Chazal famously teach that 80 percent of the Jews in Egypt died during the plague of darkness. These Jews did not want to leave Egypt – they considered it home in spite of everything – and they left Hashem no choice but to exterminate them. They died during the plague of darkness so the surviving Jews could bury them out of sight of the Egyptians and cover up their shame.
We know that six hundred thousand Jewish men between the ages of twenty and sixty left Egypt. We can only speculate the number of women, children, and elderly, but the total population must have been several million at least. If this represented only 20 percent of the Jewish people who made it out of the galus, well over ten million Jews perished suddenly in the span of a few days. This silent Holocaust is barely hinted in the Torah, and receives only a pithy comment from Chazal.
This Midrash is puzzling on many levels:
1) How did the Jews know that all those who died did not want to leave Egypt? Perhaps God revealed this to Moshe, but there needs to be some supporting evidence on the ground that all these people, and only these people, didn’t want to leave Egypt. Otherwise, how could this accusation be quietly accepted after the fact?
2) This leads to another question. How could the Jews not question Moshe’s leadership after such an enormous catastrophe? There seems to have been no warning that millions of Jews would suddenly die. Their trust in Moshe waffled many times over the years, and at this point it hadn’t even been fully established. We would expect the surviving Jews to confront Moshe over this mass tragedy, but there is no indication they even questioned him about it. Why not?
3) Why did Hashem choose specifically now to eliminate the Jews who didn’t want to leave? The plague of darkness afforded a practical opportunity to bury them out of sight of the Egyptians, but Hashem could have arranged another solution. Why did they need to die at this particular moment in the story?
I believe all three questions can be answered with one insight. Chazal teach that another significant development occurred during the plague of darkness. While the Egyptians were paralyzed, the Jews searched their homes for valuables, which they later “borrowed” and took out with them. Hashem orchestrated this so the Egyptians could not deny they had any valuables to give the Jews; the Jews would tell them exactly where they were.
Put yourself in this situation, right at the start of the plague of darkness. Moshe instructs the Jews to break into their neighbors’ homes, search through all their things, and prepare to take all their valuables. This is the first action the Jews are taking as truly free people since the plagues began. Not only are they actively demonstrating their independence, they are illegally entering and searching the homes of their captors. This was not an easy thing to ask.
Many Jews were not only uncomfortable with this, they were opposed to the idea entirely. They had already been freed from their labor, and that was good enough for them. They wanted nothing more than to be good Egyptian citizens, and to live their lives free of persecution. Breaking into people’s homes and going through their stuff was the last thing they wanted to do!
Of course, God had other plans for the Jewish people. A Jew who aspires for nothing more than to be a free citizen in a land that is not his own has lost his way. He has lost sight of his true identity, destiny, and purpose. The Jews had experienced the bitterness of galus, witnessed tremendous miracles to save them, and it was time to march forward to receive the Torah and settle their homeland. Although the situation in galus had improved, and they imagined a bright future as free Egyptian citizens, they did not belong there. The opportunity to leave had arrived. They were supposed to seize it and not look back.
Sadly, only 20 percent of the Jews were on board. The other 80 percent were content to remain, and they had no interest in rocking the boat with their Egyptian neighbors. The moment of truth had arrived. They refused to take this independent action to sever their ties with the galus, and Hashem had no choice but to eliminate them. They chose to stay behind, and stay behind they did. Their brothers buried them.
This explains how the surviving Jews understood the reason behind those who died. Only those who were unwilling to search their neighbors’ homes died in a plague. It also explains why they did not lose their trust in Moshe or even question him after this enormous tragedy. On the contrary, it only solidified their trust in Moshe. Those who refused his instruction died. It was clear that they had only themselves to blame.
Indeed, immediately after this, Moshe raises the stakes and instructs the Jews to prepare the Pesach sacrifice. They would slaughter one of the gods of the Egyptians in plain sight. If breaking into their homes didn’t make enough of a statement, this would really seal the deal. The 20 percent of Jews who remained were able to perform this mitzvah with total faith and confidence, especially after what had just happened.
We are supposed to learn lessons from this.
Most of what happens in our life is meant to prepare us for certain moments of truth, when we have to make a fateful decision that will decide our future. We might not even be aware that the moment of truth has arrived and everything is suddenly at stake.
Perhaps the 80 percent who died in the plague of darkness thought they would have more time to feel things out. Maybe they were undecided about leaving and wanted to hedge their bets; they saw no reason to break into their neighbors’ homes. Whatever the case may be, the moment of truth had arrived, and they needed to take a bold action to move forward as Jews and take the next step on the road of Jewish destiny. Four out of every five Jews failed to seize the moment, and they were lost.
It is clear to me that the Jewish people today – especially those who voluntarily remain in foreign lands – are facing a similar moment of truth. The situation in galus has been deteriorating for years, but very few paid any mind to it. They paid little mind to the many warning signs all around them, while magnifying every flaw they could find with life in Israel. This was not an objective calculation. They wanted to stay in galus. So long as they weren’t persecuted and enslaved, it was good enough for them.
They left God little choice but to raise the temperature. The deterioration of the situation in foreign lands, particularly the United States, is rapidly accelerating. Some Jews have woken up and received the message. Tragically, most continue to blind themselves. They are quite possibly the only people who think there isn’t a major storm coming, or that the storm will pass and leave them unharmed.
I am not a prophet or an armchair Kabbalist, but it is clear that the moment of truth is more or less upon us. Every individual Jew needs to decide if he wants nothing more than for life to go back to “normal”, or if he is moving forward with Jewish destiny.
Life as we used to know it is over. Life as we used to know it in the United States, and most other foreign lands, is definitely over. It is time for Jews to concern themselves with more lofty matters than their next vacation, their next simcha, and mundane personal interests. Historic events of Biblical proportions are unfolding before our eyes. Where do we want to be, and what do we want to be doing? How can we make sure we will not be left behind, God forbid?
This is the moment of truth. It’s time to decide.
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