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Understanding Rashi – BeShalah

1. Shemot 13:17 – Why does Rashi refrain from citing the Midrash?

יג:יז: ויהי בשלח פרעה את העם ולא נחם אלהים דרך ארץ פלשתים כי קרוב הוא – ונוח לשוב באותו הדרך למצרים, ומדרשי אגדה יש הרבה

Ex. 13:17: When Pharaoh let the people go, Elohim did not lead them through the land of Pelishtim, because it was close by – and it would be easy to return in that path to Egypt, and there are many Midrashic interpretations

This commentary raises some questions:

  1. Usually, Rashi does not hesitate to quote midrashim, and 85% of his commentary on Beresheet is Midrashic material, so why does he not quote one of those midrashim he mentions?
  2. There aren’t that many Midrashim, at least of those Rashi uses frequently, on the words כי קרוב הוא.

The answer is, I believe, that when Rashi states that there are many midrashim but does not quote them, he dodges a potential theological dispute with Christian scholars. When he says here that there are many midrashim, he is not referring to the words כי קרוב הוא but rather to ולא נחם אלהים, which are translated literally as “Elohim did not lead them” but are understood differently in the midrash. In Shemot Rabbah there are four interpretations for these words, and all of them derive נחם not from the root נחה – to lead or guide, but rather from the root נחמ – to be comforted. These four midrashim speak of the son, or sons of Elohim who was tortured or killed and for whom Elohim would not be comforted until he executes revenge. Here is one example:

שמות רבה, כ:יד: משל לבן מלך שנשבה ביד הברברים והיו משעבדים בו יותר, לימים הלך המלך והציל את בנו מידן. אמר המלך לבנו, בני אני שמח על שהצלתיך מידן, אבל איני מתנחם עד שאני משתעבד בהם כשם ששיעבדו בך

This is analogous to the son of a king who was captured by barbarians who tortured him exceedingly. Eventually the king saved his son from them. The king told his son, my son, I am glad I saved you from them, but I will not calm down until I torture them the wy they tortured you…

In Christian theology Jesus became identified with Israel in Egypt, and Rashi was aware of that. He mentions the existence of midrashim by passing to say that he knows of them does not consider them worthy commentaries, thus avoiding potential attacks.

2. Shemot 13:18 – Did 2.4 million Israelite men die just before the exodus?

חמושים – אחד מחמשה יצאו, וארבעה חלקים מתו בשלשת ימי אפילה

One out of five left [Egypt], and the other four fifths died during the three days of darkness.

It is important to analyze this commentary, because, for some obscure reason, this is the one that students recall when they think of that verse. Rashi introduces this midrashic interpretation with the wordsדבר אחר  – another option, and he does so after dedicating almost a hundred words to the literal meaning of the verse, which is that the Israelites were armed and carried provisions. 

What is the argument for each interpretation? The root חמש appears 564 in the bible, of which 559 have to do with the number five. Of the other five times, four refer to armed people (Ex. 13:18; Jos. 1:14; Ibid. 4:12; Jud. 7:11) The last one – וחמש, appears in Gen. 41:34 and refers to the actions of Yosef in providing for Egypt. It is possible that the significance of חמוש as armed stems from the verse in Genesis. Yosef collected from the Egyptians one fifth of the crops, and that one fifth became the provision for the years of famine. Later, the term חמוש was borrowed to refer to someone who is well prepared, whether by having provisions or carrying weapons.

It is clear, however, that the word חמושים in our verse cannot be interpreted as one fifth. Beside the grammatical problem, how can this make sense at all? When discussing the plague of darkness, Rashi writes (Ex. 10:22):

ולמה הביא עליהם חשך? שהיו בישראל באותו הדור רשעים ולא היו רוצים לצאת, ומתו בשלשת ימי אפלה כדי שלא יראו מצרים במפלתם ויאמרו אף הן לוקין כמונו

Why did God bring the plague of darkness? Because the Israelites of that generation were wicked, and they did not want to leave Egypt, so they died [i.e. killed by God] during the three days of darkness, so the Egyptians will not see their defeat and say: “they are plagued just like us.”

This Midrash suggests that not only 2,400,000 Israelites died in three days, it went unnoticed by the Egyptians. It means that the Israelites had to bury 800,000 people a day, 33,333 every hour, 555 per minute, 9 per second. And how were the Israelites able to rejoice shortly afterward when celebrating their first Pesah or after crossing the sea? 

The answer lies in the part od the midrash that has been clipped, and in which two other opinions are mentioned. According to one, the number of wicked Israelites smitten by God was 24 million, and according to the other it was 240 million, meaning that only 0.02 percent of Israelites left Egypt. That last estimate would raise the rate of burial to 900 people a second and would make the exodus the greatest disaster in the history on mankind. It is obvious that the exaggeration was made in order to refute the first opinion which says that 2.4 M people died.

The question remains why did Rashi quote this Midrash and why is it still so popular today, despite its depiction of God as genocidal. Perhaps Rashi was trying to send a message to his generations, Jews who have experienced persecutions, lived in the gloom of the Dark Ages, and were witnessing the beginning of the Crusades. He was telling them not to lose hope, because if they do, they will not be redeemed. Today we are, thank God, not in exile. We can visit Israel when we want, and we have, in most countries, freedom of religion. On this backdrop, I had more than once the feeling that teachers and rabbis derive pleasure from the theological power this midrash grants them. They interpret it to their students as saying, “if you do not follow me, you shall perish.”

If your children studied this midrash or Rashi’s commentary, maybe it is a good idea to have an informed discussion with them, using the arguments presented here.

3. Food for thought: Did the Israelites pray at the Red Sea?

In his commentary to Ex. 14:10, Rashi says that the words ויצעקו בני ישראל אל ה’ – The Israelites cried out to God, mean that they prayed, following in the footsteps of their forefathers Abraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov (according to Midrashic interpretation of Gen. 19:27; 24:63; 28:11): 

ויצעקו, תפשו אומנות אבותם. באברהם הוא אומר אל המקום אשר עמד שם, ביצחק לשוח בשדה, ביעקב ויפגע במקום

My question is: when read in the context of the following verses, 11-12, do you think that the Israelites were praying, or was their outcry of a different nature.

Also, can you find the sarcasm in verse 11?

And, how many times does “Egypt” appear in verses 11-12? What does it teach about the Israelites?

Finally, a candy for Hebrew lovers. Here is a poem about the parting of the Red Sea, written by the great poet R. Abraham ibn Ezra. He uses an alliteration of the letter צ. Can you decipher the poem? 

אַרְבָּעָה עָמְדוּ עַל הַיָם

צוּר וְצִיר צֹאן וְצָר

צָר הֵצִיק לְצֹאן

וְצֹאן צָעַק לְצִיר

וְצִיר חָנַן לְצוּר

וְצוּר צִוָּה לְצִיר

צֵא וְחַלֵץ צֹאנִי מִיַד צָר

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