Gidon Rothstein

Story into law: some Halachic impact of the story of the Exodus

Shabbat HaGadol Drasha, 5776

The Shabbat haGadol drasha originated in a time when the rabbi would use that occasion to review many of the laws of Pesach. Since we today have other ways to access those laws, the drasha affords opportunities to address important topics that may not be as purely halachic. This year, that line between halachic and not was much on my mind.

Story Into Law: The Obligation to Believe

It’s a topic that has interested me for some years, and remains relevant because so many people bifurcate the two. My teacher, Prof. Twersky, zt”l, asserted that one of R. Soloveitchik’s unique contributions was uniting halachah and hashkafah, Jewish law and thought. This shiur was my attempt to show that this story, the story of our leaving Egypt, leaves its footprint all over our halachic observance.

To be clear: I know people who consider themselves halachic, despite denying much of the story of the Exodus and other such “faith” components of the religion. Part of my goal here is to point out how impossible that is from a purely halachic standpoint, that halachah¸ law pure and simple, depends on accepting these “faith” claims.

Belief in and the Nature of Hashem

Perhaps the easiest example is the obligation to believe in God. Rambam counts it as a positive obligation of the Torah, and Ramban fundamentally agrees. Ramban explained that Behag (author of an early count of the Torah’s commandments, to which Rambam was responding) did not include because it would be senseless to speak of commands before someone had accepted the authority of God.

Once we realize the necessity of belief, as an halachic matter, the Ten Commandments’ linking it to the Exodus becomes more significant. Phrasing the introduction as “I am the Lord… that took you out of Egypt” (instead of, for example, “that Created the world”) makes that event more central to what we are being commanded to believe.

That’s all the more true for Ramban to Shmot 13;16, who held that the events of the Exodus were calculated to demonstrate certain truths: that Hashem created the world (miracles that abrogate nature, for Ramban, can only be produced by the creator of the nature being upended), that Hashem knows what’s happening in the world, involves Himself in world events (Providence), and communicates with prophets.

For Ramban, all of that is contained within the mitzvah obligation to believe in Hashem.

Who We Were at the Time of the Exodus

A second example of the story affecting law comes from the realization that the Jews who left Egypt were not as righteous as we might think or hope. Ramban, Shmot, 12;40 noted Yehoshua 24;14, where Yehoshua, at the end of his life, importuned the Jews to put aside the idols they had left over from Egypt.  Rashi to Shmot 10;22 assumed that eighty percent of Jews did not get out, primarily because they did not want to go. The two comments show a Jewish people more attached to idolatry and to the Egyptian way of life than we might assume.

That’s not the whole story of that generation, but this isn’t the place to parse exactly who they were and weren’t. My point, as Ramban notes several other times (for a pungent example, see Shmot 2;25, where he quotes Yehezkel 20;8, which has Hashem saying that the Jews in Egypt refused to heed His call to put aside Egyptian idols), is that there is room to say that the Jews did not deserve any of the Exodus, let alone the wonders and miracles they were given.


To me, this sheds light on two halachic issues. The first is the less pleasant of the two, so let me mention it briefly. It also might seem more hashkafic, a matter of how we think about Hashem, but it affects our yirah and ahavah, awe and love of Hashem (both mitzvah obligations) as well as our trust in Hashem (another mitzvah obligation, at least for Ramban).

The problem is theodicy or, more popularly, why bad things happen to good people. Seeing the Jews leave Egypt despite significant flaws reminds us that we sometimes or often do not see ourselves as realistically as we should. In fact, studies show that people who see themselves realistically tend to be depressed.

We might not want to be depressed realists, but it means that were Hashem to punish the Jewish people, we might fail to understand why. A Jewish people where eighty percent of them are not connected to basic observance, should Hashem punish them in some way, might still see no reason for that punishment.

If we do not see our lacks, we will respond differently to calls to return, chidings, or punishments than if we knew we had to improve. When we insist we are better than we are, we react to troubles differently than might be the fullest constructive and productive way to do so.

Imitating Hashem’s Ways

There’s more to say, but it’s a sensitive topic people don’t enjoy facing, so let me turn to the more pleasant (and equally true) flip side. There is an ill-defined halachic obligation to imitate Hashem’s ways, a mitzvah le-hidammot bidrachav. Rashi and Ramban’s picture of the Jewish people reminds us that Hashem took us out of Egypt anyway. In Rashi’s view, all it took was wanting to go. For Ramban, Hashem heeded the Jews’ cries despite their being undeserving (or having made any commitment to improve).

That they still had idols in Yehoshu’a’s time means that Hashem (and Moshe, incidentally) tolerated that for forty years in the desert (I don’t know that they worshipped the idols, but they had them). This despite that first generation having died out and a whole new one having grown up—even the new generation was not absolutely required to have dispensed of their idols.

What Hashem Put Up With

What was the standard? It is, I repeat, a practical halachic question, although not one I can answer definitively. Watching Hashem take out Jews who transgressed major aspects of the Torah, throughout the time in the desert, and beyond (Hazal assumed that for much of the time of the first Temple, the Jews violated all of the “big three,” idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder) obligates us to cultivate the parallel kind of tolerance appropriate for human beings (the obligation isn’t to do exactly as Hashem does, because we aren’t Hashem).

That leaves two questions: what are the appropriate levels, what can and should we ignore or put up with, and what is intolerable, that we have to call out? Remember that to tolerate does not mean to accept or legitimate; there’s never any hint that Hashem condones or foregoes any of that which is considered sinful, whether serious or relatively light sins. It’s that Hashem does not immediately punish sins, waits and hopes for repentance.

The Question As It Applies to Us

It’s a question we can answer wrongly to both extremes– we can be too strict, too unwilling to live with flawed others (while, of course, excusing our own) while we also can be too gentle, too willing to overlook that which should not be.

For the Jews of Egypt, Rashi would say that wanting to leave was the absolute requirement, not willingness, right then, to be a full monotheist. Hashem wasn’t willing, as it were, to force Jews to leave and hope they would eventually come to realize that was the right decision. So, too, something about the crying of the spies was the last straw; perhaps they, too, showed an intolerable unwillingness to follow Hashem to Israel and work to build a certain kind of society.

Whether or not we have the answer, I think we have an important and valuable frame for the question: What does Hashem’s example from the Exodus suggest about how and when we can work with people who are not yet the kinds of people with whom we’d like to work? Either extreme is wrong, and it’s up to us to search for that middle.

Story Into Law: Weights, Interest, and Recognizing Hashem’s Omniscience

To keep this somewhat brief, let me skip the tefillin discussion and turn to weights and measures, interest, and the prohibition against eating insects. In each, the Torah connects the commandment to having been taken out of Egypt. For weights and measures, Rambam, Obligation 208, cited Sifra’s comment that it was on condition that we observe these commandments that Hashem took us out, later adding that anyone who accepts the obligation to keep accurate and honest weights declares his/her belief in the Exodus.

Why? Weights and measures is a matter of basic honesty, not of having left Egypt, it would seem. Baba Metzia 61b gives Rava’s answer, who wonders about this quirk of the Torah’s presentation regarding weights and measures, tzitzit, and not taking interest; for each example, he gives the same answer: the God who differentiated first-born from not (the promiscuity of Egyptian women meant, according to Hazal, that it wasn’t clear who was a real first-born; when they died, Hashem demonstrated His omniscience as well) would differentiate between those who cheated on these mitzvot.

In each, Rava pointed out, there was a way to cheat that no one would know. Weights could be dipped in salt, which subtly changed them; tzitzit could be dyed with a cheaper blue than techelet; and money could be siphoned through a non-Jew to be lent out at interest (in a way not allowed by Torah law). Egypt reminds us that we can’t cheat or fool Hashem, Who always knows. That’s supposed to be alive for us in our mitzvah observances, especially those where no one else would know.

As an halachic matter, when we are tempted to violate the Torah in ways no one knows, Egypt is supposed to loom in our heads, reminding us that Hashem always knows.

Story Into Law and Back to Tolerance: Not Eating Insects

After that discussion, R. Chanina mi-Sura asks Ravina about not eating insects, which the Torah also connects to Egypt. He understood the basic connection, since it, too, is a commandment that could be violated without anyone knowing. Rather, he wondered at the Torah’s there referring to המעלה, Who took you up from Egypt (instead of the usual “took you out”).

Ravina answered that the tradition of the House of R. Yishma’el was that Hashem was saying that had we only been taken up from Egypt to keep this one prohibition, that we would not sully ourselves by eating vermin and the like, that would have been enough. One last example of how this story is supposed to crop up throughout our halachic lives, how it is woven through and through a Jewish life, where the story in fact matters deeply to the law.

To claim to be halachic must include this story in all its fullness was the lesson I set out to show. Only to stumble across what might be as important a lesson, as emphasized again by this last Gemara: that for all that Hashem has very high standards (and it is those standards by which we are ultimately judged), Hashem also tolerates more than we might notice, and values our actions such as they are, despite our many failings, and often values those actions more than we might realize. Such as saying that it would have been sufficient to take us out of Egypt even if only so that we’d refrain from eating crawling creatures.

And it all comes from the story of the Jews’ leaving Egypt, a story I hope we all tell this coming Friday night in the fullest way possible, absorbing into ourselves its many messages, to come away renewed as the people who left Egypt, and who build that into our lives in the year ahead.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.