The drama of Parashat Bo is mostly terrifying. The mounting confrontation between the Israelites – represented by Moses and Aaron (but really God) – and the Egyptians – represented by an unnamed Pharaoh – reaches its crescendo with the last three of the ten plagues. Those among us who know the Passover seder well might be recalling the names of these plagues from their ritualized recitation. As the Torah reading picks up with plague number six, we hear in our heads: arbeh – locusts, choshech – darkness, makat b’chorot – plague of the firstborn. But this is not the ritualized recitation of the plagues that are marked by drops of wine at the Passover Seder: the plagues here are not sweetened by Concord grape wine. While the Torah’s literary style is mostly sparing in detail, the destruction wreaked upon the Egyptians in order to rescue the descendants of Jacob from slavery is described in the harshest of terms.
Modern scholars who try to understand the Bible’s editing process over centuries in ancient Israel see, in these chapters, signs of different textual sources redacted together. The evidence of this redaction is most telling in the way the plagues narrative is interrupted by an interpolation of laws for how Passover will be commemorated, not just the first time as a response to the salvation from Egypt, but for all time, year after year (Ex. 12:1-28).
Another small interpolation occurs before the major one just mentioned – a mere two verses that might easily be overlooked. It pauses God’s foretelling of the plague of the firstborn to Moses, a foretelling that Moses will then threateningly relay to Pharaoh. In Exodus 11:1-3 the Torah states:
And the Eternal said to Moses, “I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you out of here one and all. Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” The Eternal disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, [God’s] envoy Moses was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people.
Verses 2-3 seem out of place. From the immediate context, there is no explanation of why the Israelites would “borrow” precious objects from their neighbors. One can reasonably surmise that slaves may need a little money to get them started on their future liberated lives. However, traditional commentators and modern scholars notice – according to careful reading of the entire Exodus narrative – that these two verses (as well as other references in Ex. 3:21-2 and 12:35-36) serve the purpose of explaining how former slaves could have precious metals for furnishing the Tabernacle in the wilderness (Ex. 25:1-9) and for committing the sin of building a Golden Calf (Ex. 32:1-6).
While textual source criticism suggests that verses 2-3 were not meant to bear upon the impending plague, the resulting narrative, describing this supposed borrowing, is disturbing. Soon after the Egyptians were disposed to neighborliness, their most precious possessions, namely their oldest children, are killed by God’s final plague on Egypt.
Within these two short verses there is a curious interplay. Just as God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, God intervenes to “dispose the Egyptians favorably toward the people.” But, their “generosity” also seems to be the result of their genuine admiration of Moses.
The Torah gives no hint as to why Moses was much esteemed. A literal translation of the Hebrew text is: “the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt in the eyes of Pharaoh’s servants and in the eyes of the people” (Ex. 11:3, second sentence). I wonder if the Egyptian people’s admiration, derived from their own oppression living under pharaonic rule, is a yearning for Moses, the former Egyptian prince, to include them too in his resistance to tyranny. If this is the case, then how the plagues brought about the loss of innocent life among suffering people becomes an even more poignant basis for a morality discussion.
Natan Alterman (1910-1970), one of the most important of modern Israel’s early poets, was known for his public verse. His poetry, mostly dealing with social and political themes, was commentary to the most important issues from the pre-state period through the aftermath of the Six Day War.
In 1943, at the height of WWII and the Holocaust, Alterman published a poem that stirred a lot of controversy. Called, “On the Road of Noh-Amon,” (included in his 1944 collection, Poems of the Egyptian Plagues), this poem considers the innocent lives lost on the wrong side of a battle between good and evil. While the inspiration for the poem is the Ten Plagues, all reference to the biblical narrative and to the Jewish people is removed – Alterman’s purpose here was to raise moral questions of universal concern that occurred to him as he considered the war against Nazi fascism. One of the most-quoted stanzas in this vein is:
The judgment of swords has no fault
but when shedding of blood is spent,
it leaves like a taste of salt
the tears of the innocent.
(Natan Alterman, Selected Poems, trans. Robert Friend (Israel: Hakibbutz Hameuchad,1978)
Alterman warns that in seeking victory for the “right side of history,” we may forget about having compassion for the common folk on the enemy side.
Strains of Jewish tradition, from the earliest times, understand that God’s children fall victim on both sides of a war – a fact that midrashically moves God to tears. It’s alarming, however, that today, more than 70 years since Alterman wrote his verse, there are those among us whose nationalism overpowers their capacity for expansive mercy. In her book of poetry called, Moses, the contemporary Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam (b. 1952) individualizes the Egyptian casualties, especially the children, that resulted from the Israelites’ struggle to save their own lives:
There was one child, his name not written in books
He clung to his mother’s breast, before being
weaned away from the milk
While in the midst of the terror, in the heart of the
great arm’s movement
He saw God looking only at him.
(Rivka Miriam, “Moshe,” trans. from Hebrew by Reuven Greenvald, [Jerusalem: Carmel, 2011])
The raising of critical questions about the Torah here is not an attempt to whitewash our sacred texts. Rather, raising questions is what Jewish tradition has always done to reapply its core values of justice and mercy to the complicated struggles in each generation.