Pesah 5775 – The Narrative of Narratives

Pesah 5775 – The Narrative of Narratives

The Mishnah (Pesahim 116a) states that the discussion of the Exodus from Egypt at the seder must “begin with disgrace(גנות) and end with glory(שבח).” The exact understanding of this “disgrace” is the subject of a debate between Rav and Shmuel, with Rav saying that the requirement to start with disgrace is fulfilled by reciting a verses from Sefer Yehoshua (24:2-4) detailing how Bnei Yisrael are descended from idolaters like Terah before they ever went down to Egypt, and Shmuel saying that it is fulfilled by reciting a verse from Sefer Devarim (6:21, 5:15) discussing how Bnei Yisrael were slaves to Paroah in Egypt before ‘א redeemed them.

In the liturgy of our Haggadah we include both passages, making sure we have all of the disgrace covered[1]. This “disgrace to glory” structure dictates the nature of the story of the Exodus from Egypt that is discussed at the seder, ensuring that we cover the full story of ‘א rescuing Bnei Yisrael. This narrative makes it clear just what depths he pulled them out of, whether the spiritual depths of the post-Bavel depths of Bereishit 11 or the physical degradation of the slavery in Egypt. Against the background of this “disgrace” it becomes clear just how great the redemption from Egypt was.

However, the “disgrace to glory(שבח)” structure does more than just give the necessary limits of the recounting of the Exodus. Thanks to the multiplicity of meanings of the word “שבח,” it also creates the basic structure of Magid, the “retelling” portion of the seder. Maggie starts with calls for anyone who even now is in a state of “disgrace” to come and join our table. Then through the retelling of the redemption we pass through the glory of ‘א’s deeds to the point where we burst forth with joyous praise(שבח) of  ‘א with the beginning of Hallel (which we return to after the meal). Thus the experience of fulfilling the seder takes a person from one end to the other of the mishnaic dictum to “begin with disgrace and end with praise(שבח).”

The continuation of the Mishna tells us that out to expound upon the verse, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Devarim 26:5), and in fact a large portion of Magid is dedicated to midrashic exegeses of that whole passage from Devarim (26:5-11). What makes this passage an interesting choice is that it is not itself a passage from the Exodus story. If the goal of the seder, and Magid in particular, is to recount the story of the Exodus, the it would seem more logical to choose a passage from the first half of Sefer Shemot where the Exodus is actually narrated by the Torah. Certainly there is no lack of passages from the Exodus that simply cry out for exposition. Instead, the Mishna says we just delve into the passage recited by a farmer upon bringing the Bikkurim, the first fruits, to the temple. Upon bringing the fruits, the farmer recites a length retelling of the history of Bnei Yisrael from Avraham through the Exodus to their arrival from Egypt into the fruitful land of Canaan. By picking this passage the Haggadah directs our attention not to the Exodus but to the recounting of it.

While this at first glance seems strange, it finds a strong resonance within the other passages of Magid. The passages that Rav and Shmuel each chose are not from Bereishit 11 or from the slavery of Sefer Shemot, but from Yeshoshua’s discussion of Terah and Sefer Devarim’s  to tell your son that we were slaves to Paroah. Thus Rav and Shmuel are also focusing not on retelling the Exodus but on retelling the Retelling of the Exodus. Many of the other passages of Magid are even more explicit in this focus on “retelling the retelling.” In Magid we recount the story of the sages who stayed up all night talking about the Exodus, we discuss the debate between R’ Zoma and the Sages about when you have an obligation to talk about the Exodus, and we talk about the exegesis of the sages regarding how the plagues add up. The passages in which we retell the retelling of the Exodus story are a huge portion of the liturgy of Magid, almost outweighing the passages where we simply retell the story of the Exodus. In speaking these passages we affirm our place in a chain of speakers, in the line of “retellers” going all the way back to first generation out of Egypt.

This chain of speakers itself participates in the narrative of Yetsiat Metsrayim, in the journey from disgrace to glory and praise. In speaking the words of the seder we place ourselves in a chain that stretches back to the Exodus itself, a line of people who have experienced and told of ‘א glorious redemption, from generation to generation, heading to a time when the whole world will sing out in praise of ‘א.

[1] It is possible that the halakhah was decided like Rav and we just have both passages anyway. For more on that, see here.

“Not For Your Sake But For The Sake of My Holy Name” – On Redemption, Ideal and Otherwise – Pesach 5774

לֹא לְמַעַנְכֶם אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי אִם לְשֵׁם קָדְשִׁי

Chapter 36 of Sefer Yehezkel is part of the third and final section of the book, the section dedicated to the Redemption of Bnei Yisrael from the Babylonian Exile. The chapter describes ‘א bringing the people back to the Land of Israel and settling them there. The first half of the chapter speaks about the people returning to the land, first for the sake of the Land, and then for the sake of ‘א. In the second half of the chapter, the prophet refers to Bnei Yisrael being given a new heart, a reference the earlier prophecies of Yehezkel 11 and 18 Therefore chapter 36 must be understood in the context of those prophecies. Additionally, the basic idea of the new heart image is that of undeserved redemption, meaning that Bnei Yisrael are redeemed despite not being deserving of redemption. As such, the image is based on and must be understood against the background of, the narratives of Chet Ha’Egel (Shemot 32), Chet Ha’Meraglim (Bamidbar 14), and Yericho (Yehoshua 7). Only then can the true meaning and value of Yehezkel 36 be understood.

First, a quick look at the second half of Yehezkel 36. Verse 16, “The word of the Lord came to me,[1]” starts a new prophecy, separate from the first half of the chapter. Verses 17-21 describe how Israel’s exile, a necessary response to it’s sins, had the unfortunate effect of “causing ‘א’s holy name to be profaned among the nations.” (36:21). Verses 22-28 describe how, in response, ‘א is going to bring Israel back to His land and cleanse them of their sinful nature. Finally, verses 29-38 describe how ‘א will cause the land to become rejuvenated and the cities of Israel to be built up.

A critical theme of the prophecy is the concept of ‘א replacing Israel’s heart (this idea has roots in Jeremiah 31 and 32, themselves based on themes from Sefer Devarim, but those passages are not necessary for the understanding of this prophecy). This idea itself, in this chapter, has two distinct parts, both found in verse 26: “And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” These ideas, the “heart of flesh” replacing the “heart of stone” and the “new heart and new spirit”, are based on two different prophecies from Yehezkel 11 and 18.

Both Yehezkel 11 and 18 are part of the first third of Sefer Yehezkel, discussing how the wickedness of the people is going to cause the destruction of the Temple. Part of this is a series of prophecies enumerating the sins of the people in Jerusalem, as opposed to the people already in Exile. Yehezkel 11 is the end of a prophecy that starts in chapter 8, which states that the sinful nature of the residents of Jerusalem has caused their rejection, and how those already in Babylonia are now the favored people of ‘א. At the very end of this prophecy we find the motif of the “Heart of Flesh”, as well as something reminiscent of the “New Heart and New Spirit”.

17 Yet say: Thus said the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the Land of Israel. 18 And they shall return there, and do away with all its detestable things and all its abominations. 19 I will give them one heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove the heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may follow My laws and faithfully observe My rules. Then they shall be My people and I will be their God. 21 But as for them whose heart is set upon their detestable things and their abominations, I will repay them for their conduct-declares the Lord God.

In place of the wicked residents of Jerusalem, ‘א will return the exiles to their land where they will follow His laws and once again be His faithful nation. However, the exiles do not seem to be given a choice in this move towards faithfulness. They are going to be faithful servants of ‘א, not because they want to, but because He is going to make them so.[2]

Yehezkel 18 presents a viewpoint radically different from that of chapter 11.[3] Like chapter 11, chapter 18 is essentially an argument for the idea that the wicked will be punished and the righteous will be rewarded.[4] Chapter 18 even takes the form of an actual dialogue between ‘א and the people. However, chapter 18 differs greatly from chapter 11 in its use of the “New Heart” theme.

29 Yet the House of Israel say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Are My ways unfair, O House of Israel? It is your ways that are unfair! 30 Be assured, O House of Israel, I will judge each one of you according to his ways-declares the Lord God. Repent and turn back from your transgressions; let them not be a stumbling block of guilt for you. 3l Cast away all the transgressions by which you have offended, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit, that you may not die, O House of Israel. 32 For it is not My desire that anyone shall die-declares the Lord God. Repent, therefore, and live!

As opposed to Chapter 11’s conception that, regardless of their evil ways, ‘א will redeem Israel and will simply cause them to be better in order to justify it, Chapter 18 insists that ‘א will punish the wicked and therefore Israel should be better, in which case they will be redeemed and rewarded. This change is clear from the difference in language between 11:19, “I will give them (וְנָתַתִּי לָהֶם) one heart and put a new spirit,” and 18:31, “make for yourselves (וַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם) a new heart and a new spirit.” Whereas in chapter 11 the change is effected by ‘א, in chapter 18 Bnei Yisrael are called upon to change themselves. This prophecy casts Bnei Yisrael in an active role as opposed to the more passive role from chapter 18, and it makes their redemption anything but assured.

Chapters 11 and 18 depict two very different kinds of Redemption, one deserved and the other undeserved. The deciding vote between them is cast in chapter 36, and the winner is the undeserved redemption of chapter 11. This is clear first and foremost from the return of the Heart of Stone/Heart of Flesh motif in 36:26, “And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” This is the image from chapter 11, where the redemption of Bnei Yisrael is passive and undeserved. More importantly, undeserved redemption is a dominant theme in the prophecy of Yehezkel 36. Six verses explicitly reference the idea that ‘א will redeem Israel for His sake and not for theirs. Another five discuss how Bnei Yisrael will have to be cleansed by ‘א after their redemption. Having been given the option of being forcibly redeemed in chapter 11 and the option of earning their redemption in chapter 18, the option chosen in the end is that of chapter 11. The reason for this is presumably the one great event that occurs between chapters 18 and 36: the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash. Once the Destruction occurred, it was clear that the people were not going to earn their redemption. At that point, if redemption is going to occur it will have to be undeserved.

To properly understand the meaning of this undeserved redemption one must look at previous such occurrences of undeserved redemption, namely Chet Ha’Egel and Chet Ha’Meraglim. Chet Ha’Egel is a classic example of a transgression that is followed by repentance, where it is clear that the people were forgiven for what they had done. However, they almost didn’t survive long enough to be able to repent. In Shemot 32, ‘א nearly destroyed the people before Moshe could even tell them that they were doing something wrong.

9 The Lord further said to Moses, “I see that this is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.”11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, saying, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. 12 Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people. 13 Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.” 14 And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people.

In verse 10, Bnei Yisrael deserve destruction to such a degree that  ‘א seems almost excited to destroy them. Moshe needs to present Him with two arguments in order to save them. He first suggests (32:12) that if ‘א does not successfully bring Bnei Yisrael into the land then the other nations will assume ‘א  is weak. Second, Moshe invokes the covenant between ‘א and the Fathers of the Israelite nation. Somehow, between these two arguments ‘א appears to have been swayed by Moshe, and decides not to destroy the people. While only the first of these two reasons matches ‘א’s reasons for redeeming Bnei Yisrael in Yehezkel 36, both of them tell us that this salvation from the wrath of ‘א is completely undeserved by the people.

Chet Ha’Meraglim is one of the archetypal sins of Bnei Yisrael. More than even Chet Ha’Egel, it changes the path of the nation’s future by keeping them in the desert for an extra 38 years. In Bamidbar 14, Bnei Yisrael sinned by not only appointing spies to spy out the land of Israel but, more importantly, by being swayed by the negative report of the spies regarding the land.

11 And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? 12 I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they!”13 But Moses said to the Lord, “When the Egyptians, from whose midst You brought up this people in Your might, hear the news, 14 they will tell it to the inhabitants of that land. Now they have heard that You, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; that You, O Lord, appear in plain sight when Your cloud rests over them and when You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 If then You slay this people to a man, the nations who have heard Your fame will say, 16 ‘It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness. ’17 Therefore, I pray, let my Lord’s forbearance be great, as You have declared, saying 18 ‘The Lord! slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and fourth generations.’ 19 Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.” 20 And the Lord said, “I pardon, as you have asked. 21 Nevertheless, as I live and as the Lord’s Presence fills the whole world, 22 none of the men who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me, 23 shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers; none of those who spurn Me shall see it.

Once again, Moshe proposes two reasons for ‘א not to wipe out Bnei Yisrael. Firstly, if ‘א doesn’t bring the people into the land, then He will appear to be weak. He then recited what has come to be known as ‘א’s “13 Attributes of Mercy,” essentially asking ‘א to spare the people because he is merciful, rather than because they really deserve to be spared.

Chet Ha’Egel and Chet Ha’Meraglim are the two classic examples of Bnei Yisrael being saved without being worthy of it, and what they really demonstrate is that undeserved salvation is just another term for a lack of destruction. It is not that Bnei Yisrael are saved so much as ‘א does not obliterate them. This can hardly be described as an ideal. This point excellently made by a final event in Tanakh where a leader argues for the salvation of Bnei Yisrael for the sake of ‘א’s name. The seventh chapter of Sefer Yehoshua begins with the sin of Achan at Yericho, followed by the destruction of Bnei Yisrael at Ai as a consequence. Yehoshua’s subsequent prayer and ‘א’s response are of particular relevance to the present discussion.[5]

6 Joshua thereupon rent his clothes. He and the elders of Israel lay until evening with their faces to the ground in front of the Ark of the Lord; and they strewed earth on their heads. 7 “Ah, Lord God!” cried Joshua. “Why did You lead this people across the Jordan only to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites, to be destroyed by them? If only we had been content to remain on the other side of the Jordan! 8 O Lord, what can I say after Israel has turned tail before its enemies? 9 When the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land hear of this, they will turn upon us and wipe out our very name from the earth. And what will You do about Your great name?” 10 But the Lord answered Joshua: “Arise! Why do you lie prostrate? 11 Israel has sinned! They have broken the covenant by which I bound them. They have taken of the proscribed and put it in their vessels; they have stolen; they have broken faith! 12 Therefore, the Israelites will not be able to hold their ground against their enemies; they will have to turn tail before their enemies, for they have become proscribed. I will not be with you any more unless you root out from among you what is proscribed. 13 Go and purify the people. Order them: Purify yourselves for tomorrow. For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Something proscribed is in your midst, O Israel, and you will not be able to stand up to your enemies until you have purged the proscribed from among you.

Certain that the people have earned destruction, Yehoshua pleads with ‘א to save them, saying that if Bnei Yisrael are destroyed by the nations of Canaan then ‘א’s name will be a mockery. As opposed to the previous examples, where ‘א then relents and agrees to save the people, ‘א responds to Yehoshua quite harshly, “Arise! Why do you lie prostrate? Israel has sinned!” ‘א tells Yehoshua that the people are suffering because of their transgression, and thus the answer is not to cry out to ‘א but rather to rectify the transgression. “Go and purify the people. Order them: Purify yourselves for tomorrow. For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Something proscribed is in your midst, O Israel, and you will not be able to stand up to your enemies until you have purged the proscribed from among you.” Given the choice between saving the people because they deserve it or saving the people for the sake of ‘א’s name, ‘א very clearly tells Yehoshua that the former is preferable.

The tension between Yehezkel 11 and 18, and the resolution of this tension in Yehezkel 36, must be understood against the background of these earlier narratives. The sanctity of ‘א’s name is obviously important enough to necessitate the undeserved redemption of Bnei Yisrael, whether from destruction of from exile. However, Bnei Yisrael earning their salvation is itself a value of great importance. Thus Yehezkel 11 does not present an ideal, but rather a yielding to necessity, a second-class salvation of Bnei Yisrael. Chapter 18 then presents the ideal. Bnei Yisrael are redeemed, thus ensuring the sanctity of ‘א’s name, and Bnei Yisrael also earn their redemption. Chapters 11 and 18 present two different possibilities, and when the possibility of chapter 11 is finally selected in chapter 36, this redemption comes with an asterisk. It’s not perfect. It’s salvation, but it comes at a cost. Between chapters 18 and 36, ‘א has to give up on the repentance of Bnei Yisrael. He has to destroy Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash, and when He redeems the exiles, it will not be because they deserve it, but rather only because to leave them floundering in exile would be a desecration of His holy name.

Yehezkel’s job as a prophet was to speak to a people in exile about why they were in exile, and about what they should be doing there. When it comes to redemption, he put before them two visions, one of worthiness and one unworthiness. This split is essentially the basis for Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik’s famous distinction between Fate and Destiny.[6] With these words Rav Soloveitchik delineated two very different approaches to the events of history and of everyday life. A person with a “Fate”-mentality wants to know why something happens to them. They are are very passive, and focused on the past. A person with a “Destiny”-mentality takes a very different approach. Instead of asking why this event happened, they ask what they are supposed to learn from this event, how it is supposed to affect their life. Their interest in the cause and reason of the event is not about the event itself, but only for the purpose of know what actions they should be taking in response. They are active and their thoughts are centered on the future. The two redemptions of Yehezkel 11 and 18 correspond to the Fate and Destiny mindsets, respectively. Undeserved redemption is a passive experience. It is what happens when Bnei Yisrael sit in exile and wonder why they have been exiled. The deserved redemption of chapter 18 is an active experience, one Bnei Yisrael have to bring about themselves. Yehezkel tells the exiles that they were sent to Babylonia for a reason, to stop being who they were in the land of Israel and to become better. If they become better, then they will be redeemed. Exile is not meant to be a passive experience. It’s something that happens because Bnei Yisrael create a stagnant and festering society. Then Bnei Yisrael are exiled in order to stop being the nation they were in the land and to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” as they are meant to be. The Jewish People in exile will be redeemed, for the sake of ‘א’s name or for the purpose of His historical agenda, but the ideal is for Bnei Yisrael to deserve it.

 

[1] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible, except where emendations were necessary for clarity.

[2] There is a possible vagueness in the phrase “them whose heart is set upon their detestable things” in that it could refer to either the residents of Jerusalem or perhaps members of the Exile that resist the ‘א’s transformation of their state of mind. Based on the rest of the vision it likely refers to the former, but the possibility of the latter can’t be ignored.

[3] This is is true if it is understood as an expansion of 11:21, based on the second reading, or as a stand-alone prophecy.

[4] This is one of the main goals of Yehezkel as a prophet, in contrast to the author of Sefer Melakhim, as per countless shiurim from Rabbis Menachem Leibtag and Hayyim Angel, available on www.YUtorah.org.

[5] The inclusion of this narrative is thanks to Yonatan Mandelbaum, a friend and scholar.

[6] Kol Dodi Dofek