Winning the Jewish Lottery
There is a verse in next week’s Torah reading that hearkens back to the plague of Darkness which is one of the final three plagues mentioned in this week Torah portion. It says that when the Israelites left Egypt, they left חמושים which simply translated means that they left “armed”. However a well-known Midrash (part of the Oral Tradition of the Sages) cited by Rashi makes a play on the Hebrew word’s relation to the number five (חמש) and states that only a fifth of the Jewish people actually left Egypt. The other four fifths died during the three-day plague of darkness that we are reading about this week.
There is a big problem with this Midrash and that is the math and the fantastic numbers that are really off the charts. Elsewhere in the Torah it states that 600,000 Jewish males left Egypt, not including children. Now if you assume that there were just as many women as men then we have 1.2 million adults. Add in another, let’s say, 800,000 kids and we are now up to 2 million people. So if this number represents just a fifth of the Jews who actually departed Egypt, and four fifths died according to the Midrash, then that means that 8 million of the 10 million Israelites perished during that plague.
Needless to say there are a lot of problems with those numbers. How exactly do you bury 8 million people who died in a three day span? Not only that, but 8 million dead would really be the biggest part of the story if you think about it. We call that a Holocaust. If the whole point of the Exodus and all its amazing miracles is to get across how great God was when He redeemed His people, well needless to say, that message is lost if the majority of His people perish in the process.
Indeed, we see this time and again in the Torah when Moshe makes this very argument to God, that if He wipes out His people it is actually a desecration of His name and destroys the whole meaning and special relationship between God and His Chosen People. So how could God seemingly wipe out four fifths of the Jews and still expect the glorious story of the exodus to be relevant?
The only conclusion is that one cannot take this Midrash literally but rather figuratively. We are going to have to dig a bit to uncover a deeper message and indeed the word, Midrash means exactly that.
There are different levels of studying Torah. The most basic one is P’shat which means just the literal or simple translation and understanding of the words and verses. But Midrash, from the word, Drash means the layered and hence symbolic meaning that is found below the surface and simple meaning. P’shat and (Mi)Drash are distinct and different ways of approaching Torah study and people often get confused when they apply the rules of one to the other. Maimonides in fact says that anyone who takes all Midrash and its cousin, Aggada, literally is a fool and they in fact debase the Torah with their ignorance.
Taking this into account, I would suggest that the Midrash’s message is not that a huge number of Jews died during that brief plague. Instead it is foretelling that in the long, dark Galut/Exile of the Jewish people, the vast majority will not make it out. And in fact, when we look at the lengthy history of our people and all the dark plague-filled days that we endured for the greater part of the past 2,000 years, the simple fact is that much of the Jewish nation has been lost. Pogroms, forced conversions, expulsions, antisemitism, holocausts and willful assimilation have all taken their toll on our numbers over the years.
We have been around as long as the Chinese and there are over a billion of them, yet there are just about 14 million of us. The Plague of Darkness has become an accurate symbol of the loss of the vast majority of our people over the ages.
Sound depressing? Maybe. On the other hand we cannot ignore the amazing triumphs and influence we have had on mankind despite all these challenges and our relatively tiny numbers. But more importantly, maybe it is to teach us that we need to love, cherish and respect each and every Jew that we meet. That we need to realize that anyone today who identifies as a Jew has been through so many filters, difficulties and obstacles throughout their family history that could have lead to the demise and end of their Jewish line and to the simple reality that they might not be here today as a Jew. Any Jew who is still called that today is a treasure that we need to love, nurture, help and connect with.
When we consider the vast number of times throughout our long history where anyone’s particular lineage could have been cut short and gone forever, then we have to appreciate that each Jew we meet is one that has beaten huge odds. Put another way, every Jew today is a lottery winner, a one in a million ticket holder. This week especially when we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz we know this to be true.
So the next time you get irritated by your fellow Jew because he or she is too religious, or not religious enough, or because he or she is of a different type, ilk or persuasion, keep in mind that you are meeting a Jewish Lottery Winner. You are meeting someone very unique. Just like we have a special regard for a Holocaust survivor, every Jew today, from a historical perspective, is also a survivor.
Once we get that awareness in our bones and treat each other accordingly, then all the darkness from the past will vanish – no more plagues of long nights to be had – and only bright and sunny days will shine upon our people.
I look at the side of your face
As the sunlight comes streaming through the window in the autumn sunshine
And all the time while going to Coney Island I’m thinking,
“Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”