The night of freedom
‘Vayehi Bchatzi ha Lailah – And it came to pass at midnight’.
The famous words from this week’s parsha, immortalised by Seder night. At midnight the Jewish people went free from Egypt.
And tonight – at midnight (Brussels time) – the UK will be free from the EU!
Of course there are major differences, we haven’t been slaves to the EU for 210 years – just 47! And of course Bnei Yisrael believed in ‘Hashem and in Moshe his servant’, yet we have to believe in Boris!
However, there is one similarity, in both cases, even after they knew they were leaving (both Egypt and the EU) there were those who wished to remain.
I want to focus on the Egyptian remainers, and there is a very disturbing teaching about them.
We learn next week in Beshalach that Hashem did not lead them by the way of the philistines because it was near, for Hashem said perhaps the people will reconsider when they see a war and they will return to Egypt. So Hashem turned the people towards the way of the wilderness to the sea of reeds. The end of the pasuk reads – V chamushim alu bnei yisrael me eretz mitzrayim– The children of Israel were armed when they came out of Egypt.
Chamushim is a strange word, it literally means they were armed, the idea being that Hashem prefers natural manner to miracles – so we were going to have to fight our enemies ourselves.
However, there is a second and more radical opinion in Rashi and the Mekhilta, which is that chamushim comes from the word for five, chamesh and that only one in five Jews left Egypt.
This means only twenty percent of the Jews left Egypt! Believe it or not, the one-in-five opinion is the most conservative one in the Mekhilta. The full text reads: ‘Another opinion: “Chamushim went up” means one in five. Some say one in fifty. Some say one in five hundred.’
This is incredibly upsetting! This midrash asserts that the vast, vast majority of the Jewish people – whether 80%, 98%, 99.8%, or even more — did not leave Egypt. We are talking about millions of people.
So why did they not leave? Shemot Rabba explains that “There were sinners among the Jews who had Egyptian patrons, and they had wealth and honour there, so they didn’t want to leave”.
So what happened to this reluctant majority that chose to remain? The first three opinions in the Mekhilta do not elaborate, so it’s possible they hold that the majority simply stayed in Egypt and continued assimilating over the years until they lost their Jewish identity completely.
However, Rabbi Nehorai at the end of the Mekhilta argues that Hashem killed them. “So when did they die? During the three days of darkness, as it says, ‘People could not see each other’ (Shemot 10:23). They were burying their dead, and they thanked and praised Hashem that their enemies could not see and rejoice at their downfall”.
This especially bothers Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164), who isn’t so happy with the whole explanation, and for good reason, we are talking about millions of Jews who would have died! As Ibn Ezra says, ‘Since only a tiny part was left from a huge nation, this would not have been redemption for the Jews but a sick evil! That’s the opposite of the text. The whole thing is a derash; don’t rely on it. Maybe the one who said it at the outset had a hidden reason.’
Rav Shimon Schwab (1908-1995), like Ibn Ezra, cannot accept the premise that millions of Jews were wiped out in a plague much worse than the ten in the Torah. Rather, Rav Schwab suggests a reinterpretation of the Mekhilta. He explains this based on Rashi on the verse (after Kayin kills Hevel), “The sound of your brother’s blood calls to Me from the earth” (Bereishit 4:10). Rashi cites the Sages’ explanation, “‘Your brother’s bloods (plural)’ — his blood and the blood of his descendants (who will never be born).”
So too here, says Rav Schwab, you can say that only a few people died. Among the Jews there were several completely evil people, who did not deserve the redemption, and they died in the three days of darkness. However, had they remained alive, they could have been the ancestors of millions of people through the generations. This is what the opinions in the midrash are arguing about:
So some did die according to Rav Schwab – but a few.
So Chamushim can be literal – they were armed, it can be mathematical – some didn’t get redeemed, but finally it can be uplifting – Targum Yerushalmi, explains that the Jews left armed with good deeds.
On Monday I will be leaving Europe as well – and heading off for a week in the States as ‘Dreams of a Nation’ goes on tour! Straight after Brexit we are already trading with America!
It is a real honour for us to be spreading the powerful ideas of Religious Zionism. ‘Dreams of a Nation’ tells the remarkable story of our people from the Avot to Yetziat Mitzraim to the present day including our miraculous return to Israel to establish the third commonwealth.
Unlike Brexit – we know that Egyexit was a huge success, yes there were plenty of mistakes along the way but we received the Torah and finally made our way to Eretz Yisrael.
Boris Johnson tonight will ask us to believe in Britain.
I do, but far more I believe in Hashem, the Torah and the Jewish people – freed over 3500 years ago and still going strong.
So tonight, whether you are a Brexiteer or a Remainer – hold up that Kiddush cup and proudly recite ‘Ki Hu Yom Techilla l mikraei kodesh – zecher yitziat mitzraim’. Shabbat is the first among the holy days of assembly, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.
We must never forget that we left Egypt, which created the birth of our free Nation united by Hashem and the Torah. Egypt – that is one place we are very happy that we didn’t remain!