There is a rabbinic tradition that the tribe of Ephraim were in such a hurry to be free from slavery that they left Egypt thirty years before the appointed time (they had misunderstood a passage in Gen. 15:13 and miscalculated the date of the deliverance).
They did not get very far. A troop of Philistines attacked them near Gath and left 180,000 (other views say 200,000 or 300,000) Ephraimites dead. The bodies of the slain remained by the wayside. At the time of the Exodus their bones were still strewn there, but so they would not discourage the rest of the Israelites, God led the people through the wilderness by a circuitous route.
Ten Ephraimites had survived and they found their way back to Egypt and told the story of what had happened. Ephraim himself, the son of Jacob, was devastated, and mourned for his tribe many days (I Chron. 17:22). Those who died were, however, revived by the prophet Ezekiel (Sanh. 92a).
The Ephraimites are an example of undue impatience. The Talmud says,
“kol hadochek et hasha’ah, hasha’ah dochakto” – “if someone forces the hour, the hour forces him” (Ber. 64a).
During the Egyptian bondage, who wasn’t impatient for the suffering to be over? But the set time had not yet arrived.
When one is sick, who isn’t impatient to be fit and well? When one is a child, who isn’t impatient to be grown up? If one is a scientist, who isn’t impatient to get the experiment over? Isn’t an activist impatient to achieve victory, to win the election, to put their ideas into action?
Jews are the world’s experts at impatience. They were constantly in a hurry for the long-awaited Messiah to come, for the prophecies of redemption to come true. They were often tempted to follow false messiahs in the hope that utopia was just round the corner. But they learned the lesson that there is a Divine time-table, and the redemption will come in God’s good time.
The Almighty says,
“b’itto achishennah” – “I am the Lord; in its time will I hasten it” (Isa. 60:22).
All the same, the years of patient waiting must not be passive. The Jewish role is not only to maintain faith in God and His will, but to deserve the redemption when it comes and in the meantime to be witnesses in the world to the Divine teachings of truth, justice and peace.
HEARING THE CRIES
We read in Ex. 6:5 that God heard the cries of the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt.
Good for God. When His people are in pain He knows it and feels it. But how can anyone suppose that He doesn’t expect it? Already in B’reshit (Gen. 15:12) it says that the Egyptians will oppress the Hebrews and make them slaves. So what’s the big deal when the prophecy really comes true?
One of the answers is that when it comes to it the Egyptians pile on a lot of extra hardship. They enjoy being cruel. They are far harsher than they need to be.
COMING BACK TO YOUR ROOTS
Being Jewish today is not without its problems. Far from it. There are many things that threaten the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people. There are phenomena in every Jewish community that are grounds for concern and even alarm.
But at the same time there is a positive development that is one of the miracles of all time the ba’al t’shuvah movement that is bringing more and more Jews back to Judaism year by year, even week by week. From the furthest periphery they come. We might have thought they were or soon would be completely lost to Judaism. Yet the opposite is happening.
How the process works is truly fascinating. You find it hinted at in the sidra’s listing of the laws of t’fillin.
What on earth, you ask, have t’fillin to do with the exciting drama of the story of the Exodus from Egypt? Is there really any logic in juxtaposing the two the story and the commandment?
The text itself offers an answer. It says,
“This shall be a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead, that the teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth, for with a mighty hand the Lord delivered you from Egypt” (Ex. 13:9, 16).
How does a Jew express Jewish identity? Not only in vague nominal identification, but in acts of commitment.
When a Jew comes back to Judaism, the first sign is often the lighting of Shabbat candles, the wearing of a kippah, the adoption of kashrut. Sometimes it is t’fillin; if not at once, then in due course. The role model of the ba’al t’shuvah, Franz Rosenzweig, was asked, “Do you lay t’fillin?” His answer is famous. He did not say, as most would, either “yes” or “no”; what he said was, “Not yet”.
This is the greatness of Judaism. For us, conversion (both the movement to Judaism from another faith or none, and the adoption of a deeper Jewish identity by a previously nominal Jew) is not a sudden flash, a theatrical response to a charismatic evangelist, but a first act of commitment. And, Baruch HaShem, more and more Jews are making that first act of commitment, followed by more and more as time goes on.
It is truly a wondrous time to be a Jew when you see around you the visible evidence of “hope for our latter end”.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com