The Torah Portion sees the culmination of the ten plagues which devastated Egypt. The Rabbis tell us that during the Plague of Darkness, the Jewish people also suffered terrible losses; Rashi cites the opinion that four fifths died and only one fifth remained.(1) The Mechilta that Rashi quotes actually brings two other opinions as to what proportion of the Jews were killed; one holds that only one fiftieth survived, and another holds that only one five hundredth were left. Rav Shimon Schwab cites a number of problems with the literal understanding of this Midrash.(2)
Firstly, according to the two later opinions, there were 30 million or 300 million Jews in Egypt before the plagues. It is very hard to fathom that there were this many Jews there. Secondly, according to all the opinions, millions of Jews were killed and consequently this single disaster was far greater than all the plagues that the Egyptians suffered, Rav Schwab also finds this very difficult to accept. Thirdly, he quotes Rashi that they died and were buried during the darkness so that the Egyptians would not see that so many Jews died. He argues that if we accept this Midrash literally that millions died, then surely the Egyptians would have noticed such a significant loss.
Because of these problems Rav Schwab says that the Midrash should not be understood literally - rather only a relatively small number died, but had they lived they would have given birth to millions of people over several generations. The three opinions are arguing about how many descendants would have come from those that died. He suggests that perhaps all they disagree about is how to make an accounting of the survivors - one holds that we measure up to a certain point in time such as the building of the Temple, and another measures to a later point and consequently there are more descendants over that longer period.
He compares this interpretation to the Gemara which discusses the aftermath of the murder of Abel. God tells Kain that, "the bloods of your brother are crying out to Me from the ground." (3) The Gemara says that not only Abel's blood was crying out - so too were all his potential descendants who would now never attain life. Kain did not just murder one man, he destroyed millions of lives through his single heinous act. Rav Schwab cites the recent tragic example of this concept in the Holocaust. He says that the Nazis did not kill six million people, rather they murdered untold millions in the form of their descendants who will never live.
So too, the tragedy of the death of the Jews in Egypt was to be its long-term effect - only a small number may have died then, but over the generations, millions were lost. Rav Schwab's explanation provides a whole new perspective to this death of the Jews in Egypt. We know that the reason they died is because they were not on the level to leave Egypt and become part of God's nation that would receive the Torah. Rav Schwab argues that these people must have been completely evil people to have to meet such an end. Based on the fact that they were relatively small in number and were so evil, it seems surprising that the Midrash gives so much emphasis to the long-term consequence of their death. We see from here that the loss of any Jew is cause for unlimited pain, no matter what his beliefs and lifestyle. In addition, there is also the strong possibility that righteous people would descend from them.
The Torah tells us that Moses demonstrated his awareness of this concept; when he saw an Egyptian striking a Jew, the verse says that, "he looked this way and that way but saw no man." (4) Rashi explains that Moses looked into the future to see if any convert would descend from this Egyptian. Moses knew that killing him would have long-term consequences and acted accordingly.
More recently, Rav Shlomo Heimann recognized this to a very high degree; he gave a Torah lecture to dozens of students which was characterized by his energetic style. One day there was heavy snow and only four students attended the lecture, yet Rav Heimann gave the lecture with the same energy as always. His students asked him why he was putting so much effort into teaching such a small number of people. He answered that he was not merely teaching four students, rather all their future descendants and students.
If the rabbis see such a tragedy in the deaths of a few evil people how must we feel when we look at the situation of the Jewish people today? We live in a world where there are very few people who purposely turn their back on Torah or who devote their lives to destroying Torah values. There are millions of Jews who, through no fault of their own, were brought up with no knowledge of Torah and very little sense of the importance of being Jewish. Every day, dozens of Jews intermarry, and their Jewish descendants are lost forever.(5) We are guaranteed that Messiah will come regardless of our spiritual level, therefore the reason that we should reach out to non-religious Jews is not to prevent the destruction of the Jewish nation - there is no fear of that happening. But we want to give every Jew and his potential descendants the chance to remain part of that nation so that they too can be present at the redemption.
May we all be merit to recognize the true value of every Jew and his potential offspring.
1. Beshalach, 13:18.
2. Me'eyn beis hashoeva, Beshalach, 13:18.
3. Bereishis, 4:10.
4. Shemos, 2:11.
5. We all have a vague, intellectual awareness that things are not as they should be but how bad is it? The intermarriage rate in USA in 1950 was 6%, by 1990 it was 52% and rising. 2 million Jews of Jewish origin do not identify themselves as Jews. 2 million self-identified Jews have no Jewish connection whatsoever. For every wedding between two Jews, two intermarriages take place. 625,000 US Jews are now practicing other religions. 11% of US Jews go to shul#. Every day dozens of intermarriages take place which means that in the time it took you to read this, some Jews were lost forever. (it should be noted that since these statistics were taken, the situation has further markedly deteriorated.