With Distinction: Egyptian Exodus and the Levitical Letter of the Law

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier

Throughout Sefer Vayikra, including several times in this week’s double Parsha, we find an invocation of the Exodus to justify certain laws. To give one example:

ויקרא פרק כה

:לה) וְכִֽי־יָמ֣וּךְ אָחִ֔יךָ וּמָ֥טָה יָד֖וֹ עִמָּ֑ךְ וְהֶֽחֱזַ֣קְתָּ בּ֔וֹ גֵּ֧ר וְתוֹשָׁ֛ב וָחַ֖י עִמָּֽךְ)

:לו) אַל־תִּקַּ֤ח מֵֽאִתּוֹ֙ נֶ֣שֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּ֔ית וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ וְחֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ עִמָּֽךְ)

:לז) אֶ֨ת־כַּסְפְּךָ֔ לֹֽא־תִתֵּ֥ן ל֖וֹ בְּנֶ֑שֶׁךְ וּבְמַרְבִּ֖ית לֹא־תִתֵּ֥ן אָכְלֶֽךָ)

:לח) אֲנִ֗י יְקֹוָק֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם לָתֵ֤ת לָכֶם֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִֽים)

Exodus 25

35 And if your brother becomes poor, and his means fail, then you shall uphold him: as a stranger and a settler he shall live with you. 

36 Take no interest or profit from him; but fear your God; so that your brother may live with you. 

37 Do not give him your money with interest, nor give him foods for profit. 

38 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. 

The prohibition against taking financial advantage of one’s impoverished fellow by charging interest appears to be justified by God’s historical role in taking the People of Israel out of Egypt. Later in the Parsha, we find the manumission of an Eved Ivri (25:41-42, 54-55) also justified by the Exodus, and specifically by the fact that we are servants of God, and, as Hazal gloss (bKidd 22b), not slaves of one another. During both the blessings (26:12-13) and the mitigation of the curses (26:44-45) of the curses in Behukotai, again the Exodus is invoked. What is the significance of this oft-repeated assertion?

On the simplest level, the Exodus is part of the foundational covenant of the Jewish People. The Covenant at Sinai may have sealed the theological-national deal, but the special relationship between Israel and God was principally forged when God took Israel out of Egypt. It is of course relevant that the Ten Commandments begin with אנכי ה’ א-להיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים מבית עבדים, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slaves.” (Ex. 20:2). See the commentaries on this verse, including Rashi’s very clear note: כדאי היא ההוצאה שתהיו משועבדים לי, “The Exodus is sufficient to subjugate you to me.”

But the reference to the Exodus may offer an additional reason, as well. The Talmud (bBM 61b) has a fascinating and enigmatic comment pertaining to several cases of Egypt invocation, including one in our Parsha:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא מציעא דף סא עמוד ב

אמר רבא: למה לי דכתב רחמנא יציאת מצרים ברבית, יציאת מצרים גבי ציצית, יציאת מצרים במשקלות? אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: אני הוא שהבחנתי במצרים בין טפה של בכור לטפה שאינה של בכור – אני הוא שעתיד ליפרע ממי שתולה מעותיו בנכרי ומלוה אותם לישראל ברבית, וממי שטומן משקלותיו במלח, וממי שתולה קלא אילן בבגדו ואומר תכלת הוא.

רבינא איקלע לסורא דפרת. אמר ליה רב חנינא מסורא דפרת לרבינא: יציאת מצרים דכתב רחמנא גבי שרצים למה לי? – אמר ליה: אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: אני הוא שהבחנתי בין טפה של בכור לטפה שאינה של בכור, אני עתיד ליפרע ממי שמערב קרבי דגים טמאין בקרבי דגים טהורין, ומוכרן לישראל.

Babylonian Talmud Tractate Bava Metzia 61b

Rava said: Why did God mention the Exodus from Egypt regarding [the prohibition of] interest (Lev. 25:38); regarding [the commandment] of tzitzit (Num. 15:41); and regarding [the prohibition of unfair] weights and measures (Lev. 19:36)? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I am the one who distinguished in Egypt between a drop [of semen] of a [paternal] firstborn and a drop that is not of a firstborn. I will thus take recompense from one who “hangs” his money on a gentile and lends it to a Jew with interest [while the Jew thinks he is in fact borrowing from a gentile]; from one who hides his weighs in salt [at a disadvantage to the customer]; and one who ties kal’ilin (i.e. non-tekhelet blue) to his clothes and says it is tekhelet.

Ravina went to Sura on the Euphrates. Rav Hanina of Sura on the Euphrates asked Ravina: Why did God mention the Exodus from Egypt regarding [prohibited] crawling animals (Lev. 11:45)? [Ravina] said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I am the one who distinguished in Egypt between a drop [of semen] of a [paternal] firstborn and a drop that is not of a firstborn. I will thus take recompense from one who mixes non-kosher fish innards with kosher fish innards and then sells them to a Jew.

Here, the Exodus is invoked not for its historical value in understanding the relationship between God and Israel, but as an attestation to God’s extraordinary powers of distinction. The plague striking the paternal firstborn required not only great lethal power, but also the most precise paternity test known to man. The Exodus, proving this divine quality, can then serve as a cautionary tale for these cases. Do you think it doesn’t matter who is actually lending with interest? Well, it matters to God, and God is capable of finding out fairly easily. Who cares if it’s tekhelet blue or non-tekhelet blue? Can anyone determine if my 1 oz. weight is actually .9 oz.? Aren’t all fish intestines equally abominable? No! God has commanded these laws, and God has the capacity to make extremely fine distinctions, so you had better be careful!

As the Maharal (ad. loc.) puts it:

דברה תורה נגד יצר הרע, שיצרו של אדם גובר עליו לומר מי ידע דבר זה, ועל זה אמר אני הוא שהבחנתי וכו’ במצרים, אני הוא שעתיד להפרע, לפיכך יכוף יצרו [ה]מסית אותו לדבר זה

The Torah is responding to the evil inclination, which overpowers a person, asking “who will know [whether you did the permitted or prohibited action]?” In response to this, God says “I am the one who distinguished in Egypt etc., and I am the one to pay recompense.” Thus the evil inclination will be overcome.

There is a problem here, however. Many more than just these four commandments are occasioned by a mention of the Exodus from Egypt. Is there anything particularly holding them together? Why invoke particularly these four cases? Doesn’t this apparent arbitrariness weaken the claim? Some commentators, wishing to respond to this question, raise the possibility that all of these cases are interpersonal. You might think that you can con others by shaving off weights, hiding the true person behind the loan, or mixing up fish intestines, but God knows and is keeping score. (To a certain extent, this approach is similar to that of the string of Rashis on אני ה’ in Leviticus 19, which includes one of our cases.) This attempt has a major weakness – the case of Tzitzit. Given that the Gemara says nothing of selling these Tzitzit to unsuspecting customers, and only speaks of wearing them, it seems that not all cases are interpersonal and some relate to the and personal-Divine realm. The Maharal offers this rebuttal. But then we are left with our question: why are these the only examples provided?

In a related piece, the Maharal’s offers an answer in a characteristically brilliant disquisition:

חידושי אגדות למהר”ל בבא מציעא דף סא עמוד ב

יציאת מצרים דכתיב בשרצים וכו’. פי’ באלו ד’ מצות נאמר יציאת מצרים ולפי מה שמפרש בגמרא אצל כל חד אני הוא שהבחנתי וכו’ ולפי זה היה גם כן ראוי לכתוב אצל חלב אני הוא שהבחנתי בין טפה של בכור לטפה שאינה של בכור אני שעתיד להבחין מי שמוכר חלב ואמר שהוא שומן וכיוצא בזה וכמעט בכל (ה)מצוה ומצוה היה יכול לכתוב כך, אבל אני אומר כי מיוחדים אלו המצוות להבחנה כי אצל שקצים כתיב להבדיל בין הטמא ובין הטהור נמצא כי מצוה זאת מיוחדת להבדלה, וכן משקל הוא עצמו עשוי להבחין הדבר ששוקל וכן הרבית הוא להבחין ישרא’ דכ’ לנכרי תשיך ולאחיך לא תשיך והנה יש כאן הבדל, וציצית הוא להבחנה כדכ’ וראיתם אותו וזכרתם את כל מצות ה’ ועיקר תכלת הוא ההבחנה כמ”ש מאימתי קורין שמע בשחרית משיכיר בין תכלת שבה ללבן שבה. הרי אלו ד’ מצות הם להבחנה וכאשר יצאו ישראל ממצרים יצאו במדריגה העליונה ששם הבחנת הכל כי הוציא השם יתברך את ישראל ממצרים ולקחם לו לעם ובזה הבדיל השם יתברך בין ישראל לאומות. ולפיכך היה יציאת מצרים ע”י הבחנה עד כי היה מבחין הקדוש ברוך הוא בין טפה לטפה, שהכל היה בהבחנה.

Hiddushei Agadot of Maharal, Bava Metzia 61b

By each of these cases the Exodus from Egypt is mentioned, which the Gemara explains is based on God saying “I am the one who distinguished…” Therefore it would have been appropriate to include the law of prohibited fats: “I am the one who distinguished in Egypt between a drop [of semen] of a [paternal] firstborn and a drop that is not of a firstborn. I will thus take recompense from one who sells forbidden fats and says they are permitted fats!” And almost every commandment could have this [formulation]!? Rather, I think that these commandments are [chosen because they are] particularly focused on distinction. Regarding forbidden crawling animals it says “To distinguish between the impure and the pure” (Lev. 11:47). It emerges that this commandment is particularly focused on distinction. And similarly for weights – [the institution of weights] itself is based on distinguishing the [size of the] item being measured. The prohibition of interest is meant to distinguish Israel, as it says “Charge interest to the gentile, but do not charge interest to your brother” (Deut. 23:21), and here is a distinction! Tzitzit is meant to distinguish, as it says “And you shall see it and remember all the commandments of the Lord” (Num. 15:39). The primary point of tekhelet blue is one of distinction, as it says “From what time can one read Shema in the morning? From the time one can distinguish between its tekhelet blue and its white” (mBer 1:2). These four commandments are all about distinction! And when Israel left Egypt they left on the highest level, of absolute distinction, because God took them out of Egypt and chose them as God’s nation! Thus God distinguished Israel from the nations! Therefore the Exodus from Egypt was accomplished through distinction, to the point that the Holy One, Blessed be He, was distinguishing between every drop [of semen], as everything was distinguished.

The unifying theme among these commandments invoking Egypt is that they are thematically tied to the concept of distinction. It is not that one can imagine cases involving halakhically significant but nearly inscrutable distinctions.  One could likely do that for many commandments. Rather, these commandments are distinct, and therefore chosen by the Talmud, because they are all about distinction: weighing a precise measurement fairly; telling colors apart, separating Kosher from non-Kosher, and distinct economic laws for Jews and non-Jews. So of course the theme of “I am God, the one who distinguished,” will apply. And the Exodus from Egypt is emblematic of distinction beyond just the “Divine DNA test” to find the real firstborn Egyptians. The very process of the Exodus, where God takes Israel out of Egypt, is the greatest distinction one could imagine, and it is the nature of Israel’s chosenness! Of course, this fundamentally separation-based process will then be extremely precise in determining who is a firstborn Egyptian and who is not. The Maharal’s incredible re-reading of the Gemara, then, is complete: The Gemara only discusses symptoms of these four commandments and of the Exodus by finding particular cases of distinction; we are expected to figure out for ourselves that each of these not only are scenarios where minute distinctions may entail, but that their fundamental nature is all about distinction!

The Meshekh Hokhmah adds another piece to this puzzle in understanding the Talmudic passage:

משך חכמה שמות פרק יב פסוק ט

כיון שההשגחה חלה בפרטי פרטיות, תדע כי ישקיף ה’ וירא כל מפעל כל מצעד, ואז דבוק קנין האלקי בעם ישראל, שהוא בן בכורו, וקנה אותם לעבדים. כי פרעה וכל העם מהרו לשלחם מן הארץ, וחיוב כל המצוות תלה השם יתברך בעת הזאת.

Meshekh Hokhmah to Exodus 12:9

Since Divine Providence occurs at a level of such minute detail, one will know that God examines and sees every action and every step. Thus the Divine Acquisition of God’s nation Israel is complete. Israel is God’s firstborn, whom God acquired as a servant, after Pharaoh and his nation tried to speedily send them from the land. God ties the obligation in all commandments to this time [of Egypt].

The precision of these commandments and God’s enforcement thereof is no accident. Aside from encouraging Jews to be meticulous in their observance, it is also an important aspect of Jewish religious identity. God not only distinguished the Egyptian firstborn from their siblings, but also Israel, God’s own firstborn, from the nations. The degree of precision in this providential Divine Distinction defines not only these four commandments with particular focus on exactitude, but the entire Torah, and the relationship between God and Israel along with it.

I will add one short thought to the astute Acharonic assertions. Over the past 2000 years, Judaism has been much maligned as a hyper-legalistic religion, as focusing on the details of the law rather than on the its spirit, losing the forest for the trees. (At times that critique has even convinced Jews to reject their Pharisaic-Rabbinic heritage.) This Gemara and commentaries can be read as very much aware of the critique, and flouting it. As observant Jews, we “own” our attention to detail and hyper-legalism. In fact, we have no choice. We have been chosen by God, a God who applies infinite scrupulousness to every detail and demands from us the same (mutatis mutandis). The polestar of this focus on detail, in fact, is none other than the Exodus, that founding moment, where Israel was distinguished from Egypt. It precedes the law, and is in fact fundamental to what it means to be a Jew, God’s chosen nation! The exact color of our tekhelet and weight of our measures, the exact provenance of our fish guts and our firstborn, the details matter! That is what it means to be a Jew, that is what the Exodus means!

As the Book of Leviticus comes to a close, we can reflect back on the many distinctions that have been made throughout the book – Kosher versus non-Kosher, Israel and the nations, being Kadosh (=distinct) in one’s conduct just like God is Kadosh. The focus on these laws, and all of Jewish law, with its many distinctions and details, is no deviation from the “Big Picture” of the story of Israel’s Exodus and chosenness. In fact, that’s what it’s all about.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

Shlomo Zuckier (SBM ’12) is co-director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University and a PhD student in Ancient Judaism at Yale University. Shlomo is a graduate of the Wexner, Tikvah, and Kupietzky Kodshim Fellowships, serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, and is a founding editor of Lehrhaus.

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