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Home » Passover

Passover: The Mighty Hand

Submitted by on March 24, 2013 – 7:40 pmNo Comment | 6,304 views

Why the Long Process?

The phrase “G-d took us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” is a common refrain in the Passover liturgy. The obvious meaning here is that the Jews, enslaved by fierce captors, were powerless to escape, G-d appeared with a mighty arm and an outstretched arm to pluck them from Egypt’s mighty grasp.

This might explain the mighty hand, but why the outstretched arm, did G-d have to reach out from a distance? Were the Egyptians somehow too powerful for G-d to approach? In addition one wonders why G-d took so much time with the Egyptians, when He could have dispatched them in mere moments as He had at the Reed Sea and as He did to the Assyrians many years later. Why the drawn out and seemingly unnecessary dramatics in the exodus from Egypt?

This latter question is one that Moses asked after his initial failure to secure the release of the Jews. He came to G-d and said, “Why have you harmed this people, why have you sent me? Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people.” [1]

Moses’ Reluctance

Moses, you might recall, was reluctant to accept G-d’s mission to free the Jews. He insisted that G-d send someone else. His reluctance stemmed from his humility. He knew that the Jewish savior would need to inspire Pharaoh, a pagan leader, to believe in G-d and to be moved by His directive. This could only happen if the messenger would himself be a paragon of piety, aflame with love, atremble with fear, robust in faith and inspired by passion. Only a man, who spoke of G-d with utter conviction and absolute certainty could hope to make a dent in Pharaoh’s resolute wall of denial.

Moses knew he was a great prophet, but he was also the most humble of men and he wouldn’t make assumptions about his future. I might be G-d’s perfect choice today, but what if I’m not longer worthy of this choice by the time I reach Pharaoh. Moses ultimately accepted the mission, but when he failed to sway Pharaoh or at least inspire him to believe and instead Pharaoh increased the burden on his slave nation, Moses blamed himself. If he were only a little more pious, he thought, Pharaoh would have been moved.

He approached G-d and poured out his tortured heart. Why did you send me, he cried. Since I came to speak to Pharaoh in Your name, he has only harmed this people and You [who selected me for this] have not saved Your people.

You could have done this in one of two ways, Moses seemed to be saying. You could have sent an envoy that would successfully inspire Pharaoh to free the Jews unlike me who only caused them harm or You could have smitten Pharaoh and freed them Yourself. You did neither, why?

To this G-d responded, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a mighty hand he will send them out, and with a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.”[2] Ah, we return to the mighty hand.mighty hand - innerstream Why are we in need of a mighty hand or an outstretched arm? Had G-d moved to liberate the Jews the might of Egypt would have been neutralized, obviating any need for a mighty hand.

In the Nick of time

The problem was that the Jews were themselves in a sunken spiritual state. Our sages taught that Jews in Egypt assimilated to the point that had they remained for even one moment longer they would have fallen into a spiritual abyss from which they could have never recovered.[3] At the time that G-d appeared to Moses, the Jews did not deserve to be liberated. The Egyptian captors, on the other hand, had not yet reached a level of cruelty that warranted their destruction.

G-d couldn’t have destroyed Egypt in one fell swoop because that would have been unjust. The Jews didn’t deserve such a miraculous redemption and the Egyptians didn’t deserve such spectacular destruction. The only choice was for G-d to offer Pharaoh enough rope to hang himself. Every time Pharaoh would defy G-d, he would push Egypt closer to the brink of destruction. But there wasn’t much time because every moment the Jews remained in Egypt brought them that much closer to the final abyss from which they could never be redeemed.

This was a race against time. G-d sent Moses with instructions to liberate the Jews. Under normal circumstances Pharaoh should have been inspired by Moses, but G-d blocked the inspiration. It was not a deficiency in Moses that failed to inspire Pharaoh, it was G-d, Who refused to allow Pharaoh the benefit of outside inspiration and challenged him to motivate himself. Pharaoh, however, refused to be motivated;  he brazenly rejected G-d and thus increase the measure of Egyptian guilt.

G-d gave Pharaoh a chance to obey him, but instead Pharaoh increased the burden of the slaves, further compounding his sin. G-d offered Pharaoh ten chances to free the Jews and redeem himself in the process, but Pharaoh refused each time. With each refusal, Pharaoh unwittingly brought Egypt closer to the brink by increasing the measure of their sinfulness.

To allow this process to play out G-d permitted Pharaoh to defy Him and demonstrate the full prowess of Egypt’s might, which explains the need for G-d to show a mighty hand. Forcing the nation that consistently stood up to G-d to free the Jews against their will, would entail a great show of strength on G-d’s part, hence the need for a mighty hand.

A mighty hand would still not have been enough. Not if the plagues took one moment too long and allowed the Jews to remain in Egypt long enough to sink into that last abyss. Giving Pharaoh enough time to commit the sins that would condemn Egypt also gave the Jews time to sink lower and lower. When the moment finally arrived that Egypt’s scale reached the point of unfathomable guilt, the Jews were themselves on the brink. Hence the outstretched arm, G-d reached out to the rim of the proverbial pit into which the Jews were about to fall and plucked them, at the very last moment, from disaster.

This is why we thank G-d on the Seder night for calculating the time of our redemption perfectly. The race against time was so close that had G-d taken them out one moment too soon the Egyptians would not have deserved their punishment and had He waited one moment too long, the Jews would have been irredeemable. The episodes leading up to the redemption required absolutely perfect timing and fine tuning. A level of perfection only a perfect G-d could achieve.[4]

[1] Exodus 5: 22-23

[2] Exodus 6:1

[3] Jewish mystics taught that a Jew can never truly fall into the abyss of the fiftieth gate (Tanya Ch, 11 Sefer Hasichos 5702, night of the Seder) yet even dropping into the dregs of the 49th gate would have been catastrophic.

[4] This essay is based on commentary of B’er Mayim Chayim ibid.

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