The Passover Exodus
The Exodus Story That Could Have Been
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
The Story of the Exodus from Egypt ends in carnage for the Egyptians, and in glorious salvation for the Israelite nation – but could this story have ended differently? Could the Egyptians have lived happily ever after? How should Pharoah have reacted to Moses's request to take the Israelites to honor God?
We read in the story of Exodus that Pharaoh rejects Moses; having raised Moses as his own son, Pharaoh is against the idea of Moses visiting his other (Heavenly) Father. And so the 10 plagues are unleashed upon the Egyptians, and only until the final plague – the death of the firstborn – does Pharoah relent. Yet, still, rather than let the Israelites leave in peace, the Egyptians chase them down in chariots – only to drown in the Sea of the Reeds, and wash up dead upon its shores.
Curiously, if we closely study these events in the Exodus story, we start to see uncanny resemblances to another biblical story – when Joseph asks Pharaoh to honor the death of his (earthly) Father Jacob. Only, in that story, the Egyptians and the Israelites go forward together in unity – the chariots accompany the Israelites, not chase them. Was this biblical story intended as a blueprint for Pharaoh, to show how the Egyptians could have been saved?
In this video course, Rabbi Fohrman studies the Exodus from Egypt story to see what these curious biblical connections could mean. Jump into his commentary on the story of the Exodus – with a new perspective.
The Exodus From Egypt
Hi everybody, it is Rabbi David Fohrman here, and Pesach is on its way. The Seder looms. You want to say something at the Seder, but, at least at the Sedarim that I've personally been at, you know, there's a problem, because the temptation is to focus on a lot of the little stuff. And at the beginning of the Hagaddah, there is a lot of little stuff, there's a lot of what we might call prologue – stories about Rabbi Akiva in B'nei Brak, Ben Azai with the streaks in his beard, looking as if he is 70 years old – and, you know, it's easy to pick apart the minutia associated with those stories, but by the time you're done with that, it's 11 at night, everybody's hungry, and frankly, nobody at the table has really gotten a chance to talk about any of the big stuff – the story of the Exodus itself, or even the larger themes that emerge from that story.
In this video series, I'm going to try to focus with you on some of that "big stuff." I want to help us develop a perspective on the Exodus saga as a whole, and try to glimpse some new meaning in it. Meaning that will enrich not only our understanding of the Exodus story, but also our understanding of our own destiny, because we're a nation that came into being through that story.
Violence or Compassion: What Is the Exodus Story Really About?
I want to begin by sharing something which has always gnawed at me, whenever I found myself rereading the Biblical text that recounts the grand climax of the Exodus, I'm talking about the confrontation of Egypt and Israel at the Sea of Reeds God tells Moses, don't worry about it, He's got it all taken care of, I'm going to split the sea, the Israelites are going to walk through on to dry land, the Egyptians are going to chase them. And then the language of the text is, God tells Moses that when that happens...
וְאִכָּבְדָה בְּפַרְעֹה וּבְכָל-חֵילוֹ, בְּרִכְבּוֹ וּבְפָרָשָׁיו
... I'm going to be honored through Pharaoh, through his army, through his chariots, through his horsemen…
Now, what exactly does that mean? Seemingly, God is referring to what is about to happen a few verses later on: Pharaoh's chariots and horsemen chase the Israelites, but they are drowned by converging walls of water. So you know, you'll forgive me if this sounds a bit too forward, but doesn't that kind of sound like, almost, a mean thing to say – that you, God, are going to take honor in all this death and destruction?
I mean, it feels almost "unbecoming" of the Almighty to speak that way. Yeah, it's true, the enemies of the Israelites are the Egyptians, and yeah, it is better that they be destroyed than be allowed to recapture and re-enslave Israel, but look, it is one thing to reassure Israel that you will defend her by killing her enemies, it's another thing to say that you are going to take glory and honor from all that killing. Why would you phrase it that way if you're God?
How Is God Depicted in the Exodus Story?
Okay, so, you might just say that there is no real problem here, it's just my own, personal sensitivity that seem to run against the grain of the verse. But the truth is, it's not just my own personal sensitivities. Interestingly enough, the Sages of the Talmud actually suggested that the Almighty Himself shares those very same sensitivities. Here's actually what they say:
...אין הקדוש ברוך הוא שמח במפלתן של רשעים... באותה שעה בקשו מלאכי השרת לומר שירה לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא, אמר להן הקדוש ברוך הוא: מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה לפני?
The Holy One, Blessed is He, does not rejoice in the downfall of evil-doers.
...In the moment [when Egypt was destroyed at the Sea], the heavenly angels wished to sing in rapture before the Holy One Blessed Be He.
But God said to them: My creatures, [the Egyptians], are drowning in the Sea, and you're going to pick this time to rejoice in front of Me?" (Tractate Megillah, 10b).
Look at the whole point the Sages are making here: don't rejoice at the downfall of your enemies, particularly if you're God. God is the creator, and even his enemies are creatures that He's created. There is something bitter in the taste of victory against them.
And what's really weird is that the same story that we felt seemed to offend our sensitivities, the story of the splitting of the sea, is where the Sages get their proof-text from, that God would never rejoice in the downfall of the wicked. So what's going on here? How could they have looked at that same story, which has this verse that talks about God taking glory and honor from the destruction of Egypt – how could they have looked at that story and say, no, God would never rejoice in the downfall of the wicked! They were surely aware of the verse! How could they ignore it?
So I want to suggest to you that it is actually we who are misinterpreting the verse, not the Sages. In other words, when the Almighty spoke of taking honor from all the king's horses and all the king's men, he wasn't actually talking about taking glory from the deaths of the Egyptians whatsoever. If you look carefully at the verse, it never says God's taking honor from their deaths, I'm taking honor from Pharaoh and from his horsemen and from his archers, the verse doesn't actually mean he's taking honor from their deaths, what the verse really means, is something else entirely.
The glory that would come, as the text phrases it, "from the chariots and archers of Egypt," is actually the tip of a very large iceberg – an iceberg that shows us a whole new face of the entire Exodus story.
As it turns out, these chariots and archers of Egypt that supposedly are going to honor God – it's not the first time we encounter them in the Torah.
The Bible's Precursor to the Exodus Story?
They show up one other time in the Five Books of Moses, earlier, at the very end of the Book of Genesis, in a story that involves, of all things, a funeral procession for the patriarch Jacob. But the really remarkable thing is that it's not just this particular element of the Exodus – the chariots and archers – that happen to appear earlier, in the Genesis burial story. It's actually a whole bunch of elements from the Exodus story that seem to get "borrowed" by that very same burial story of Jacob. I want to kind of go through these similarities between the stories, and then see what it is you and I make of them.
Let me give you an example, here's a verse from the story of the burial of Jacob. It's an ordinary verse that wouldn't really cause even a raised eyebrow. As a matter of fact, it appears to tell us something so trivial that one wonders why it even needed to be said at all. The verse says that everyone went on this procession for Jacob:
רַק, טַפָּם וְצֹאנָם וּבְקָרָם–עָזְבוּ, בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן.
...but they left behind their children, their sheep and their cattle, that they all left in the Land of Goshen.
Why did the Torah tell me that? I mean, imagine that the Torah had not gone out of its way to tell you whether or not the people joining Jacob's funeral procession had brought their little kids along with them. Let's say we had not been told whether the sheep and cattle had come along. Would you have read the story of Jacob's burial, and then, you know, closed your copy of the Bible in astonishment, slapped your knee and exclaimed: But I wonder what happened with all those little kids! Did they take them all along, or leave them with babysitters? What were the daycare arrangements like? And all those animals, was someone cattle-sitting, or were they dragging their animals back and forth? What happened with the animals?
You probably wouldn't have said that, right? Why does the Bible bother to tell us about these things? Of what significance is this completely trivial information?
But consider this: In that phrase about the little children and the cattle, we actually hear a premonition of things to come. Because when else in the Bible are Israelites getting ready to leave Egypt, and then, suddenly, the issue of whether they bring along their little children, sheep and cattle, starts to take center stage? That happens during the story of the Exodus.
As you might recall from your previous knowledge of the Exodus, child-care and animal-care logistics actually were part of the negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh. Moses had originally asked Pharaoh not for a blanket release of all the Israelites, to leave for good and make a new home for themselves in the Promised Land. On the contrary, Moses' original request of Pharaoh was much more limited: Could you let your slaves go for just three days into the desert, to worship their God, the Creator that they worship? Pharaoh, of course, at first arrogantly denied that request, then later on, gives into it partially, asking for the children and perhaps the cattle to be left behind. Look at that...the children, and animals, they become an issue. Interesting.
But it could be a coincidence, but let's keep on going and see.
Studying the Bible's Parallels Behind the Passover Story
Are there other parallels between the Exodus story and the Burial of Jacob? Turns out there are. Consider the location at which the burial procession stopped for a while to eulogize Jacob before they got to their ultimate destination in the caves of Machpelah. The place they stopped for eulogies was called Goren Ha'atad. As it happens, the Torah actually makes a point of telling us exactly where Goren Ha'atad was located:
וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד-גֹּרֶן הָאָטָד, אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן
They came to Goren Ha'ated, which is on the other side of the Jordan River (Genesis, 50:10).
But let's do just a little reality check of the geography: What, exactly, was the burial procession doing on the east bank of the Jordan?
The shortest route from Egypt to Hebron is actually to basically head northwest in a straight line. If the burial party traveled to Canaan via Goren Ha'atad, it means they went seriously out of their way. Leaving Egypt, they've had to swoop down to the south of Canaan, traverse the Sinai desert, swing up and around the Dead Sea, travel due north for the entire length of the sea, then hook left to cross the Jordan River, probably somewhere near Jericho. And that would really be taking the long way.
The truth is, I can't explain to you why they chose such a roundabout route for the burial procession. But the fact that they did is quite intriguing – because that particular route reminds the reader of another great journey. That was the route the Children of Israel took, centuries later, in the event we know as the Exodus from Egypt.
So the route of the burial party anticipates the route of the Exodus. Very intriguing. That's another connection between the burial story and the Exodus. But there's still one more I want to share with you. Let's talk about 'Canaanite onlookers.'
So in the burial story, the Torah makes a point of telling us that the Canaanites gazed out at the burial procession, which of course included lots of Egyptians along with the family of Jacob, and they exclaimed in wonder: 'What heavy mourning this is for Egypt!' Well, in the Exodus story, wouldn't you know it, the Canaanite onlookers are back again. This time, they appear in the ecstatic song of thanksgiving that the Israelites sang after the victory at the Sea of Reeds. If you look at that song, there's a role that the Canaanites onlookers have, and it's actually the same role as these onlookers had in the burial story.
שָׁמְעוּ עַמִּים, יִרְגָּזוּן... נָמֹגוּ כֹּל יֹשְׁבֵי כְנָעַן
The nations heard [what happened to Egypt]; the inhabitants of Canaan shrank away in fear (Exodus 15:14–15).
So in the burial story, the Canaanites are astonished at what's happened to Egypt, and later on the Sea, at the Exodus, the Canaanites once again are astonished at what's
So one by one, each of these elements from the burial story, they all seem to get repeated in the Exodus story. The chariots and the archers, the babysitting and the animal care arrangements, the route taken from Egypt to Israel, even the Canaanite onlookers. It seems as if these connections between the Burial of Jacob and the Exodus stories are more than the product of mere coincidence. The Torah seems to be asking you and me, the reader, to line up these two journeys away from Egypt, and to actually see them in relationship to one another.
happening in Egypt.
The Meaning of the Exodus Story That You Almost Missed
So here's a theory I'd like to suggest to you. I want to suggest that the Jacob's burial story is a kind of precursor of the Exodus, and more than that, that the Torah actually sets up this burial story almost as a kind of lens through which you and I can look out upon the Exodus. If we look through that lens, we'll actually find ourselves looking at something remarkable: A whole new way of seeing the Exodus as a whole.
That new perspective on the Exodus will help us answer the question we raised above about "taking honor" from killing people, what exactly that meant, but it's also, again, going to help us see, really, the whole story of the Exodus differently. It will help us see our destiny differently, because we are the nation that came into being through this story of the Exodus. But in order to see how that's so, we need to go back and examine the Jacob's burial story, that lens, just a little bit more carefully. Let’s do that in the next video. Come with me; I’ll see you there.