open miracles of the plagues and their belief system was unaffected.

Were the plagues more for the Jews than the Egyptians.

This brings up another issue. The notion that so many Jews perished during “Makat Bechorot” means that the first 8 plagues was their opportunity to recognize the mighty hand of God and link their fate with those who believed in the coming Exodus. Yet the Midrash on Parshat XXXX said that the purpose of the plagues was to provide the Egyptians a clear understanding of how they tormented the Jews. It was an opportunity for the Egyptians to repent. And the verses in the Torah imply that the plagues were a way for the whole world to see the mighty hand of God. So what was God’s real objective in bringing the ten plagues? Evidently it’s all of the above. God can execute multiple strategies at the same time.

Perhaps the real test of the Israelite’s faith is when each family was ordered to bring a lamb on the 10th of Nisan as part of a festive feast. They knew full well that the lamb was worshiped in Egypt. So this act of insurrection – preceded by circumcision – was a powerful statement that they were throwing their lot with the God of the Jews.

Those who declined to see the light of God’s redemption never made it past the Plague of Darkness.

Foreshadowing a frightening aspect of Jewish history

Perhaps just as the exodus was a paradigm for our final redemption, those who died may have been a paradigm for those who, over the millennia, would cease to identify with the Jewish People and Jewish destiny. On Pesach we focus on the miracles of the exodus and our final redemption. However, taking a silent part is the tragic reality of assimilation and its staggering number of victims.

About the Author
(Almost 100 Midrash Video summaries can be found on my youtube playlist: After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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