The elephant in the room on Seder night
I always wondered about this. How do we sit down at the Seder and celebrate our freedom from Egypt without even acknowledging a catastrophe of immense proportions that happened just days before our departure? According to the most conservative opinion in the Midrash, four fifths of the Jews in Egypt died in the plague of חֹֽשֶׁךְ (darkness). That’s approximately 8 million people*. Yet, during the Seder we don’t mention it. Let’s first try to figure out why these Israelites never made it out.
We often hear the idea that the Israelites in Egypt were almost at a spiritual point of no return – the 49th level of impurity. (Zohar Chadash Yitro, 39a) We don’t know exactly what that means but suffice to say they may have been so ensconced in the grip of idolatry that they could not perceive the spiritual messages of their true God.
Another possible approach to the lost 8 million is that we are dealing with massive assimilation. Not necessarily idolatry, as in the first approach, rather identifying fully with values of Egyptian culture. As we say in the Haggadah; וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ אֹתָֽם “and the land was filled with them” (Shemot, 1:7). The Midrash fills in the details: “The amphitheaters and circuses were full of them” (Midrash Tanchuma Buber, Shemot, 6). Another sign pointing towards assimilation is the disturbing fact that, in Egypt, the Israelites abandoned circumcision. (Midrash Tanchuma Behaalotcha, 8:1)
In the Haggadah we declare the sobering reality that in every generation there will be an enemy that rises up against us to destroy us;
שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ. Thus the exodus is the paradigm for God rescuing us in every generation from our enemies. Perhaps the exodus is also a paradigm for another threat to our existence that will face us in every generation – assimilation.
The Torah makes an unusual admission
The Torah admits something about the Exodus that is unprecedented and disturbing. There are several predictions that in future generations, our children will forget a major event in our belief system and in our history, namely the Exodus itself.
We started with the question of why the Haggadah does not address itself to the staggering number of Jews who died in the plague of darkness? Maybe it does – in the section where the Torah admits an interruption in the transmission of our heritage – otherwise known as “the four sons.” After all, these children are questioning, challenging, or are totally oblivious to the story of the Exodus. When such a fundamental tenet of our faith is forgotten, it has all the telltale signs of assimilation.
It’s true that the Torah predicts something worse than forgetting the story of Exodus. In the “תוֹכָחָה” – the rebuke found twice in the Torah – it is predicted that the Jewish people will abandon God and suffer destruction and exile. (Vayikra 26 and Devarim 28). However, the “Four Sons” sounds more like an ongoing challenge to the transmission of our heritage. Aside from the righteous son, the other three are characterized by the very same ominous phrase in the Torah – כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֛ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר “when your children will ask you in the future as follows.” Even the righteous son will be asking in the future, however, that will hopefully be part of his intellectual growth and maturation. (Devarim 6:20). The wicked son has already opted out and asks what possible use can these restrictive, burdensome laws have for you (Devarim 6:20). The one with limited Jewish upbringing and education can barely articulate his question about the Exodus with the words, “what’s this”(Shemot 13:14)? Finally, for the one with absolutely no clue about his Jewish heritage – all’s good. There is nothing to question. So you have to reach out and engage them (Shemot, 13:8).
Perhaps the “Four Sons” is addressing the very same tragic process that started with the loss of 8 million Israelites in Egypt and will always be with us. Just like “in every generation” someone will rise up to kill us, in every generation we will lose as much or more Jews to assimilation. When the Haggadah talks of the Four Sons, כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבָּעָה בָנִים דִּבְּרָה תוֹרָה it means “The Torah speaks to four categories of Jews that are inevitable.”
Could this be part of the natural rhythm of the Jewish people
This would have been a good place to end this D’var Torah, but I’d like to go out on a limb and speculate further. Is there a reason why assimilation must continually inflict such a major toll on the Jewish people? According to the well-known Rabbi and historian, Beryl Wein, the Jewish people should have been as numerous as the Chinese. What went wrong? Of course, our history, as we mentioned, is drenched in blood. However, if these were punishments for abandoning God, why do we keep rebelling? And why do we lose as many or more Jews to assimilation when times are good and no one is pursuing us?
The limited effect of overt miracles
Overt miracles are a manifestation of God’s jurisdiction over the physical world. That was the nature of the ten plagues – especially the plague of hail which contained the enigma of fire within water. For some Jews and Egyptians this definitive sign of God’s supreme power was enough to engender the faith to follow God into a desert. However, we know that overt miracles have a surprisingly limited effect. After all, the sin of the Golden Calf followed on the heels of the splitting of the sea and the revelation at Mount Sinai. My speculation is that overt miracles send out a message that God is in complete control and this can elicit two possible responses. Drawing one closer to God – the source of ultimate truth who rules the world. Or causing one to recoil from the fear of being controlled by such a powerful God. Perhaps this is why the Jewish people are destined to be the smallest nation on earth. When faced with Godliness, the natural rhythm of the Jewish people is either to embrace it or, soon as the opportunity presents itself, to opt out. Moshe, for example, witnessed the burning bush which was a manifestation of God’s control over natural forces but was intrigued and attracted to it. The Jewish people saw Month Sinai in flames and a miraculous sound and light show. Initially they accepted these messages but soon fell to the Golden Calf. Even at Mount Sinai there are commentaries who say that the Jews only accepted the written Torah – perhaps because the notion of Rabbis making laws was too controlling for them.** However, in the Purim story, Instead of employing overt miracles, God acted within the natural order of events. Based on this kind of miraculous intervention, the Jews could finally accept the oral tradition.
Ironically, Pesach is the Festival of freedom, Yet for those who recoiled from God’s absolute control of the universe the miracles associated with the Exodus meant a complete loss of freedom. Perhaps those are the ones who assimilated in Egypt and could not give up their perceived freedoms. While those who trusted in God were not only free from slavery, but worshiping God presented an even greater existential freedom. They were no longer enslaved to passions and a world filled with falsehoods and emptiness. They were free at last.
On the Festival of Freedom God gave us the free choice to choose freedom, or not
*The Torah uses an unusual word to describe the condition under which the Jews left Egypt – חֲמֻשִׁ֛ים (Shemot, 13:18). According to the well known Midrash, this is related to the word חֲמִשָּׁה – five – meaning only one of five left Egypt (Midrash Tanchuma – Beshalach 1:4). The Torah tells us that 600,000 men left between the ages of 20 till 60. (Shemot, 12:37). If we factor in women, children and the elderly, it would be safe to say that 2 million left Egypt. This implies that there were 10 million in Egypt of which (four fifths) 8 million perished in the plague of darkness.
** A notion that would later divide the Jews between the Sadducees, the deniers of the Oral Law and the traditional Jews or Pharisees.