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Isaac S. D. Sassoon





An Ideal Exodus?





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Isaac S. D. Sassoon





An Ideal Exodus?








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An Ideal Exodus?

At the Seder we commemorate our ancestors’ departure from Egyptian bondage and express gratitude for the inestimable gift of freedom. And yet, some ancient rabbis, and  prophets before them, could not ignore the affliction and hardship that befell Egyptians as well as Israelites at various stages of the story. And so for the future they envisioned a kinder redemption.


An Ideal Exodus?

Exodus from Egypt – nine separate drawings each telling a story. Elias Smalhout (1889-1939). Joods Historisch Museum

Remember the Day You Left Egypt

Deuteronomy repeatedly reminds the people of their bondage in Egypt with the declared purpose of motivating them to be good and generous in dealing with those less fortunate.[1]Having been underdogs themselves, they are expected to empathize and identify with the lowly and underprivileged.

However, at Deut 16:3 – a verse pertaining to the Festival of Matzot – what they are asked to remember is not their Egyptian bondage, but rather the day they left Egypt “in haste”:

דברים טז:ג לֹא תֹאכַל עָלָיו חָמֵץ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תֹּאכַל עָלָיו מַצּוֹת לֶחֶם עֹנִי כִּי בְחִפָּזוֹן יָצָאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ.
Deut 16:3 You shall not eat upon it leaven; seven days shall you eat upon it bread of affliction because in ippazon [haste] you left the land of Egypt so that you will remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.

Mentioning the Exodus Daily

The verse ends with the requirement to remember this day “all the days of your life,” which seems to extend the remembering beyond the confines of eating matzah on the holiday. The Talmudic rabbis understood the remembering to extend to a daily routine, which is why they instituted the third paragraph of Shema and its final blessing to be recited (at least) every morning in the liturgy.[2]

Mentioning the Exodus at Night or in the Messianic Age? (Mishnah)

For many Talmudic rabbis, especially those of the Akiban school, every word in the Torah’s legal material had to yield halakhic information.  When it came to the halakhic import of emphatic “all” in “all the days of your life,” it was disputed. While none disagreed that the Exodus should be recalled every morning, the rabbis were divided with regard to evenings [or nights] – as recorded by the Mishnah (m. Ber. 1:5):

מזכירין יציאת מצרים בלילות
The exodus from Egypt should be mentioned at night.
אמר ר’ אלעזר בן עזריה הרי אני כבן שבעים שנה ולא זכיתי שתאמר יציאת מצרים בלילות עד שדרשה בן זומא שנא’ (דברים טז) למען תזכור את יום צאתך מארץ מצרים כל ימי חייך ימי חייך הימים כל ימי חייך הלילות
R. Eleazar ben Azariah said: “Behold I am about seventy years old[3] but found no support for mentioning the exodus from Egypt at night until Ben Zoma derived it midrashically: It says, ‘so that you will remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.’ ‘The days of your life’ [means] days; ‘all the days of your life’ – nights.”
וחכ”א ימי חייך העולם הזה כל ימי חייך להביא לימות המשיח:
But the sages say: “‘The days of your life’ means this world; ‘all the days of your life’ includes the days of messiah.”

Ben Zoma Defends his Position (Tosefta)

In the Tosefta’s version of the same debate, Ben Zoma defends his position with a verse from Jeremiah (t. Berakhot 1:10; Lieberman ed.):

אמ’ להם בן זומא וכי מזכירין יציאת מצרים לימות המשיח והלא כבר נאמ’ לכן הנה ימים [באים] נאם ה’ ולא יאמר עוד חי ה’ אשר העלה את בני ישראל מארץ מצרים כי אם חי ה’ אשר העלה ואשר הביא את זרע בית ישראל מארץ צפון…
Ben Zoma said to them: “Surely the exodus from Egypt will not be mentioned in the messianic era for it says, ‘Days are coming says the Lord when they will no longer say [lo yomru od] “As the Lord lives who took the Israelites out of the land of Egypt” but rather [ki im] “As the Lord lives who took out and brought the seed of the house of Israel from the land of the north…”’” [Jer 16:14-15, 23:7-8].[4]

Ben Zoma, in ostensible faithfulness to the literal meaning of the Jeremiah prophecy, posits that in the future, the exodus from Egypt will be replaced in the Jewish psyche by the ingathering of the exiles. Concomitantly, he argues, mention of the exodus will disappear from the liturgy.

The Sages Respond (Tosefta)

The Sages, unimpressed, not only reject Ben Zoma’s halakhic conclusion, but claim that he is misconstruing the Jeremiah verse:

אמרו לו לא שתעקר יציאת מצרים ממקומה אלא שתהא יציאת מצרים מוסף על מלכיות מלכיות עיקר ויציאת מצרים טפילה.
They [the sages] said to him: “It does not mean that the departure from Egypt will no longer be mentioned (lit. will be uprooted from its place) but rather that the departure from Egypt will be [mentioned] in addition to the [liberation from] the kingdoms (i.e., exile).[5] The [liberation from] kingdoms will be primary and the departure from Egypt subsidiary.”

So according to the sages, the biblical phrase “you will no longer say x but y” does not mean literally “you will no longer say x,” but rather “you will no longer say only x.” In other words, when scripture seems to be substituting one thing for another, what it really intends is not the eradication of the one but only its demotion.

Prooftexts for the Sages (Tosefta)

The sages for their part cite examples of non-literal uses of the adversative phrase ki im. The first comes from the vicissitudes of Jacob’s names. For although the patriarch is told his name will no longer be Jacob but rather (ki im) Israel (Gen 35:10),[6] God continues to address him as Jacob (e.g., Gen 47:2), demonstrating that the “retired” name remained on standby.[7]

The second proof summoned by the sages is Isaiah 43:18-19:

יאַל תִּזְכְּרוּ רִאשֹׁנוֹת וְקַדְמֹנִיּוֹת אַל תִּתְבֹּנָנוּ. הִנְנִי עֹשֶׂה חֲדָשָׁה עַתָּה תִצְמָח…
Recall not former events nor ponder ancient happenings. Behold I am making something new which is about to sprout…

The Tosefta deconstructs this verse as follows:

אל תזכרו ראשונות – אילו של מלכיות
“Recall not former events” – those of the kingdoms,
וקדמוניות אל תתבוננו – אלו של מצרים
“Nor ponder ancient happenings” – those of Egypt,[8]
הנני עשה חדשה עתה תצמח – זו מלחמת גוג ומגוג (של גוג)
“Behold I am making something new which is about to sprout” – this is the war of Gog and Magog.

The logic of the proof is elusive but seems to go as follows: Since only Gog will eclipse the recollections of both Egypt and the kingdoms, when Jeremiah predicted that the release from the kingdoms would obliterate every vestige of Egypt, he could not have intended anything so extreme. If he had, there would be no Egyptian recollection left to be steamrollered by Gog. So much for the Tosefta.[9]

Deutero-Isaiah and the Return from Exile – Better than the Exodus?

Turning now to the prophetic texts themselves, both envisage a day when a greater deliverance will at least dim the exodus, if not reduce it to virtual oblivion. In particular, Deutero-Isaiah (the late exilic prophet to whom Isaiah chapters 40-55/66 are generally attributed) links the forthcoming departure from the Babylonian captivity to the departure from Egypt. This linkage is acknowledged by biblical scholars – notably, Pamela Barmash:

Deutero-Isaiah, the anonymous prophet of the Babylonian Exile who lived during the edict of Cyrus, uses Exodus imagery to launch a new ideology … Exodus motifs are pervasive and profuse in these prophecies, and rather than recounting an event in the past, Deutero-Isaiah uses Exodus imagery to recast the present and future events of his or her own time.[10]

Using the Exodus as a Foil

Taking Barmash’s observations a step further, we would draw attention to the distinctive way Deutero-Isaiah uses the Exodus as a foil against which to highlight what lies ahead. For instance, at 52:4 we read:

מִצְרַיִם יָרַד עַמִּי בָרִאשֹׁנָה לָגוּר שָׁם… 
In the beginning [or long ago] my people went down to Egypt to sojourn there…

Then at v. 12 the departure from Babylon is foretold,

כִּי לֹא בְחִפָּזוֹן תֵּצֵאוּ וּבִמְנוּסָה לֹא תֵלֵכוּן כִּי הֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיכֶם יְ-הוָה וּמְאַסִּפְכֶם אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Not in ippazon [haste] shall you depart nor will you leave in flight. For YHWH is marching before you, the God of Israel is your rear guard.

The allusion to Deut 16:3’s “for in ḥippazon [haste] you left the land of Egypt” stares one in the face. The word ḥippazon [haste] is rare enough, occurring just three times in the Bible, but the phrase “leaving [י.צ.א] in ḥippazon” occurs just twice. Isaiah’s point: at your departure from Egypt, you fled in panic, but your future departure from the exile will be leisurely and dignified.[11]

Violence vs. Carefree

A further case in point is partially familiar from the above-quoted Tosefta.

ישעיה מג:טז כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה הַנּוֹתֵן בַּיָּם דָּרֶךְ וּבְמַיִם עַזִּים נְתִיבָה. מג:יז הַמּוֹצִיא רֶכֶב וָסוּס חַיִל וְעִזּוּז יַחְדָּו יִשְׁכְּבוּ בַּל יָקוּמוּ דָּעֲכוּ כַּפִּשְׁתָּה כָבוּ.מג:יח אַל תִּזְכְּרוּ רִאשֹׁנוֹת וְקַדְמֹנִיּוֹת אַל תִּתְבֹּנָנוּ.
Isa 43:16 Thus says YHWH who makes a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, [mayim azzim]. 43:17 Who lets chariot and horse go forth army and might [ve-izzuz]; together they lie never to rise, they are extinguished, snuffed out like a wick. 43:18 Recall not former events nor ponder ancient happenings.

Deutero-Isaiah seems to have in mind a prototype of our exodus story (Exod 14-15) or some version thereof; God causing a mighty army with horse and chariot to go forth is almost a paraphrase of Exod 14:4-8. The wick simile is absent from the Song of the Sea, but not the idea of swift death.[12] If so, what we have here is a vignette of one of the darker sides of the exodus. By contrast, at their imminent departure from exile, the returnees will not have to worry about pursuing armies. Indeed, they can forget about what happened in Egypt, since this time, God will do things differently.

Thirst vs. Water

Yet another example of Deutero-Isaiah’s contrasting the future favorably with the past relates to the people’s respective travel experiences. In Exodus, no sooner is the sea crossed than the Israelites are confronted by dire adversity: thirst (15:22-24), hunger (16:3), and more thirst (17:1-4), not to mention the Amalekite attack (17:8-16). In contradistinction, the future trek to freedom will be tranquil and provided with “water in the wilderness and rivers in the barren desert”:

מג:יט הִנְנִי עֹשֶׂה חֲדָשָׁה עַתָּה תִצְמָח… מג:כ …כִּי נָתַתִּי בַמִּדְבָּר מַיִם נְהָרוֹת בִּישִׁימֹן לְהַשְׁקוֹת עַמִּי בְחִירִי.
43:19 Behold I am making something new which is about to sprout… 43:20 …I will provide water in the wilderness and rivers in the barren desert where my chosen people may drink.

Restoration: Less Idyllic than Imagined

Deutero-Isaiah imagines the future restoration as having all the positive aspects of the exodus from Egypt with none of the negatives—no violence and no hunger and thirst. History, in this instance, did not live up to expectations. The glorious prospects Deutero-Isaiah anticipated for the returning exiles did not materialize.   

To be sure, Cyrus, whom Deutero-Isaiah calls God’s shepherd (44:28) and messiah (45:1), was, by any standard, a wise and tolerant ruler under whose hegemony Jews enjoyed a high level of autonomy. The journeys of the successive groups of returnees, though lacking fanfare, went smoothly.[13]

Ezra notes with relief that despite foregoing the protection of security guards, God kept him and his fellow travelers safe from ambushes and highwaymen.[14] Fair enough; but nothing more spectacular is recorded. Certainly nothing to render the memory of the exodus from Egypt obsolete. On the contrary, the exodus must have been deeply meaningful to the early waves of repatriates who celebrated Pesach and the Feast of Matzot (Ezra 6:20-22).[15]  

Why Did the Exodus Entail So Much Suffering?

Should we—Deutero-Isaiah and Ben Zoma included—really be second-guessing the exodus from Egypt? As the saying goes, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth”; and yet the reservations of tannaim, and prophets before them, who thought the exodus story left something to be desired, strikes a chord.

For we must marvel, if miracles were the order of the day back then, why was Israel not spared the privations that tormented the start of their freedom? Why was Amalek not held at bay? With sufficient miraculous intervention, even Pharaoh’s charioteers – perchance Pharaoh himself – might have repented rather than go under with the valiant steeds.

A More Human-Like Non-Omnipotent Deity?

The questions above can be quite oppressive as long as one pictures an omniscient and omnipotent deity, who stands above the fray, sees every detail at all times, and acts only out of wisdom and beneficence. But many passages in the Torah seem, at least prima facie, to bespeak a less than omnipotent deity, with clear anthropopathic qualities. Among the most egregious are the פן (“lest”) verses, which portray a deity who seems to have limitations.

The first of these verses comes at the end of the Garden of Eden story:

בראשית ג:כב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהִים הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ לָדַעַת טוֹב וָרָע וְעַתָּה פֶּן יִשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וְלָקַח גַּם מֵעֵץ הַחַיִּים וְאָכַל וָחַי לְעֹלָם.
Gen 3:22 YHWH God said behold the human has become like one of us knowing good and evil and now lest he stretch forth his hand and take also of the tree of life and eating [of it] will live forever.

This passage implies that once the humans discovered the tree of life, YHWH would be unable either to forestall their eating of it or, should they eat, to prevent them from inevitably gaining immortality. Hence, they must be banished from the garden.

The slow conquest of the land is explained as a consequence of the deity’s inability to stop wild animals from encroaching:

שמות כג:כט לֹא אֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִפָּנֶיךָ בְּשָׁנָה אֶחָת פֶּן תִּהְיֶה הָאָרֶץ שְׁמָמָה  וְרַבָּה עָלֶיךָ חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה.
Exod 23:29 I will not drive them out from before you in a single year lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts will proliferate.

Perhaps even more discomfiting to the Torah student is the reason given for the deity not accompanying the Israelites, because the reason implies that even the deity’s temper is beyond his control:

שמות לג:ג …כִּי לֹא אֶעֱלֶה בְּקִרְבְּךָ כִּי עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף אַתָּה פֶּן אֲכֶלְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ
Exod 33:3 … But I will not go in your midst, since you are a stiff-necked people, lest I destroy you on the way.

Finally, and perhaps most relevant to this piece:

שמות יג:יז וַיְהִי בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת הָעָם וְלֹא נָחָם אֱלֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים פֶּן יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה.
xod 13:17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer [or shorter], for God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.”

The deity knows he will be unable to keep the Israelites’ fear in check were they to encounter the powerful Philistines blocking their way. So a roundabout route must be taken to avoid the encounter.

Apropos of this last scripture, Maimonides asks: “What prevented God from leading the Israelites through the land of the Philistines and endowing them with strength for fighting?” Maimonides answers: “A person’s nature is never miraculously changed by God … I do not say this because I believe that it is difficult for God to change the nature of every individual person; on the contrary, it is possible … but it has never been His will to do so…”[16]   

A Monolatrous Perspective?

Biblical scholars tend not to embrace Maimonides’ dogmatic solution. Instead, scholars are inclined to accept that parts of the exodus story go back to Israel’s monolatrous phase.[17] Monolatry demands adherence to one national or “us” deity while allowing for the existence of divinities belonging to other nationalities.

In the monolatrous perception, divinities may be potent, but they are nothing like the transcendent creator God of monotheism. They resemble human potentates, and thus are thought of in anthropomorphic and anthropopathic terms. Such divinities had to reckon with forces out of their control – both natural and supernal. If monolatry was the belief system reflected in ancient texts such as the “pen” texts, it might explain why they depict the deity taking precautions for fear of undesired consequences.

However one chooses to interpret the “pen” scriptures, in the Song of the Sea it is hard to miss monolatry’s footprint. There, Israel’s deity is described as “a man of war” (אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה; Exod 15:3) who is threatened by enemies who rise up against him (v.7), even as he is able to defeat them by unleashing his superior arsenal. While its theomachy is muted, still the Song apostrophizes God with patently monolatrous rhetoric (v. 11):

מִי כָמֹכָה בָּאֵלִם
Who is like you among the gods?[18]

Song of the Sea not in the Haggadah

Significantly, the Song of the Sea is not invited to the Seder. Though we cherish the Song no less than every other component of the Torah, for many of us, it cannot form part of our liturgy.[19] Gloating, as the Song does, over the mass destruction of the Egyptians, their horses and chariots, is perfectly understandable on the lips of the escapees whose lives had been threatened by that potential killing machine. But words spoken by escapees in the heat of the moment, need not necessarily suit individuals who did not personally share their predicament, such as us – or the ministering angels:

ואמר רבי יוחנן: מפני מה לא נאמר כי טוב בהודאה זו – לפי שאין הקדוש ברוך הוא שמח במפלתן של רשעים. ואמר רבי יוחנן: מאי דכתיב ולא קרב זה אל זה כל הלילה – בקשו מלאכי השרת לומר שירה, אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה?
R. Yohanan said:  “Why does it not say ki tov in this thanksgiving litany [at 2 Chron 20:21]? Because the holy One blessed be He is not happy about the fall of wicked people.” R. Yohanan also said: “What does it mean ‘And they did not approach each other all night’? The ministering angels wanted to say a song [or the Song] but the holy One blessed be He said to them, ‘The work of my hands are drowning in the sea and you want to sing?’”[20]

Imagining a Better Exodus

The exodus story as narrated in the Torah appears to involve gratuitous suffering for the Egyptians, and all too frequent bouts of desperate languishing in the wilderness for the wandering Israelites – all meted out by Israel’s deity. So while fully cognizant of our immense blessings, perhaps it would not be irreverent, simultaneously, to hope for a future redemption untrammeled by such cares and sorrows. This seems to be the hope of the sages in the Mishnah, as well as the prophets Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah.

When Deutero-Isaiah’s utopian visions remained unfulfilled in the Persian period, they eventually came to be understood as long-range predictions for a time in the distant future, a time the rabbis called a [or the] messianic era [yemot ha-mashiach].

Meanwhile, and until that blissful age arrives, both Ben Zoma and the Sages agree that the exodus from Egypt remains the pivotal event in Jewish consciousness – despite its regrettable aspects. It is recalled daily in the Shema service. Annually on Pesach, we celebrate the precious, yet fragile, gift of freedom and express gratitude through traditional doxologies (e.g., Deut 26:5-8) and hymns of praise (Ps 113-118)[21] – the two elements that constitute the verbal essence of our Haggadah.


March 29, 2018


Last Updated

June 11, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Hacham Isaac S. D. Sassoon is a rabbi and educator and a founding member of the ITJ. He studied under his father, Rabbi Solomon Sassoon, Hacham Yosef Doury, Gateshead Yeshivah and received his semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Lisbon. He is the author of The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition (Cambridge University Press 2011), a commentary on chumash An Adventure in Torah: A Fresh Look Through a Traditional Lens (KTAV 2023), and most recently the co-editor with Rabbi Steven H. Golden of the Siddur 'Alats Libbi (Ktav 2023).