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All Life Is Sacred

  • All Life Is Sacred

    Bo, Exodus 10:1−13:16
D'var Torah By: 

Cliff Kulwin

Parashat Bo chronicles the departure of the Israelites from Egypt and the events that led up to the former, which began in last week's portion, Va'era. Indeed, exactly half of the portion--53 of 106 verses by my count--relates the continuing story of the plagues and the negotiations that Moses and Aaron conducted with Pharaoh.

What could be more horrible than the tenth plague that God visits upon the Egyptians, the slaying of the firstborn? Is there anything more tragic than the death of a child, anything an adult fears more than the possibility that a son or daughter who has ventured out into the world may not return?

And not only the firstborn of the leaders or the soldiers were slain. As the text relates, "...every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the firstborn of the cattle." (Exodus, 11:5) How could God do this?

The traditional response, of course, is that only an extreme measure would force Pharaoh to relent. The fault was not God's; the fault was Pharaoh's for being so stupidly, arrogantly hard-hearted. God had no choice. While this answer possesses a certain logic, it does not feel entirely right.

After the tenth plague, the Israelites flee and, in Parashat Beshalach, they celebrate the death of the soldiers and their beasts of burden after the mass drowning that ensues when the waters of the Red Sea come back together. But God, as tradition teaches, rebukes them for celebrating the death of "My creations."

How are we to resolve this contradiction? The text is relatively silent on the presumably greater tragedy of the death of the firstborn, while it is stridently critical of the Israelites for celebrating the deaths of those who sought to do them, to say the least, considerable and violent harm.

The difference, it would appear, is not in the act but in the reaction to it. In other words, using the hermeneutic device of kal vechomer(from minor to major), we may infer that if the Israelites had celebrated the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians, they would have received an extremely strong rebuke from God because the deaths in that instance were surely more classically tragic than those that occurred at the Red Sea and did provoke a rebuke.

The lesson, it would seem, is to remind us that all life is equally sacred. Some deaths may surely touch us more than others and may seem and even be more tragic, but ultimately every life is of equal value. In an age in which managed care has resulted in a radical reassessment of how medical resources are allocated, conflict is growing between advocates of victims' rights and prisoners' rights, and the gulf between the haves and have-nots keeps increasing in the majority of nations, this lesson is surely a valuable--if not always comforting--one to remember.

Rabbi Cliff Kulwin is the international director of development and placement for the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

The Tenth Plague -- A Test of Whose Faith
Davar Acher By: 
Roberta Louis Goodman


Parshat Bo completes the narrative of the plagues that begun in Va'era. The story of the plagues is an ongoing escalating story about the power struggle between God and Pharaoh. Each plague tests Pharaoh's will.

Certainly the horror of the tenth plague, the slaying of the firstborn, stands out as a severe punishment even for the unrelenting Pharaoh. The tenth plague is different for another reason. With regard to the first nine plagues, the Israelites are treated differently from the Egyptians. For example, the text tells us that while the Egyptians experienced darkness, "the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings." (Exodus 10:23) The Israelites enjoy preferential treatment from God by virtue of their collective identity. When it comes to the tenth plague, however, both the Egyptians and the Israelites are tested by God.

Moses himself announces to Pharaoh God's intention to slay the firstborn of all creatures, including Pharaoh's own child. But before God takes action, the narrative relates God's instructions for the "sacred convocation" that will prepare the Israelites for their journey from slavery to freedom. Moses and Aaron inform the Israelites that if they mark the lintel and two doorposts of their houses with blood, God will "pass over [upasach] the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite" the firstborn in the Israelites' homes. Only the homes of those who actively commit themselves to God, showing their trust in God and attesting to God's might, are spared the horrible tenth plague, the slaying of the firstborn. It is the Israelites' minding of the tenth plague that is forever connected to this festival through its name. God responds to the Israelites' signs by "passing over," upasach, their homes.

It is only after the tenth plague has been meted out that Pharaoh is convinced of God's might and relents, at least temporarily, to Moses' demand that he let the Israelites go. More significantly, the tenth plague affirms the Israelites' trust in God and helps them overcome their fear of leaving slavery and Egypt to follow God into the wilderness. The Israelites' reaction to the tenth plague shows their preparedness to begin their journey as a free people, able and willing to worship God.

To pass the test of faith, the Israelites had to assert their commitment to God and God's ways. In so doing, they discover that God works in partnership with those who actively seek God and follow God's ways.

Questions for Discussion

  • In what ways do the plagues test Pharaoh's faith in God? The faith of the Egyptians? That of the Israelites?
  • Identify some modern plagues? How do these plagues test our faith in God?
  • What other tests of your faith in God have you encountered? How did you respond to those tests?
  • Why does a person's faith in God have to be tested?

Roberta Louis Goodman, M.A.J.E., RJE, is the executive director of the Talmud Torah of St. Paul, MN, and a past president of NATE.

Reference Materials: 

Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 448-471; Revised Edition, pp. 405-426;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary
, pp. 355-378
Haftarah, Jeremiah 46:13-28

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 700-702; Revised Edition, pp. 427-429

When do we read Bo

2021, January 23
10 Shevat, 5781
2022, January 8
6 Shevat, 5782
2023, January 28
6 Shevat, 5783
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