Four Nights of Revelation
Rabi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg
The exodus from Egypt becomes a reality in Parshas Bo, as the plague of the first born and subsequent “request” for the Jewish people to leave Egypt is recorded. The Torah notes that this monumental event took place at night – “This was a night of vigil (leil shimurim) for Hashem, to bring them out of the land of Egypt, this night remains a night of vigil to Hashem for all the Bnei Yisrael for [all] their generations,” (Shemos 12:42) – and the time it took place, as well as the nature of the shmira, has tremendous importance for Bnei Yisrael. What exactly is the nature of this shmira, and why was it so crucial that it take place at night?
Most commentators refer to the idea of shimurim as God adhering to the promise to take the Jews out of Egypt. However, the Targum Yonasan offers a very different approach:
“There are four nights written in the Book of Memories (Sefer Zichronos) before the Master of the world. The first night is when He revealed Himself to create the universe. The second is when He revealed Himself to Avraham. The third is when He revealed Himself in Egypt, and it was his Hand that killed every first born in Egypt and His right that saved every Jewish first born. The fourth is when He will reveal Himself to redeem (podeh) the Jewish nation from among the other nations. There all are referred to as ‘leil shimurim’. Therefore, Moshe explained and said ‘leil shimurim’ is for redemption before God to take out the Jewish people from Egypt, this night is ‘shamur’ from the destructive messenger for the entire Jewish people in Egypt as well as to redeem them from their exile forever.”
This cryptic explanation of “leil shimurim” requires some significant elucidation. We see that the timing of these events takes on a greater level of importance. Why? And if we indeed are speaking of night, how do we understand “night” in the context of God’s creation of the universe? There was no chronological night at the time of Creation! The Tirgum Yerushalami offers a similar, albeit more expansive explanation, of this time. The “night” referred to in Creation was “darkness covered the surface of the abyss.” (Bereishis 1:2) Clearly, this would indicate it is not the literal understanding of night. What are we to make of this?
Another question pertains to the notion of “shimurim”, normally understood to mean guarded or observant. In this context, it seems to mean God’s revelations. There needs to be some relevance between the word itself and revelation.
Of the four different “revelation events”, the one referring to Avraham is the most obscure. Again, the Targum Yerushalmi expands on this. The revelation in this instance is referring to God’s promise that Avraham and Sarah, regardless of their advanced age, would have natural born progeny (Yitzchak). This revelation takes place as a dream to Avraham, and in this dream, the initial communication takes place at night (whereas the actual time of day is unknown). This being the case, we see another example of night not being literal. Yet beyond this, there is a more important question: why is this such a significant revelation event?
In this same fashion, we must ask some broader questions. What is the common theme here? How are these events tied together? And how are they are differentiated? What are the contrasts between them?
There is no doubt that revelation at night is the one factual common link between these events. What is the significance of night? When God reveals Himself, especially in the realm of the miraculous, there is an opportunity for man to obtain new insights into God, a new avenue of knowledge. These revelations were unique events, qualitatively different (as will be demonstrated) from other instances of the manifestations of God. As a result, it was imperative that man recognize that while the possibility for new ideas exists, he is inherently limited in his ability to comprehend them in their entirety. This is where the idea of “night” comes in. One of the unique features of night is that our sense of sight is impaired, whereas our other senses are left intact. This impediment is the core idea of “night”. Humans, while being able to now achieve greater knowledge about God through this revelation, can only go so far in its pursuit. It is expressed in the “darkness” of Creation, and it is articulated in the chosen time for the annihilation of the Egyptian first born. In all of these instances, man is aware that due to an inherent limitation, there is a boundary he cannot cross.
What then are these different episodes, and what theme ties them all together? One possibility has to do with God’s relationship to the natural world, and how it is conveyed in distinctive manners. The first instance of this is, quite naturally (no pun intended), the creation of the Universe. At the moment of Creation, God did not only create the physical universe. He formed a system of knowledge, referred to as maase bereishis, that serves as the repository of the chachma associated with Creation. This should not lead one to reason that he can somehow master it. Instead, one should see how this system of knowledge tied is intrinsically tied into Creation. The event of Creation went beyond the physical world – it was the creation of a relationship between God and the world rooted in knowledge.
The second and third examples share one common idea. They demonstrate a certain type of control over the natural world, one that no human could possess. And expressed in these manifestations are ideas about God’s relationship to both the individual and the world as a whole that are expressed. In the case of Avraham, God demonstrates His control in the birth of a child to this elderly couple. The result of this was a path of yediyas Hashem for Avraham, a greater understanding in God’s direct intervention on behalf of an individual. The plague of the first born is similar, albeit on a grander scale. This plague stood separate from all the others in so far as its ability to be understood and rationalized. The other plagues were aberrations in nature, disruptions of the natural order. In these instances, God was expressing a degree of control over the natural world. However, with the final plague, there was a shift. At a specific time on a specific date, a large number of people sharing the purely secondary feature of being their family’s first born, died. There was no indication of disease or virus, no physical manifestation of disorder, no rational explanation. And, on top of it all, this only affected the Egyptian first born, not the Jewish. This reflected a qualitatively different degree of control, and, being that it affected millions of people, was more universal in nature. Once again, this event provided man the opportunity to understand God’s relationship to the natural world the ultimate objective of the plague. These two expressions of control are prototypes, serving as the examples for all future instances where God operates in such a manner.
This leads us to the final manifestation, the one pertaining to the future redemption. It would seem that this event is in fact reflecting a slightly different but equally important idea about God and the universe. As we have explained, we see God as Creator and His control in the first three examples. Yet there is also the knowledge possessed by God of the natural world, comprehension of particulars that man can never access completely. This could be the idea being expressed in God’s revelation at the time of the redemption. When explaining how the future redemption will unfold, the Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 12:1) is careful to point out that people will naturally come to accept God as the melech elyon, implying that God will not nudge people to accept Him. Furthermore, there will be no change in the natural world. As such, this final instance is not dealing with God’s actions in the supernatural realm. Instead, it is referring to how the redemption will unfold, and how we cannot be aware of the particulars. As Jews, we know that it is a fundamental tenet that there will be a redemption. However, it is impossible to know how events, on the most detailed level with the myriad causes and effects involved, will play out. The event of the redemption serves then as the paradigm example of the extent and character of God’s knowledge of the natural world.
This leaves us with understanding the idea of shimurim. When we refer to God’s shmira of these different manifestations, it obviously cannot mean God pays more attention to these events – the absurdity of such a premise is self-evident. How then can we understand it? There is no doubt there must be some idea of “guarding” in this idea, albeit on a more abstract level. In this instance, these four events are delineated from all other revelations, serving, as noted above, as the models for God’s manifestations. It is this very delineation, their position in history and events in the world, that express the idea of being “guarded’. They serve, and will always serve, as the prototypes of revelation and vehicles to understanding God’s relationship to mankind and the universe.