This week’s Torah portion of Bo takes us through the final 3 plagues and what led up to the exodus from Egypt. This includes the first Pesach and the laws that relate to Pesach and the seder.
The medrish Pesiksa Rabasi of Rav Kahana expounds on one of his interpretations of a pasuk found in Tehillim (119:62), “At midnight I arise to thank You for Your righteous ordinances.” “In another interpretation “Your righteous ordinances” refers to the ordinances (judgements) that You brought on the Egyptians in Egypt and the righteousness You did with our forefathers in Egypt. For they only had two mitzvos, the blood of the Pesach and the blood of bris milah, therefore it says in Yechezkel (16:7) – ‘And I passed over you and saw you wallowing in your blood and I said to you, through your blood you shall gain life, through your blood you shall gain life.’ This refers to the blood of the Pesach offering and the blood of bris milah.”
The Maharz”u on this medrish, quoting a Medrish Rabba in Rus, explains that they didn’t have any mitzvos in hand to be involved with so that they could be redeemed. Therefore, in order to be redeemed, Hashem gave them 2 mitzvos, which were the blood of the Pascal lamb and the blood of circumcision… (click here for Hebrew text.)
This pasuk in Yechezkel is mentioned every year in the Haggadah, “’And numerous,’ as it is said: ‘I caused you to thrive like the plants of the field, and you increased and grew… I passed over you and saw you wallowing in your bloods, and I said to you `By your blood you shall live,’ and I said to you `By your blood you shall live!’ (Yechezkel 16:6,7). The Ritva commenting on the Haggadah references a Mechilta which says in the name of Rebbe Masia ben Cheresh that Hashem was saying “And I passed over you and saw you” and behold the beloved time had come when Hashem had sworn to Avraham Avinu that He would redeem his children, but they did not have any mitzvos to be involved in so that they can be redeemed… so Hashem gave them two, the mitzvah of Pesach and the mitzvah of milah so that they can be involved in them in order to be redeemed… So to the Rambam wrote that circumcision took place in Egypt, as it says “Any uncircumcised cannot eat from it.” Moshe Rabbeinu circumcised every one of them except for the tribe of Levi for they kept bris milah as it says “And your bris they observed.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It would seem from the Maharz”u on the Pesiksa Rabasi and the Ritva on the Haggadah that a prerequisite to being redeemed was that the Jews had to be actively involved in performing mitzvos, which is why Hashem gave them circumcision and the Pascal Lamb as commandments to fulfill. However, the Ritva himself mentioned that they were already performing mitzvos, earlier in the Haggada, on the line, “’And he became there a nation’ this teaches that Israel was distinctive there.” The Ritva says this was them dressing in a distinct way, differently than the Egyptians, by wearing tzitzis. In fact, the Yalkut Shimone (172) mentions other mitzvos they were careful to fulfill, such as distancing from promiscuity, not speaking lashon hara, and not changing their Hebrew names. Indeed, the gemara in Yoma 28b says that during their entire stay in Egypt there was always a yeshiva open, learning the teachings their forefathers had taught going back generation to generation from Avraham Avinu. Furthermore, the Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer, end of chapter 48, said that for 3 things the Jewish people deserved to be redeemed from Egypt: for not changing their language from Biblical Hebrew, not speaking lashon hara, and for believing in the uniqueness of Hashem (Yichud Hashem). If this is the case, then what does it mean that Hashem had to give them 2 mitzvos in order to redeem them? Is there a contradiction here in the Ritva and are the midrashim arguing with each other?
Of course, there is no contradiction in the Ritva and it would seem that the midrashim don’t have to be arguing. It is one thing to be performing mitzvos because it is a nice thing to do, or even the proper thing to do, things that might even have been a tradition from one’s ancestors. This steady performance might be even the ultimate cause of redemption. However, they were not commanded to perform those mitzvos. Bris milah and the Korban Pesach were the first mitzvos that Hashem had commanded the Jewish people to perform. It would seem that only because they observed what they were commanded to do were they able to go through with the redemption. It would not have been possible to redeem them without their observance of what was commanded of them. In fact, it would seem from the Pesiksa Rabasi that ideally, they should have first received the Torah so that they could observe all of the mitzvos, but out of Hashem’s righteousness He took them out after observing only two commandments.
Observing something that you feel obligated to do is a whole different level than performing a mitzvah because you just feel like it, or because you are in the mood, or it makes sense to you, or you just like it. The reason being is because it shows commitment and true respect to Hashem that you are observing it because He commanded you to do it, whereas a person who fulfills mitzvos just because, and when he feels like it, shows that he is committed to himself and his desires, not to Hashem. Therefore it makes sense, as a cause and effect, that the only way the Jews could have been redeemed by Hashem out of Egypt and taken under His wing, is if they showed they were willing to commit themselves to Him and follow whatever He commanded them to do.
This seems to be a rule by redemption in general, not specific to the redemption from Egypt. In order for us to be able to be redeemed from our current exile we have to have a strong commitment towards not only believing in Hashem but towards observing his mitzvos, His commandments, that will be the means of actually being redeemed once we deserve it. This should bring a whole new meaning for ourselves when we recite the first paragraph of Shema and accept the Yoke of Heaven and then the second paragraph of Shema when we accept the Yoke of Mitzvos observance.