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The story of God’s destruction of Pharaoh’s Egypt and the liberation of its Jewish victims has tremendous appeal. So much so that its basic outline uses the same template as a great many popular movies and books. The bad guys (the Egyptians) perpetrate terrible evil against innocent victims (the Jews), until the good guys (God) rescue them and destroy the bad guys.

But the appeal of the Exodus is even more powerful. For one, Divine intervention provides moral clarity. Otherwise, good and bad tend to be open for discussion. If God’s intervention does not necessarily make the side He helps absolutely good and the others absolutely evil (something pointed out by the harsh midrashic question about the Jews being idolaters just as much as the Egyptians), His preference for one side provides an important sense of moral finality.


Because this type of overt and clear Divine intervention sounds so appealing, it raises the obvious question of why God limits Himself so drastically in this regard. And though we may feel this more in post-Biblical times, it has always been the case.

In fact, we can even see it with the generation that experienced the most Divine intervention. For example, God allows Pharaoh to impose a harsher regime after Moshe first comes to him. Likewise, He sends the Jews through the desert without providing them an obvious source of water, causing understandable panic right from the start (twice!). Moreover – given that God is able to do anything – the miracles He chose do not appear to be the most effective. What stopped Him from having flown the Jews right into their new land, smashing both Egyptians and Canaanites with some equivalent of neutron bombs that kill people and leave everything else intact? Indeed, one cause for our lack of comprehension of the generation that left Egypt is our forgetting that – even with the many miracles all around them – they lived most of their lives not much differently than we do, with God very much in the background. And as for constant miracles, like the manna, once they got used to them, they became no more miraculous than the sun coming up every morning. (Ramban famously makes this point, that what we call nature is really just a miracle that keeps repeating itself.) What is true of that generation is obviously even more true for all other generations, most of which did not experience any open miracles at all.

Of course, one can answer each question locally and find explanations for each specific case of why x and not y. But given that people never seem to get what they would think to be the ideal form of Divine intervention, our question seems to be more global.

The question, of course, assumes that human clarity about God’s judgment is a good thing. It appears however that this is not the case. Many Jewish thinkers have pointed out that the more clarity we have about this, the less free choice. To take this to an extreme, if God dramatically rewarded or punished us immediately after everything we did, we would quickly turn into the laboratory mice of Pavlov and Skinner.

Perhaps the most masterful treatment of this subject in popular form was R. Aryeh Kaplan’s, “If You Were God.” There he bolsters this answer with insights from sociologists who examined the reactions of primitive societies overwhelmed by more advanced ones in the same way that God’s constant clear intervention might overwhelm us:

The first reaction is one of shock… The natives first lose interest and become completely dependent on the more advanced cultures. They cease to have a mind and develop a lethargy where life grows devoid of meaning… If a society is not completely destroyed by [this], it undergoes a second stage, that of rebellion.

He goes on to demonstrate that God’s greatest intervention with the revelation at Mount Sinai led to these exact reactions of shock and rebellion.

In that sense, then, the generation that left Egypt not only did not benefit from God’s powerful intervention, they actually suffered from it! In that case, it is the exception to the rule that needs explaining, why God put this generation at such a disadvantage. The answer that there was an exceptional need to show Himself once in human history is well known, but it is not our focus here.

More importantly, the experience of the generation that came out of Egypt shows us that the clarity we think we so much want from God would actually hurt us more than it would help us. Internalizing this would not only make us stop envying that fateful generation, it would make us thankful not to have been in their place!


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Rabbi Francis Nataf ( is a veteran Tanach educator who has written an acclaimed contemporary commentary on the Torah entitled “Redeeming Relevance.” He teaches Tanach at Midreshet Rachel v'Chaya and is Associate Editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He is also Translations and Research Specialist at Sefaria, where he has authored most of Sefaria's in-house translations, including such classics as Sefer HaChinuch, Shaarei Teshuva, Derech Hashem, Chovat HaTalmidim and many others. He is a prolific writer and his articles on parsha, current events and Jewish thought appear regularly in many Jewish publications such as The Jewish Press, Tradition, Hakira, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Action and Haaretz.