A comment of Rashi’s in this week’s parsha planted one of the main seeds of my most recent book, As If We Were There: Readings for a Transformative Passover Experience. In 10;22, Rashi offers two reasons for Hashem’s choice of darkness as one of the plagues. He repeats one of those reasons at the beginning of Parshat Beshalah, where 13;17 tells us the Jews left Egypt hamushim.
Rashi first gives us the accepted literal meaning, armed, and then moves to a Midrashic one. He says only one-fifth of the Jews left, reading hamushim as: divided into five. The Mekhilta where Rashi saw this idea also envisions the possibility it was one in fifty or one in five hundred. Even if we stick with the one in five option, we are left to realize Hazal and Rashi could imagine the Jews of the Exodus as a remnant.
Put it this way: our best estimates say two-thirds of European Jewry was wiped out in the twelve years of the Holocaust, and that was a tragedy from which we still reel and recoil. Four-fifths of European Jewry would have been 7.2 million.
For the Jews of Egypt, too, it happened quicker, during the darkest three days of the plague. I go back and forth over whether that would be more or less traumatic, but I have to assume it was more shocking. For Hazal and Rashi, the Jews who left Egypt all presumably knew one or many relatives and friends who had not gotten out.
I recognize we don’t always assume Midrash means to be historical. I don’t need to say that the Jews who left actually were the survivors of a sudden death of most of the nation, I am fascinated enough by Hazal’s and Rashi’s imagining it. It means the idea wasn’t foreign to them. Were they to have seen it, or something close to it, come true in Europe, they (like we) would have mourned the tragedy of it, but it would not have been unthinkable.
Rashi in our parsha tells us something the more well-known Rashi in Beshalah does not. He says the Jews who died were resha’im, evildoers (as does the Midrash), but then adds an idea for what qualified them as too evil to be included in the Exodus. (As far as I can tell, the idea is Rashi’s; the midrashim I have seen do not include an explanation of their evil).
Rashi says she-hayu be-Yisra’el be-oto dor resha’im, ve-lo ratzu la-tzet, among the Jews in that generation were evildoers, and they did not wish to leave. A remarkable statement on its own, giving the lie to the more excessive portrayals of the burdens of Egyptian slavery: however bad the slavery was, it was not so bad that Jews jumped at the chance to get out [for contrast, I do not know of many or any slaves in the American South who rejected freedom when it came for them, nor would they even if it meant leaving their homes.]
The idea has a contemporary ring in another way: all you had to do to get out of Egypt was want to. Datan and Aviram come to mind for me, clearly evil men, who were eventually so evil the earth swallowed them up in a never before seen miracle. Yet they were not too evil to be redeemed, because they were willing to go.
All you had to do was want to, and that was too much for four-fifths of the Jewish people. And that’s not a rabbi in early 1930s Germany talking, it’s Rashi.