And then we went free. After 400 years in Egypt, 210 of them endured in slavery, after ten mind-bending and terrifying plagues, Phara‘oh finally cracks, “and he called out to Moshe and to Aharon at night and said, ‘Get up, get out, from among my people: both you and the Israelites and go serve YHWH, as you have spoken” (Sh’mot/Exodus 12:31). And they jumped at the opportunity, leaving en masse: “And the Israelites traveled from Ra‘amses toward Sukkot, around 600,000 men walking, aside from children” (12:37). An immediate population movement on that scale stretches the imagination. I’ve never seen so many people united in action before; how did it happen? Through all the drama of the first nine plagues, we hear almost nothing about the life of the Israelite community, other than that the latter few plagues did not affect them. Like so much history writing, the narrative focuses on the battling leaders. What was heard on the Israelite streets, though? How did they explain what was happening in Egypt? Was everyone excited about the plagues? Were there Phara‘oh apologists? Did some Israelites eschew Moshe and Aharon as “stir-up Jews”, and those who followed them as rabble-rousing radicals? Were there oblivious Israelites, just trying to focus on their day-to-day? How did they make the transition from collective rage at Moshe and Aharon for making their bad situation worse (5:20-21) to leaving suddenly and collectively in the space of only one year? Moshe was 80 years old when he returned to Egypt (7:7) and 120 when he died (Devarim/Deuteronomy 34:7), and they spent forty years in the desert, so the Rabbis deduce that the plagues transpired over, at most, twelve months (Mishna ‘Eduyot 2:10). What was that time like in the Israelite community? How did they all get on board with believing in a radical cause supported by supernatural miracles?
They didn’t. A lot of them aligned with their oppressors and suffered their fate. Our Rabbis doggedly push us to understand our mythic history not as utopian fantasy, but as Divine intervention into real, human history, with humans acting as humans act. At the beginning of next week’s parasha, we will read, “So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds, and the Israelites went up hamushim out of the land of Egypt” (Sh’mot 13:18). The meaning of the somewhat obscure word “hamushim” is debated. One view, following a verse in the Book of Joshua (1:14), says that it means “armed”: our ancestors left Egypt strong and ready to hold their own as a new, free nation. Not everyone accepted this view, though, preferring to ground the word “hamushim” in the Hebrew word “hamesh”, meaning five:
“‘Went up hamushim’ — one out of hamishah/five.
Some say: one out of hamishim/fifty.
Some say: one out of hamesh me’ot/five hundred.
Rabbi Nehorai says: I swear! Not one in five hundred went up…but many of the Israelites died in Egypt. When did they die? During the three days of darkness… (Midrash Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishma‘el).
I still remember the palpable shock I felt when I first learned this midrash, the feeling of a bubble being burst: beneath the veneer of confident unity on the surface of the exuberant liberation narrative was a bruised, divided, ravaged people: only ⅕ of our ancestors made it out…at most. It slowly sank in: it couldn’t have been otherwise. Escaping oppression to freedom is a radical act. Faith is a radical act. Collective, organized action is a radical act. And most people do not sign on for radical acts. Of course those who were ready for freedom did not have everybody on board. This sobering midrash points us back to our parasha: the best glimpse of the Israelite community is during the plague of darkness.
After eight plagues ravishing the Egyptian water, earth, wildlife, and livestock, the ninth plague, in our parasha, escalated to new levels of spooky terror: “YHWH said to Moshe, ‘Stretch out your hand across the heavens, that there be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness one can feel.’ Moshe stretched out his hand across the heavens and there was pitch dark in all the land of Egypt for three days. No one saw one another and no one rose from where they were for three days, but all the Israelites had light in their dwelling places” (Sh’mot 10:21-23). The Rabbis wonder what the point was of this plague in a striking midrash (Sh’mot Rabbah 14:3):
“Why did the Holy Blessed One, of blessed name, Who shows no partiality and Who probes the heart and searches the mind, bring darkness upon them? Because there were criminals among the Israelites who had Egyptian patrons and had wealth and status and did not want to leave. The Holy Blessed One said, ‘If I bring a plague upon them in public and they die, the Egyptians will say: Oh, just as [God] crossed the line with us, [God] crossed the line with them!’ Therefore, [God] brought three days of darkness, so that [the Israelites] could bury their dead, without the haters seeing them, so they praised the Holy Blessed One for this.”
Of course there were lots of oppressor-apologists among the Israelites. Of course the Egyptian power structure bought off some Israelites (on the cheap, one can assume) to serve as their fig leaves: How can you say Phara‘oh oppresses the Jews? Look at So-and-so! Of course some rank-and-file Israelites looked at those bought-out Israelites, saw the only people in their community with some comfort and status and aspired, futilely, to be like them. Of course the bulk of Israelites identified with the oppressors who had stripped them of the ability to identify with their own. And, of course, their presence prevents the Egyptians from breaking down, understanding the folly of their supremacist ways, and acknowledging the Holy Blessed One. They can’t get the message of the plagues just affecting the Egyptians if most of the Israelites align with the Egyptians and insist on experiencing the plagues: it’s just a hard time.
Liberation work is lonely and uncertain, shrouded in darkness. Our Rabbis are telling us that when we feel that way and when we feel incredulous that so many people who should be on board keep wanting to “see both sides” or worse, we must press ahead. Even in our mythic paradigm for liberation, the freedom fighters felt drowned out by sellouts and apologists. And the Rabbis urgently say to the moderates, the apologists, the sellouts, and turncoats of today: don’t let yourself wind up like the Israelites who died unseen in the plague of darkness. Make yourself a part of this story: break with Phara‘oh.