In this portion the plagues come to a devastating end. The final plague is the death of the first males born of humans and animals: only the Israelites are spared.
Moses said: "Thus says the Eternal: Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians, and every [male] first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle." (Exodus 11:4-5)
The plague of the death of the firstborn is deeply disturbing. The loss of human and animal life appears to be extremely cruel. At the time, it seems to have been the necessary condition for the liberation of our ancestors from Egyptian slavery. The stark irony is that the liberation of human beings from slavery almost never comes without the loss of life. Rarely are oppressors willing to relinquish their power peacefully. They seem hell-bent on inflicting death and devastation not only on those they oppress, but also on the whole population under their control. In this portion we can envision God as having warned Pharaoh and his courtiers nine times with increasingly severe consequences. But it is only after God destroys all the firstborn males that Pharaoh gets the message.
Some understand God's action in this story as the equivalent of military action. When faced with an oppressive regime that is slaughtering its own population, do the nations of the world choose to intervene militarily? The question of military intervention is complex. As Jews, we are constantly angered and perplexed by the failure of the world to prevent the Shoah. We often ask, why didn't President Roosevelt bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz? How many times since the Shoah has the world failed to respond to genocide? When are we humans willing to say, as God says at the beginning of the Book of Exodus, "I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them . . ." (Exodus 3:7-8)? Let us remember it only took God four hundred years!1
Is there a way to understand the plagues as offering guidance for when and how intervention might occur? In the contemporary world we frequently observe the desire of oppressed peoples for liberation and watch as the revolt against oppression unfolds, sometimes intervening and sometimes restraining ourselves. Weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological, and nuclear – are redlines. At what point do we believe that negotiations and sanctions have failed, and we have no choice but to act? The plague of the death of the firstborn provides us with a fruitful opportunity to explore these complex, difficult, and potentially disastrous options.
I now wish to turn from this moral conundrum to briefly discuss the observance of Pesach. The Israelites were instructed to set aside a year-old lamb without blemish on the tenth of Nisan and to sacrifice it on the fourteenth of Nisan. To protect themselves from the midnight slaughter they were told to paint the doorposts and lintels of their homes with the blood of the lamb, which was to be roasted and consumed before morning with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. "This is how you shall eat it your loins girded, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand you shall eat it hurriedly" (Exodus 12:11). The Israelites were instructed further to re-create the original Pesach annually as a permanent observance of the Exodus from Egypt. The rite was designed to engender questions from children so that the story of Passover could be retold every year.
In his book, Myth: A Very Short Introduction, Robert Segal quotes Mercia Eliade's understanding of the relationship between myth and ritual in this way: "when [ritually] [re-]enacted myth acts as a time machine, carrying one back to the time of the myth and thereby bringing one closer to god." 2 This idea clearly is the basis for the observance of Pesach described above. By reenacting the crucial moment that propelled us out of slavery we recapture the experience and the transcendent meaning of Jewish existence that becomes our master story, and has ethical implications, as we repeat the mantra of our understanding slavery and oppression because "we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt."
We no longer paint our doorposts and lintels with blood, and many do not observe the prohibition against eating roast lamb on Pesach.3 But we continue to try to re-create the experience verbally by substituting text (the Passover Haggadah) and ritual foods, such as matzah (unleavened bread), maror (bitter herbs), and charoset (apples, wine, and nuts, or figs and honey) for the paschal sacrifice. While we no longer don our traveling clothes to prepare for the upcoming redemption, we are obligated to explore the joy of our liberation and we bemoan its failure to have led to universal liberation. Then the question of intervention looms large, as we no longer expect that God will directly intervene. We hope for a Moses who will proclaim the message of God's displeasure and we debate whether it is time for the governments of liberated people to liberate the oppressed.
- Exodus 12:40 mentions four hundred and thirty years; Genesis 15:13 says four hundred years, see The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Ed. ( New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 414
- Robert A. Segal, Myth: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 73
- "With the destruction of the [Second] Temple, the offering of the paschal lamb came to an end," (see Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 13 [Jerusalem, Keter Publishing, 1996], p. 163)
Rabbi Peter S. Knobel serves as interim rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables Florida. He is rabbi emeritus at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue Evanston Illinois and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
"Once the destroyer is given permission to harm, he does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked"1
According to our commentaries, this is why the Children of Israel were admonished on the eve of the devastating and disturbing final plague that "none of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning" (Exodus 12:22). Inside of their blood-smeared doorposts they were safe; if they stepped outside in the hour of destruction they stepped into peril.
But there are many kinds of peril. There is the obvious danger of being struck down by the indiscriminate hand of "the destroyer." But there also is a darker danger that we might join the destroyer in his slaughter; that we might use an enemy's evil as license to slake our thirst for justice from a cup of vengeance and indignation. There is the danger that we ourselves may become the wanton destroyers who fail to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. Perhaps the Children of Israel were warned to stay inside not only for their physical protection, but also for their spiritual protection.
Exodus stands as a profound proof for us that redemption is possible. It can be seen as God providing an archetype of redemption in order to teach us that we must set ourselves to the same task in the world. But we would do well to recognize that even when God redeems, that redemption is fraught with deep and disturbing moral complexity; how much more so when we seek to engage in the task.
Redemption and repair are our tasks in this world, and there are times when the destroyer must be let loose to defeat evil. But "once the destroyer is given permission to harm," there are always righteous who suffer along with the wicked. As the Talmud warns, a fire set against thorns quickly consumes wheat as well (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 60a).
In the Torah, God unleashes the power of destruction in the rarest of circumstances. That seems like a valuable lesson if we want to make progress toward a bit of redemption in this world.
- M'chilta (Pischa, Ch. 11) and Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 60a, both of which are cited by Rashi and Nachmanides
Rabbi Neal Schuster is the senior Jewish educator at University of Kansas Hillel.
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