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The Key to Redemption

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

The Ramban in his introduction to Sefer Shemot states: "The book of Shemot was set apart for the story of the first exile … and the redemption there from", popularly stated: "sefer hagalut ve'hageula". In a matter of just two chapters though, the narrative shifts from exile to the beginning stages of the redemption with the birth of Moshe and the actions he takes against the Egyptian slavery.

Nehama Leibowitz dramatically describes the moment of transition from servitude to the beginning of redemption: "Suddenly the darkness was pierced by a powerful beam of light. The impenetrable barrier that had separated the upper and lower worlds fell down. The heavens opened."[1]

These words are in reference to the verses in Shemot 2:22-25:

Now it came to pass in those many days that the king of Egypt died, and the children of Israel sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to G-d from the labor.

G-d heard their cry, and G-d remembered His covenant with Avraham, with Yitzchak, and with Ya'akov.

And G-d saw the children of Israel, and G-d knew.

These verses are certainly the turning point, and one wonders what happened at this point that caused the change?

The immediate response is that this is the first time we see in the verses that Bnei Yisrael prayed to G-d for salvation. Although that itself is a cause of wonder as to why they had not prayed before; after all, the exile had been ongoing for about two centuries at this time.

Another possibility might be that at this stage the foretold time of the end of the exile had come and hence, though Bnei Yisrael had possibly been praying all along to be saved, the time was not right until this moment. The Ramban however claims quite the contrary, that in fact "even though the time of the bondage decreed upon them was completed, they were not worthy of redemption"[2].

The one thing that seems to be clear from the verse is the connection between the death of Par'o, the praying, and the beginning of the redemption. Why would the death of Par'o be a cause for the people to cry out? Isn't there a glimmer of hope in the death of a tyrant ruler?

Most of the commentators endeavor to explain this connection. 

The Rashbam[3] indeed claims that Bnei Yisrael had been praying ever since the servitude began, however, since Moshe was the one who would lead them out of Egypt and he had had to escape Egypt after killing the Egyptian, the process of redemption was halted due to the fact that Moshe could not return to Egypt without being killed by Par'o. This all changed when Par'o died, as now it was safe for Moshe to return to Egypt and lead the redemption.[4]   

The Ramban explains that the death of Par'o is what caused the people to cry out:

The custom of all subjects of a wicked tyrant is to hope for and look forward to the day of his death. But when Bnei Yisrael saw that the king died, they wailed bitterly lest a godless man may come to reign, who will be more wicked that the preceding king.[5]

Rav Hirsch expands on the idea of the Ramban and as usual, brings home strongly the dangers of societies headed by tyrants:

As long as the originator of such a terrible inhuman act, as passing an edict enslaving the whole of a free and innocent people, as long as he is alive, the hope can always be present that his conscience will awake and lead him to make an alteration in the wrong he had so violently instituted. But once a state institution – with whatever crying injustice it may have been started – passes into other hands, with all the power of the state behind it, and it is received as an established fact and the origin may be unknown, then it is sanctioned as being the normal conditions of things, and the new government even think it wrong to alter the old conditions which they take over. The new government assumes the legality of what they find, and the free people who had been enslaved with such devilish violence are doomed to the pariahs for evermore….

The past cultivated a field with the blood and tears (of others), and the present gathers the harvest with their conscience completely undisturbed, on the grounds of a fait accompli, and has no longer any idea of the curse that hangs on each ear of corn it so joyfully carries home.

As long as Par'o lived, Bnei Yisrael had hopes of a possible change in their fate. When he died, they saw themselves condemned forever to slavery.[6]

Rashi[7], based on Chazal in the Midrash, explains that Par'o did not die at all; rather he was smitten with leprosy and on his physician's advice, bathed in the blood of Jewish children. The description in the Midrash is even more graphic than that brought by Rashi, and tells that Par'o bathed in the fresh blood of one hundred and fifty children in the morning and repeated the same bloodbath in the evening[8].

Commentators explore[9] what caused Rashi to explain the verse nonliterally, and in addition to their insights, it seems Rashi is also addressing the fundamental question that was asked previously. Why did the redemption start now? Why did Bnei Yisrael start crying out now?

Rashi's answer is that until this moment, the exile and servitude were bearable for Bnei Yisrael. Until the exile became an intolerable nightmare, there wasn't a desire to be redeemed. Hashem had prepared everything for the redemption of his people. Moshe was born and had taken the first steps of becoming the one to lead Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. Everything was in place except for one thing – the desire to be redeemed. Since Moshe's courageous act of killing the Egyptian taskmaster at the age of twenty, the redemption was on hold for over sixty years until Bnei Yisrael came to (or were forced into?) the realization that they were living in an horrific reality which had to come to an end. The moment Bnei Yisrael expressed their discontentment about their situation, the process of change can begin. Before that happens, nothing can change.

Geulah is forthcoming and imminent for those who truly desire it.


[1] Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shmot, pg. 18.

[2] Ramban Shemot 2;25.

[3] Rashbam, Shmot 2; 22.  Similarly see also Ibn Ezra and Sforno Shmot ibid.

[4] The implications of the Rashbam's commentary are fascinating and consequential regarding understanding the interplay between G-d’s providence and the natural order of events. One could ask in bewilderment: "How long does G-d wait for Par'o to die to save his people?" or: "Could G-d not kill Par'o and hasten things up?" A subject worth returning to in the future.  

[5] Ramban Shmot ibid.

[6] Hirsch, Shmot, ibid.

[7] Rashi, Shmot ibid.

[8] Shmot Rabbah 1;34.

[9] See Mizrahi, Gur Aryeh, Siftei Chachamim and Malbim, Shmot ibid.


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