ALL LIFE IS SACRED
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.