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"Measure for Measure" -On Two Keywords in the Story of the Exodus

Rav Nathaniel Helfgot
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"Measure for Measure:"

On Two Keywords in the Story of the Exodus


by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot

Translated by Kaeren Fish



It is well-known that the stories of the Exodus contain many examples of "midda ke-neged midda," where we find the Egyptians suffering the same fate that they imposed - or planned to impose - on Bnei Yisrael (1). Sometimes, such parallels are emphasized by means of similar wording or other literary devices. In this article, we shall concentrate on the repeated use of the two word stems k-b-d ("heavy", "hard") and h-z-k ("strong") in the first part of Sefer Shemot.

It is interesting to note that the saga's two great adversaries, Moshe Rabbenu and Pharaoh, King of Egypt, are both presented in these terms. Moshe Rabbenu describes himself as "kevad peh u-khevad lashon" (Shemot 4:10 - heavy of speech and of a heavy tongue), and consequently claims that he is unworthy of appearing before Pharaoh in order to bring Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. Pharaoh, on the other hand, is described throughout as "kevad lev," hard-hearted (e.g. 8:11, 8:28, 9:7). This hard-hearted king, in response to Moshe's demand to "Let my people go," decrees: "Let heavier work (tikhbad ha-avoda) be laid on the men, that they may labor in it; and let them not regard vain words" (5:9). In the end, it is the "kevad peh u-khevad lashon" himself who prevails over the "kevad lev."

Parallel to the shoresh k-b-d, we also find the word root h-z-k being used throughout the story - especially in the description of the ten plagues. In the chapters dealing with the plagues we find that the strengthening or hardening of Pharaoh's heart is mentioned ten times. In the plagues of blood, lice, boils, locusts and darkness, the Torah speaks of the STRENGTHENING of Pharaoh's heart (either by his own doing or by God's intervention), while in the plagues of frogs, gnats and pestilence the Torah speaks of the HARDENING of his heart (2). The plague of hail is unique in that both actions are mentioned: "...And he hardened (va-yakhbed) his heart, he and his servants. And the heart of Pharaoh was strengthened (va-yechezak), and he would not let Bnei Yisrael go..." (9:34-35).

Within the cycle of the plagues we already find the foundation of "midda ke-neged midda," as pointed out by the commentaries (3), for during the first five plagues Pharaoh acts autonomously ("He hardened his heart"), while from the sixth plague (boils) onwards, "God strengthened Pharaoh's heart" (9:12), "For I have hardened his heart" (10:1). God punishes Pharaoh for hardening his heart and causes his heart to be strengthened (independently of his will) in order that the entire weight of Divine anger can be brought down upon him. But beyond this internal cycle, we find further evidence of verses and events which counter the "hardness" and "strength" of Pharaoh.

Pharaoh "hardens" (mechazek) his heart over and over again for the purposes of holding onto Am Yisrael and perpetuating their slavery, but when the time comes for the Exodus, the Egyptians try to hurry them: "The Egyptians urged (va-techezak) the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste" (12:33). Bnei Yisrael are commanded to remember that on the day of the Exodus, "God took you out by strength of hand (be-chozek yad)," and when laying tefillin each day we are commanded to remember that, "with a strong hand (be-yad chazaka) God brought you out of Egypt" (13:9).

Keeping this emphasis in mind, the first sign shown to Moshe Rabbenu takes on particular significance. His staff turns into a snake, and God commands him, "Stretch out your hand and take (ve-echoz) its tail" (4:4). But when Moshe obeys the command, the Torah says, "And he stretched out his hand and grasped (va-yachazek) it" (ibid.). As becomes clear from peshat (as understood by the author of the Midrash Rabba and others - see footnote 4 below), the snake is symbolic of Pharaoh or of Egypt, and Moshe is destined not only to hold it (le-echoz) but to grasp it with strength (le-hachazik), thus turning it into dry wood devoid of any strength or life. We may even see this as a continuation of the hint mentioned to Moshe Rabbenu in the previous chapter: "But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go, unless it is with a strong hand (be-yad chazaka)" (3:19). (5)

The climax of the Exodus story is the splitting of the sea, and here the pattern we have traced also reaches its climax. God tells Moshe Rabbenu, "I shall strengthen (ve-chizakti) Pharaoh's heart and he will pursue after them" (14:4), and then God uses a new expression for the first time: "And I shall gain honor (ve-ikavda) by Pharaoh and by all his host." After all the hardening of Pharaoh's heart, the story progresses towards its culmination: God will be honored through the Egyptians. The backdrop is ready for an extraordinary and miraculous event.

After the internal arguments within the Israelite camp have ceased and the nation is ready to enter the sea, the Torah once again repeats and emphasizes: "And I will strengthen (mechazek) the heart of Egypt (not only Pharaoh's heart!) and they shall follow them, and I will gain honor (ve-ikavda) by Pharaoh and by all his host, his chariots and his horsemen. And Egypt shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained honor (be-hikavdi) by Pharaoh, by his chariot and his horsemen" (14:17-18). Now the miracle takes place - the sea opens, the nation proceeds and the Egyptians pursue them, but:

"God looked to the Egyptian camp through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and brought confusion into the Egyptian camp. And He took off their chariot wheels, that they drove heavily (bi-khvedut)."

It is specifically now (6), at this point of heaviness (kevedut), that the Egyptians sense that the battle is lost: "And the Egyptians said, Let us flee (anusa) from Israel, for God fights for them against Egypt" (14:25). (7)

In light of this perspective on the story of the Exodus, the significance of the conflict between Bnei Yisrael and Bnei Edom in Sefer Bemidbar (chapter 20) is to be noted. This encounter is the first instance of conflict between the new generation of Bnei Yisrael and another nation. The majority of these Jews were never in Egypt, at least not as adults. Moshe Rabbenu takes this opportunity of reminding them of the Exodus:

"Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the travail that has befallen us, how our fathers went down to Egypt, and how we dwelt in Egypt for a long time, and how Egypt troubled us and our fathers. And we cried to God and He heard our voice, and sent an angel and took us out of Egypt. And here we are in Kadesh, a city on the outskirts of your border." (Bemidbar 20:15-16)

Moshe's intention in mentioning the history of Am Yisrael is not clear: is he trying to emphasize their suffering in order to arouse compassion and kindness on the part of Edom, or is he conveying a veiled threat (8) - "Look what happened to the Egyptians, who tortured the first generation of Bnei Yisrael!" (9). Either way, Edom's message is clear: "You shall not pass. And Edom came out against him with many people and with a strong hand (be-am kaved u-veyad chazaka)." Here, too, the parallel with the story of the Exodus is inescapable. Edom is saying, as it were, to Israel: "The 'hardness and strength' are now in my hands and not in yours; the second generation of Israelites will not benefit from the path of 'strength and hardness!'" Bnei Edom have not learned the lesson of what God did to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, which we commemorate every Pesach. May all the "Edomites" relearn this lesson speedily, in our days.


(This article originally appeared in Megadim 22 [Tamuz 5754], pp. 81-83.)



(1) See, for example, Amos Chakham, Da'at Mikra on Sefer Shemot, vol. 1, p. 282, note 58.

(2) On the relationship between "hardening of the heart" and "strengthening of the heart" and the structure of the plagues, see the lengthy discussion in R. Mordekhai Breuer's book Pirkei Mo'ad, vol. 1, pp. 193-208.

(3) See Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva, chapter 6; also Abarbanel and others throughout their commentaries on the story of the plagues.

(4) "Rabbi Eliezer said: The reason why the staff turned into a snake was to represent Pharaoh, who is called a snake, as it is written: 'So says the Lord God, Behold, I am above you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great serpent.' And He called the leviyatan a 'piercing serpent,' for it bit Israel. God said to him: 'You have seen Pharaoh, and how he is like a snake; in the future you will strike him with your staff, and in the end he will be like wood. Just as the staff does not bite, so will he not bite'" (Shemot Rabba, parsha 3, 12). See also Ibn Ezra, as well as Nachum Sarna, Exploring Exodus (New York, 1986), pp. 57-60.

(5) Especially if we explain the words "ve-lo be-yad chazaka" as "unless with a strong hand." See Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Ramban, ad locum.

(6) Here the providence of "midda ke-neged midda" reaches its climax, as Chazal commented in the Mekhilta on this verse: "R. Yehuda says, The same way that they meted out, You meted out to them. They said, 'Let heavier work (tikhbad ha-avoda) be laid on them,' and You paid them back in the same way; therefore it is written: 'And they drove heavily (bi-khevedut).'"

It may also be that Chazal saw as the basis for the famous explanations of the multiplicity of plagues which Egypt suffered at the Yam Suf (as we recite in the Haggada: "In Egypt they suffered ten plagues, and at the sea they suffered fifty plagues," etc.), the special terminology of "I shall gain honor (ve-ikhabda) by Egypt." This is the only instance of God expressing Himself thus - describing the punishment which He will bring upon the Egyptians. On this point see Amos Chakham, Da'at Mikra - Sefer Shemot, vol. 1, p. 244.

(7) Perhaps this is really the conclusion of a circle which began with the story of the snake, symbolic of Pharaoh, when Moshe fled (nas) from it, and here, ultimately, Egypt flees (anusa) from before Bnei Yisrael and their leader, Moshe Rabbenu!

(8) See in Midrash Lekach Tov, "'And we cried out to God and He heard our voice' - by this they indicated that God was close to them when they cried out." In the words of the Midrash Ha-gadol: "We rely neither on the sword nor on battle... we have nothing but the voice by which our forefathers swore, as it is written, 'The voice is the voice of Yaakov,' and so long as we cry out to God in our suffering, He answers us..." See Rashi (Bemidbar 20:18): "You pride yourselves on the voice which you inherited from your father, and you say, 'And we cried out to God and He heard our voice.' I shall come out to you with that which I inherited from my father, 'And you shall live by your sword' (Bereishit 27:40)."

(9) The Torah's use of the parallel words, "He sent an angel (malakh) and took us out of Egypt," and then, at the beginning of this parsha, "Moshe sent messengers (malakhim) from Kadesh to the king of Edom," emphasizes this possibility!



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