Exodus in the Dark Ages

Rashi on Shemot

Genesis and Exodus have each its personality. The former starts with cosmic events and segues into the details of the first Hebrew families, while the latter focuses on the nation as whole, and on its journey from slavery to freedom and to nationhood. Rashi’s commentary, accordingly, wears a unique mantle in the Book of Exodus. The story of Exodus is one with which Jews can easily identify, unfortunately, as it opens with persecution and oppression, and Rashi uses the Biblical texts and their Midrashic interpretation to talk to his own people, the Jews of Germany and France in the Dark Ages, at the eve of the Crusades. Let us look at some of Rashi’s commentaries on Parashat Shemot:

 (א:א) ואלה שמות בני ישראל – אף על פי שמנאן בחייהן בשמותן, חזר ומנאן אחר מיתתן, להודיע חבתן

1:1: These are the names… even though the Children of Israel were counted when they were alive [at the end of Genesis], they are counted again here to show how much God loves them.

The opening statement of Rashi is a message of encouragement to his community. He knows that they were through many wanderings and persecutions, and that they sometimes feel abandoned by God. As a matter of fact, the idea that the Jews were rejected by God was an essential feature in the teachings of the Catholic church, whose theologians explained that the Jews are no longer called Israel and that the prophecies of redemption and consolation in the bible do not speak of them. They claimed that the Christians were now the true Israelites – Verus Israel, whereas the Jews became Israel in the Flesh – Carnal Israel. The Jews were constantly reminded of that belief by the visual depiction on the external walls of gothic churches of the pair of women known as Ecclesia and Synagoga – Church and Synagogue. One of the most famous examples if that of the Strasbourg Cathedral, in which the Ecclesia stands tall with a crown, a chalice, and a cross-topped staff, while the Synagoga is drooping, carries a broken lance, and the Tablets of the Law are slipping from her hand. Rashi, aware of the assault on his people’s self-esteem and trust in God, seeks to instill confidence in their hearts that God loves them and that He will redeem them, just as He did in Egypt.

(ה) ויוסף היה במצרים – …להודיעך צדקתו של יוסף, הוא יוסף הרועה את צאן אביו, הוא יוסף שהיה במצרים ונעשה מלך ועומד בצדקו

1:5: Yosef was in Egypt – it teaches you Yosef’s righteousness. He was the same Yosef as a king in Egypt, as he was when he tended to his father’s flocks.

Rashi promotes Yosef from viceroy to king, because Yosef is a role model for Jews in exile. Imprisoned and enslaved in a foreign land, he rises to power and saves his people. Rashi reminds his readers that the secret of Yosef’s success was that he remained loyal to his heritage and tradition. The halakhic literature of that period contains many references to cases of conversion to Christianity, some forced and some voluntary, and one of the most famous cases was that of the son of Rabbenu Gershom (960-1028). Rabbenu Gershom passed away twelve years before Rashi was born, and Rashi saw his spiritual disciple. The incident is recorded by R. Yitzhak of Vienna (1180-1250) in his Ohr Zaru’a (2:428):

שמעתי ממורי הרב ר’ שמשון זצ”ל שרבי גרשום נתאבל על בנו כשנשתמד ארבעה עשר יום

I heard from my master, R. Shimshon, that Rabbenu Gershom sat Shiva twice for his son when he converted… 

 (ב:ה) [ונערותיה הולכות] הולכות למות לפי שמיחו בה… את אמתה – את שפחתה. ורבותינו דרשו לשון יד… שנשתרבבה אמתה אמות הרבה

2:5: Her maidens were going with her [Pharaoh’s daughter] – going to die, because they tried to prevent her [from taking Moshe in]. She sent her אמה – maiden, but the rabbis explain that it means hand, and that [after her maidens refused to fetch the basket, they all died, and] her hand stretched many feet until she was able to fetch it herself.

This fantastic Midrash is music to the ears of exiled Jews. Here is the daughter of the king, a member of the royal family, who is willing to help the Jews. True, her counselors and closest helpers might not agree with her, but they are immediately punished by God and she is able to help the Jews with no less then saving their future redeemer from death.  

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