FROM THE TORAH
Recognizing His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and having heard the groaning of Jacob’s descendants, the Children of Israel, from Egyptian bondage, the Eternal has become a painful presence to the Egyptians in their own land. In last week’s Sedra Va-eyra He imposed seven plagues upon Pharaoh and his people in order to persuade Pharaoh to release the Children of Israel. At times Pharaoh comes close to yielding, but, even so, he remains obstinate. Repeatedly, Moses revisits Pharaoh to demand in the name of the Eternal, “Let my people go…,” but just as often Pharaoh refuses. In this week’s Sedra Bo, the last three of ten plagues are displayed, as are Pharaoh’s guilt, delusion, bad faith, and evil temper. The tenth and final plague, Death of the Firstborn, is decisive and is related in stages of preparation and execution. It is divided by observances of Unleavened Bread and the Pesach offering, and it is followed by the Exodus narrative and post-Exodus observances of Pesach, Matzot, and Consecration of the Firstborn, which emanate from the experience of the tenth plague.
Denouement of Oppression
THE EIGHTH PLAGUE: LOCUSTS
The Eternal says to Moses: “Go” (Bo) to Pharaoh now that it is I who have caused him and his servants to be stubborn (Exodus 10:1). Thus shall I display My signs in his midst, and thereby will you be able to recount to your children and grandchildren how I humiliated Egypt with these displays, so that all of you will know Me, the Eternal.
Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh in the name of the Eternal, God of the Hebrews, demanding: “How long will you refuse to be humbled before Me? Let My people go, that they may worship Me! For if you refuse, on the morrow I shall bring across your border a swarm of locusts. It will cover and conceal the land, it will consume whatever was left from the plague of hail as well as the trees that are now growing. All the houses of Egypt will be filled with the locusts to a degree not seen by your ancestors from the day that they were first on the earth.” With this Moses turns and leaves Pharaoh’s presence.
Pharaoh’s servants speak up to warn him of the danger that Moses presents. “Let the men go,” they advise, “to worship the Eternal their God (Exodus 10:7). Do you not understand that, otherwise, Egypt is lost?!” So Moses and Aaron are brought back to Pharaoh to receive permission. When Pharaoh asks them who exactly will go, Moses replies, “With our young and with our old shall we go, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds, shall we go, for it is a festival of the Eternal for us” (Exodus 10:9)! Pharaoh objects, sarcastically, “As surely as the Eternal is with you, shall I let you and your children go (Exodus 10:10)! I can see your evil intent. Let the men go and worship the Eternal as you claim to want!” And with that they are expelled from Pharaoh’s presence.
The Eternal then instructs Moses: “Stretch forth your hand over the land of Egypt for the swarm of locusts to ascend and consume every blade of grass, whatever the hail has left!” When Moses extends his staff, the Eternal conducts an east wind into the land all that day and all that night. By morning, the wind has borne the locusts, and they ascend over all of the land of Egypt and settle there en masse. Never before was there the like, and never after would there be. They cover the land to such an extent that it is dark, and they consume all of the land’s grass and every tree’s fruit that has remained after the hail, leaving for their visit nothing of the tree or of the field in all of the land of Egypt.
Pharoah hurriedly summons Moses and Aaron to confess his sin against the Eternal and against them. He asks them to forgive his sin “just this once,” and to entreat “the Eternal your God to remove from me just this death” (Exodus 10:17). Moses leaves Pharaoh and entreats the Eternal, who sets up a very strong west wind that lifts the locust swarm and blows it out to the Red Sea. Nothing then remains of the locusts in Egypt. Thereupon the Eternal empowers Pharaoh’s will so that he does not let the Children of Israel go.
THE NINTH PLAGUE: DARKNESS
The Eternal instructs Moses to extend his hand “over the heavens,” and there will be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt (Exodus 10:21). Moses duly extends his hand, whereupon there is a gloomy darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days. No one can see the other, nor can they get up from their place for three days, but all of the Children of Israel have light in their habitations.
Pharaoh summons Moses to allow the people, including their children, to go and worship the Eternal; only their flocks and their herds would have to be left behind. “But,” says Moses to Pharaoh, “you will have to provide us with sacrifices and burnt offerings, which we will need to perform to the Eternal our God, and our livestock also will have to come along, not a hoof left behind, so that we can take from it whatever is needed to worship the Eternal, which we shall know only once we have arrived at our destination.”
Again the Eternal empowers the will of Pharaoh so that he does not agree to let them go. Pharaoh dismisses Moses and warns him against further visits: “Take care not to see my face again, for on the day that you see my face, you shall die” (Exodus 10:28)! Moses answers, “Well have you spoken: I shall not see your face again” (ibid. 29)!
THE TENTH PLAGUE: DEATH OF THE FIRSTBORN
The Eternal Prepares Moses
The Eternal prepares Moses for what He is about to bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt: a final plague, after which Pharaoh “will let you go, indeed drive you out from here completely” (Exodus 11:1). Moses is to encourage the Israelite people to “borrow” silver and gold implements from their neighbors. The Eternal induces favor on the part of the Egyptians towards the Israelite people. Moses himself is held in high regard in the land of Egypt by Pharaoh’s servants and by his people.
Moses Prepares Pharaoh
In Pharaoh’s presence, Moses provides him with this warning: “The Eternal declares that at midnight ‘I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sits on his throne, to the firstborn of the handmaiden, who is behind the millstones, to the firstborn of cattle, will die’ (Exodus 11:4-5)! In all the land there will be a cry greater than anything heard before or after. But against the Children of Israel not even a dog will bark, there will be no harm to man or beast, to demonstrate the wondrous distinction that the Eternal makes between Egypt and Israel. Then all of these servants of yours will bow and pray to me: ‘Go out, you and all the people who are at your feet!’ and then I will” (Exodus 11:8)! With that, Moses storms out of his audience with Pharaoh.
The Eternal had explained to Moses that Pharaoh would not listen to him “in order to multiply My signs in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 11:9). Indeed Moses and Aaron perform all of these wonders before Pharaoh, and the Eternal strengthens Pharaoh’s will, so that he does not let the Children of Israel go from his land.
Commandment of Pesach
The Eternal explains to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month is the beginning of months to you; it shall be for you the first month of the year (Exodus 12:2). Direct all of the Congregation of Israel to take, on the tenth of this month, a lamb for each father’s house, a male without blemish, a yearling from the sheep or from the goats. If the household be too small for a whole lamb, then let two neighbors in close proximity share in the cost of one lamb for their two households. Calculate the proportionate cost, taking into account what each household member consumes. Keep watch over the lamb until the fourteenth day of this month, then all the community of the congregation of Israel shall slaughter their lambs at dusk. They shall put some of the blood on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they will eat the lamb that night—its head, legs and entrails—roasted, not cooked in any way with water. They shall eat it fire-roasted with unleavened bread over bitter herbs. They shall be careful not to leave any of it overnight until the morning. They must consume it or burn it up with fire before the morning.
“In this manner shall you eat it: your loins girded, your sandals upon your feet, and your staff in your hand. Eat it purposefully; it is Pesach to the Eternal. On that night I shall pass through the land of Egypt and strike down every firstborn of man and beast, and I shall execute judgments against all the gods of Egypt, I the Eternal. The blood that you put upon your houses shall serve as a sign that you are there, such that when I see the blood, I shall pass over and protect you so that my plague of destruction throughout the land of Egypt will not affect you” (Exodus 12:11-13).
Festival of Matzot
“Then the day shall be your commemoration, Matzot, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, a festival to the Eternal throughout your generations, a statute for all time, for by this very day I shall have brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt. For seven days you shall eat Unleavened Bread, beginning on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening and concluding on the twenty-first day of the month in the evening. Remove all leaven from your homes by the first day, and throughout the seven days let no leaven be found in your homes. The person who eats anything leavened during these seven days shall be cut off from Israel. In addition, the first day and the seventh day shall be holy convocations for you on which no work shall be done, except for the preparation of food.”
Sacrifice of Pesach
Moses announces to all the Elders of Israel to proceed with the taking of lambs for their families and to slaughter the Pesach. He also instructs them to dip a bunch of hyssop in the blood that is collected in the basin and apply it to the lintel and the two doorposts, “and none of you shall go outside of the door of his house until the morning” (Exodus 12:22)! “For when the Eternal goes through to attack the Egyptians and He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, He will protect the entrance of that house by not allowing the destroyer to enter your houses to strike down.
“Observe this as a statute for yourself and for your children forever. Preserve this service when you come to the Land that the Eternal has promised to give you. When your children ask you to explain it, tell them that it is the sacrifice of Pesach to the Eternal for His having protected the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt when He attacked the Egyptians and spared our houses.”
The people bow in homage. The Children of Israel do what the Eternal has commanded Moses and Aaron.
The Eternal Strikes
“Now it comes to pass, at midnight, that the Eternal strikes down every firstborn in the land of Egypt: from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who is in the dungeon and every firstborn of cattle” (Exodus 12:29). Pharaoh arises that night, and all of his servants and all of Egypt: there is a great cry throughout Egypt! For there is not a house without someone dead. Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron in the night and says to them, “Get up, get out from the midst of my people, you and the Children of Israel: Go, worship the Eternal as you have demanded (Exodus 12:31)! Take your flocks and your herds and begone! And may you bless me also.”
The Egyptians are desperate to get the Israelite people to leave the land before “all of us are dead” (Exodus 12:33)! Accordingly, the Israelites pack up their dough before it has leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their garments on their shoulders. As Moses had encouraged them to do, the Children of Israel borrow from the Egyptians gold and silver implements (cf. Exodus 11:2) and clothing (cf. Exodus 3:22), requests which the Egyptians are anxious to fulfill and which amount to the plundering of Egypt.
EXODUS OF THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL
The Children of Israel journey from Raamses to Sukkot, approximately 600,000 men on foot, besides children, along with a large diverse group of others, with flocks and herds, carrying very much property. They bake the dough which they have brought out of Egypt (cf. Exodus 12:34) into cakes of unleavened bread, as they were cast out and therefore had no time to wait for the dough to be leavened. They also did not prepare other food for themselves.
For 430 years were the Children of Israel in Egypt. At the end of that time, to the very day, all of the hosts of the Eternal came out. That night of the Eternal’s vigilance for bringing them out of the land of Egypt is the Eternal’s night of vigilance for all the Children of Israel throughout their generations.
RULES OF THE PESACH
The Eternal explains to Moses and Aaron the requirements for eating the Pesach. It is restricted to a native Israelite, or to a non-native all of whose males are circumcised. In the case of a purchased slave, if you circumcise him, then he may eat of it. The uncircumcised may not eat of it. The same rule applies to both the native and to the non-native who lives among you. Non-natives who are resident merely as hired laborers may not eat of it. The entire Congregation of Israel must participate in it. All of the Pesach that one eats must be consumed in a single house; do not take any of it outside of that house; and do not break a bone of it.
All of the Children of Israel comply with what the Eternal commands Moses and Aaron. On that very day the Eternal brought the hosts of the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.
CONSECRATION OF THE FIRSTBORN
The Eternal instructs Moses: “Consecrate to Me every firstborn among the Children of Israel: the first issue of any womb, of man or beast, is Mine” (Exodus 13:2). Here is how Moses teaches the people:
“Remember this day, when you go out from Egypt, the house of bondage, guided by the Eternal’s strong hand: no leavened bread shall be eaten (cf. Exodus 12:15). Today you are going out in the month of Aviv. When the Eternal brings you to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which He promised to give to your fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall observe the following service in this month. For seven days you shall eat only unleavened bread—no leaven shall be found with you in any of your territory—and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the Eternal.
“Explain to your child on that day that this service is ‘because of what the Eternal did for me when I went forth from Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8). Moreover, you shall have it for a sign upon your hand and for a reminder between your eyes in order that the Eternal’s teaching shall be in your mouth, and keep the statute itself at its set time from year to year.
“When the Eternal brings you to the land of the Canaanites, as He promised you and your fathers, and gives it to you, transfer to the Eternal every one of your male first issue of the womb and of your male first issue of beasts. The first issue of an ass you shall redeem with a sheep; otherwise break its neck. Every firstborn of man, among your children, you must redeem.
“When, in the future, your child asks what this is about, say that with His hand’s great strength the Eternal brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage: when Pharaoh was obstinate in refusing to let us go, the Eternal killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of man to the firstborn of beast. Therefore I sacrifice to the Eternal every male first issue of the womb, and every firstborn of my children I redeem. It shall become a sign upon your hand and a symbol between your eyes, for with His hand’s great strength the Eternal brought us out from Egypt.”
FROM THE PROPHETS
Haftarah for Shabbat Bo
The prophet chafes at Judah’s earlier defeat by Egypt under Pharaoh Necho at the battle of Megiddo in 609 B.C.E. (cf. II Kings 23:29). Four years later the Egyptian was defeated by the Babylonian King Nebuchadrezzar at Carchemish (cf. Jeremiah 46:2). In the Haftarah, the prophet foresees more trouble for Egypt at the hands of the same Babylonian king. Jeremiah is a window onto dangerous times. In yet another few years, 586 B.C.E., Nebuchadrezzar and the Babylonians would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Difference between Egypt and Judah
The prophet Jeremiah
received this word from the Eternal
regarding the arrival of
Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylonia,
to attack the land of Egypt:
Announce in Egypt—
in Migdol, Noph and Tachpanches—
Prepare for the war
which has already started around you!
FAILURE OF DEFENSE
Why has your idol, O Egypt,
failed to protect you?
Because the Eternal knocked him down!
Foreigners sojourning in Egypt
see Pharaoh for what he is:
a lot of noise,
failing to act at the proper time.
The foreigners say:
“Arise! Let us return to our own people,
to the land of our birth,
from the oppressor’s sword!”
EGYPT LACKS PROTECTION
As I live,
declares the King,
the Eternal of hosts,
he approaches as unforgettably
as Tabor among the hills,
as Carmel by the sea.
Prepare yourself for exile,
O daughter of Egypt,
for Noph shall be laid waste.
Egypt is very lovely,
but no match
for the stinging insect
from the north.
are well set,
but they will not stand
when their day of calamity
is upon them.
BABYLONIAN ARMY UNSTOPPABLE
The Egyptian army
will slither away
like a terrified snake
before the mighty army
which comes against her
like hewers of wood,
cutting down her forest,
more numerous than locusts,
too large to be counted.
are put to shame,
given in to the power
of the people of the north.
THE ETERNAL PUNISHES AND SAVES
The Eternal of hosts,
the God of Israel:
I will punish Pharaoh and Egypt,
its gods and its kings,
and all who trust in him.
I will give them over
to those who seek their life,
king of Babylonia.
Afterward she shall be inhabited
My servant Jacob,
I shall save you
and return you
from your captivity
in foreign countries.
For I am with you,
promising not to destroy you
as I completely destroy
the nations to which
I have driven you.
I shall correct you
to the extent that you deserve,
and I shall not
punish you in excess.
FROM TALMUD AND MIDRASH
Exodus Rabbah 13:3
The Eternal says to Moses:
Go to Pharaoh now that
it is I who have caused him and his servants to be stubborn.
Said Rabbi Yochanan: These words would certainly give heretics an opening to question whether Pharaoh possessed the autonomy to repent. For if it was God who caused him and his servants to stubbornly refuse to let Israel go, and not their own volition, then they were not acting out of free will and therefore did not deserve their punishment!
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish answered him: The mouth of heretics is silenced by wisdom, “Those who scorn He scorns” (Proverbs 3:34)! When one, like Pharaoh, scorns divine warnings and opportunities for repentance several times, then He closes the scorner’s heart from any further possibility of repentance in order to impose full punishment upon him for the extent of his sin.
The Holy One, blessed be He, provided Pharaoh with five opportunities for repentance (see Maharzu comment below), and he squandered all five of them. Finally, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart; now I shall punish you by your very sin, defiling you as you have defiled yourself! Before, you and your servants were stubborn; now going forward ít is I who have caused them to be stubborn and to wallow thereby in their culpability!
Maharzu (Ze’ev Wolf Einhorn, 19th cent. Poland): What were the five opportunities of repentance that Pharaoh squandered? They were the five preceding times that God ordered Moses to warn Pharaoh of the next plague if he did not let Israel go: before each of the five plagues of Blood, Frogs, Wild Beasts, Pestilence, and Hail. There was no warning before Lice or Boils. The current plague, Locusts, is the eighth plague. The Talmud requires that the defendant was warned before his crime in order to be held culpable.
Exodus Rabbah 13:4
“‘It will cover and conceal the land,
it will consume whatever was left from the plague of hail
as well as the trees that are now growing.
All the houses of Egypt will be filled with the locusts
to a degree not seen by your ancestors
from the day that they were first on the earth.’
With this Moses turns and leaves Pharaoh’s presence.”
Moses introduces the plague of locusts with especially severe words,
then he, uncharacteristically, turns and abruptly leaves Pharaoh’s presence.
What is the significance of his “turning?”
It hints at the fact that Moses saw Pharaoh’s advisors
turning one to the other,
suggesting to him that they believed his words
of warning and entreaty to Pharaoh.
So that was the time for Moses to leave their presence:
so that they might privately
convince each other and Pharaoh to repent!
This supposition is supported in the next verse,
when Pharaoh’s advisors convince him
to propose a compromise:
“Pharaoh’s servants speak up
to warn him of the danger that Moses presents.
‘Let the men go,’ they advise,
‘to worship the Eternal their God.
Do you not understand that, otherwise, Egypt is lost!’”
Exodus Rabbah 13:6
Prelude to a Plague
“When Moses extends his staff,
the Eternal conducts an east wind into the land
all that day and all that night.”
When Moses extends his staff for the plague of locusts,
why does the Holy One blessed be He
cause the wind to blow an entire day
before bringing the plague of locusts?
Why does He not bring the plague immediately?
God starts the wind but delays the plague
in order to give Pharaoh time
to absorb the danger in his mind
and repent before destruction!
Exodus Rabbah 14:3
Darkness but Light
Why did the Holy One, blessed be He,
bring the plague of darkness upon them?
(cf. Exodus 10:21ff.)
The Holy One, blessed be He,
“does not show favor” (Deuteronomy 10:17) to the rich;
He “probes the heart and searches the mind
to recompense every man according to his ways,
according to the fruit of his doings” (Jeremiah 17:10).
There were sinners among the Israelites in Egypt
who had Egyptian patrons
and enjoyed wealth and honor
and therefore did not want to leave.
So the Holy One, blessed be He, considered:
“If I bring a plague upon them openly, and they die,
the Egyptians will say,
‘Just as He did to us, so He did to them!’”
Therefore He brought darkness
upon the Egyptians for three days,
so the offending Israelites could be buried
under the cover of darkness
and their detractors would not see them
and therefore praise the Holy One, blessed be He,
for so acting.
“Moses extends his hand over the heavens,
whereupon there is a gloomy darkness
in all of the land of Egypt for three days.”
“Speak now in the ears of the people,
that they borrow,
every man and woman from their neighbors,
implements of silver and gold.”
“And the Children of Israel
acted in accordance with the word of Moses:
They ‘borrow’ from the Egyptians
implements of silver and gold and clothing,
and the Eternal induced favor
on the part of the Egyptians
toward the Israelite people.”
How did the Holy One, blessed be He, induce favor on the part of the Egyptians towards the Israelite people during the three days of darkness, so that they ‘lent’ to them? Israelites would enter Egyptian homes and identify objects of silver and gold and clothing that they wanted. If the Egyptians claimed that they did not possess the desired objects to lend them, the Israelites would be able to tell them where, in fact, the objects were to be found in the Egyptian home. The Egyptians became convinced of the Israelites’ honesty, that is, they believed that the Israelites would return the objects, because they reasoned: because of the darkness the Israelites could have come and taken the objects and we would not have known, but instead they took the objects with our knowledge! Thus was fulfilled the promise of the Eternal in Abram’s vision: “Afterwards they shall emerge free with much wealth” (Genesis 15:14)!
But how did the Israelites know where to find the objects in the Egyptian homes, during the three days of darkness? That can be inferred from what is written: “But all the Children of Israel had light in their habitations” (Exodus 10:23). We might have expected the verse to say that there was light in the land of Goshen, but the verse says, “in their habitations,” implying the Egyptians’ habitations: in any place that a Jew entered, there was light. He would enter, and the light would illuminate for him what was hidden in various containers, as was said, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalms 119:105).
“There was a gloomy darkness in all of the land of Egypt for three days” (Exodus 10:22), “and no one could see the other or get up from their place for three days” (ibid. 23), so the sum of the days of darkness in Egypt was six days. The seventh day was a day of darkness at the Red Sea, as was said, “There was cloud and darkness…” (Exodus 14:20), but it also says, “and He illuminated the night” (ibid.): the Holy One, blessed be He, sent cloud and darkness to darken the Egyptians at the Sea, and He provided light for Israel as He did for them in Egypt, prompting these words, “The Eternal is my light and my salvation: of whom shall I be afraid” (Psalms 27:1)?
Thus, of the time to come, while the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring darkness, as the prophet has said, “Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick cloud the nations” (Isaiah 60:2), he also said, but “upon you shall the Eternal shine” (ibid.)!
Exodus Rabbah 15:3
My “Two Olive Trees”
“The Eternal explains to Moses and to Aaron…:
‘This month is the beginning of months to you….’”
“Moses and Aaron,” explains the Eternal,
“this month” of the Redemption of Israel from Egyptian bondage
is attributable “to you!”
This is what the prophet meant when he described the two olive trees on either side of the Golden Menorah, which would feed it with oil—“These are the two anointed ones [b’ney yitzhar, literally, ‘sons of oil’] (Joshua the Kohen Gadol and Zerubavel the Davidic Governor) who shall stand by [ha-omedeem al] the Master of all the earth” (Zechariah 4:14; cf. Haggai 1:1 and I Chronicles 3:17-19)—
“These are the two ‘sons (or nephews) of Yitzhar’ [b’ney Yitzhar]
who stood against [ha-omedeem al] the master of all the earth!”
While Moses and Aaron were not, literally, “sons of Yitzhar,” they were nephews of Yitzhar (Exodus 6:18ff.). And who was deemed to be “master of all the earth?” Pharaoh!
Said Rabbi Levi: The Holy One, blessed be He, was seeking a way to redeem Israel; hence He brought the plagues against Egypt. But Pharaoh was obstinate. Then He found the way through the merit of His “two olive trees”—“These are the two ‘olive trees’/ ‘nephews of Yitzhar’ [b’ney yitzhar / b’ney Yitzhar] who stand on either side of Me, true Master of all the earth, and against Pharaoh, who deems himself master of all the earth!”
This may be compared to a king who wishes to marry a certain woman. His advisors are inclined to discourage him because she is not endowed with the usual abundance of assets that befit a queen except for two, yet the king chooses to embrace her for her two sole merits. Thus said the Holy One, blessed be He: It is sufficient justification for Israel to be redeemed for her two sole merits—
“Moses and Aaron,” explains the Eternal,
“this month” of the Redemption of Israel from Egyptian bondage
is attributable “to you!”
Exodus Rabbah 15:4
Talmud Rosh Hashanah 11a
Genesis Rabbah 68:2
Merit of the Fathers
When Moses told Israel,
“The Holy One, blessed be He, has said to me:
‘Today you are going out in the month of Aviv’” (Exodus 13:4),
“Where is He?”
and Moses answered:
“Behold the voice of my Beloved as He comes,
skipping over the mountains, jumping over the hills!”
(Song of Songs 2:8)
Rabbi Judah explained “skipping over the mountains, jumping over the hills”: Said the Holy One, blessed be He, “When I consider the behavior of Israel, they would never be redeemed, so whom then should I consider? Their holy fathers, as the prophet addressed them, “Hear, O mountains [harim]…O strong ones, foundations of the earth” (Micah 6:2): “Hear, O parents [horim], who are the strong ones, the foundations of the earth!” Hence, when the Holy One, blessed be He, comes to redeem Israel, He “skips over” their unworthy behavior because of the merit of their fathers [harim], He “jumps over” the same because of the merit of their mothers [gevaot, “hills,” feminine synonym for harim].
Exodus Rabbah 15:5,9,18-19,30
For the Benefit of Many
“The Eternal says to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt:
This month is the beginning of months to you,
it is first to you for the months of the year.”
In the land of Egypt? Why not in Egypt itself?
Rabbi Chanina explained that the Holy One, blessed be He, was observing His commandment, “Stand outside of the house of the debtor” to collect what he owes you rather than invade the privacy of his home (Deuteronomy 24:10-11), even with respect to Pharaoh himself! So also did Moses “leave the city” when he spread his hands to the Eternal to call Pharaoh’s bluff (Exodus 9:33).
“In the land of Egypt…”
But Rabbi Shimon explained the phrase as a whole, “in the land of Egypt,” as testimony of divine love for Israel. The entire land of Egypt was a place of idolatry, filth and impurity. Yet the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to Moses and Aaron even there in order to redeem Israel.
This may be likened to a Kohen who accidently dropped his terumah (sacred food to which the Kohen is entitled) in the impure place of a cemetery. “What shall I do?” he wonders. “To defile myself, a sacred priest (by entering the cemetery in order to retrieve my terumah), is unacceptable—and to abandon the terumah, sacred produce, is unacceptable!” But he makes a choice: “It would be better for me to defile myself this one time and go through re-purification than lose my terumah.”
So were our ancestors the terumah of the Holy One, blessed be He: “Israel is sacred to the Eternal, the first-fruit of His produce…” (Jeremiah 2:3), and they were dropped into the impurity among graves: “There was not a house in Egypt without someone dead” (Exodus 12:30) and “the Egyptians buried all of the first-born that the Eternal had struck” (Numbers 33:4).
Said the Holy One, blessed be He: How can I redeem them? To abandon them is not an option, so the better choice is for Me to go down and rescue them, as was said, “I have come down to rescue Israel from the power of Egypt” (Exodus 3:8)! Consider, then, the following apparently redundant verses:
“And he (Aaron) shall make atonement for the Holy Place [Kodesh]…”
“And the Kohen shall make atonement [V’chiper haKohen]…”
“And he shall make atonement for
the Sanctuary [Mikdash] of Holiness [Kodesh]…”
So, having brought them out, “He (God) made atonement for the Kohen (Aaron) [V’chiper haKohen]” (Leviticus 16:32a), “he (the Kohen, Aaron) made atonement for the Sanctuary [Mikdash] of the Holy One [Kodesh]” (Leviticus 16:33a), and “he (Aaron) made atonement for the Holy One [Kodesh]” (Leviticus 16:16)!
For whose sake did the Holy One, blessed be He,
reveal Himself “in the land of Egypt?”
For His own sake, as it may be compared to an employee who was seized and detained by his employer’s creditor. The employer sends word to his employee: Fear not, I shall come and cause the creditor to release you. But, instead of coming himself, the employer sends a servant to arrange for the employee’s release, and the creditor does not agree to release him. The employer acknowledges that the creditor was justified in declining to release the employee because, “I said I shall come and cause the creditor to release you, and I did not say I will send my servant to come and cause the creditor to release you.”
Thus promised the Holy One, blessed be He, to Abraham: “In the future your descendants will be enslaved in Egypt, and afterwards I shall redeem them,” as was said, “Be assured that your offspring will sojourn in a land not theirs, and they will enslave and oppress them for 400 years, and I shall judge the nation which they serve…” (Genesis 15:13-14). But when the Holy One, blessed be He, sent Moses to redeem them (instead of Himself), Pharaoh did not agree to release them! Said the Holy One, blessed be He: “I promised Abraham that ‘I shall judge,’ and is Moses ‘I?’ or is Aaron ‘I?’” Indeed it is for His own sake, for His own promise, that He reveals Himself: “I am the Eternal your God who brings you up from the land of Egypt” (Psalms 81:11)!
For the sake of Moses, as Rabbi Nissim compared it to a Kohen who owns a garden of figs (cf. Hosea 9:10), which contains an impure area (probably caused by the incidental plowing of bone fragments from an adjacent cemetery, cf. Mishnah Ohalot 17:1), and the Kohen-owner wishes to retrieve some of the figs (without exposing himself to impurity). So he dispatches an agent to his tenant farmer: “Tell the tenant that the owner says that you should deliver up to him some of the figs!” Thus proceeds the agent to the tenant, and the tenant farmer responds, “Who is the owner of the garden?” as if he has no idea, “Go back to your work!” Whereupon the Kohen determines to enter the garden himself. They say to him: Into a place of impurity you, a Kohen, would walk?! He says to them: Even if there were a hundred impure areas in my garden, I would enter it to thwart the denigration of my agent!
Likewise, when Israel was in Egypt, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses (His agent!), “I send you, Moses, to Pharaoh: Bring out My people, the Children of Israel, from Egypt” (Exodus 3:10)! Thus does Moses, and Pharaoh replies, “Who is the Eternal, that I should obey Him to let Israel go? I do not know the Eternal, and I shall not let Israel go!” (Exodus 5:2) “Go back to your work” (ibid. 4)! Whereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, determined to go to Egypt Himself, as the prophet describes in his “Burden of Egypt: The Eternal rides upon a swift cloud and enters Egypt…” (Isaiah 19:1ff.). But the ministering angels objected: “To Egypt you are going, a place of impurity?!” He said to them: “Yes indeed, to prevent any further interference with my agent Moses!” Thus is written: “The Eternal says to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:1)!
“This month is the beginning of months to you…”
This may be compared to a king who at first made the birthday of his son a festival to be celebrated throughout his kingdom. But then his son was kidnapped and held captive for many years. Eventually his son was redeemed from captivity, and to mark that day the king established a new birthday for his son, as the day of his redemption was likened to a new birth.
(This is the fragment of a Midrash. It is brought here because of its closeness to the apparent contextual meaning of the Biblical verse. What follows is the full portion of a Midrash which, typically of the genre, here draws out of the Biblical verse a different meaning which inheres in the literal meaning of the Hebrew word for month, chodesh.)
“This month (chodesh) is the beginning of months to you,
it is first to you for the months of the year.”
This may be compared to a king who had treasures full of gold and silver, precious stones and pearls, and only one son. For as long as his son was a child, the king alone cared for the treasures. When his son grew up and reached maturity, his father said to him, “As long as you were a child, I alone cared for all of it, now that you have reached maturity, it all passes to your care.”
Just so did the Holy One, blessed be He, care for all of it, as was said, “God called forth lights in the expanse of heaven to separate day from night, to serve as signs for seasons, days and years… two great lights, the greater to rule by day and the lesser to rule by night…” (Genesis 1:14-19), before Israel reached maturity. When Israel reached maturity, He gave it over to them with these words:
“This New Moon (chodesh) shall be the beginning of (each of the) months,
given to you for your determination,
it is first determined by you for the months of the year.”
(Israel through the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem would determine if the first of two possible days since the previous New Moon is the current New Moon and beginning of the new month, based upon the testimony of witnesses seeing the first crescent of the New Moon. If they did not thus determine that the first day was the New Moon, then, astronomically, the second day became the New Moon and the beginning of the new month. Hence, the determination of the Chodesh (New Moon) was first determined by Israel for the months of the year.)
Exodus Rabbah 18:2
“Now it comes to pass, at midnight,
that the Eternal strikes down every firstborn
in the land of Egypt…”
“At midnight I will rise to give thanks to You
because of Your judgments of righteousness [mishpetey tzidkecha]!”
At midnight You did indeed perform “judgments” against Egypt
by striking down their firstborn,
but alongside Your judgments
You delivered “righteousness”
in the sense of championing us!
When Moses said, in the Eternal’s name,
“I will strike down every firstborn” (Exodus 12:12),
some of the Egyptians became afraid enough
to bring their firstborn child to an Israelite
and ask him to shelter the child overnight.
When midnight arrived,
although the Israelites provided shelter,
the Holy One, blessed be He,
killed all of the Egyptian firstborn.
In those Israelite houses He would stand between
the Israelite firstborn and the Egyptian firstborn.
He would take the soul of the Egyptian
and leave the soul of the Israelite.
In the morning,
the Israelite, upon waking up,
would find the Egyptian firstborn dead
alongside his living Israelite children,
in fulfillment of the divine promise,
“I shall pass over you to protect you
so that my plague of destruction
throughout the land of Egypt
will not affect you.” (Exodus 12:13)
Then did Israel begin to sing:
“At midnight I will rise to give thanks to You
because of Your championing judgments [mishpetey tzadek’cha] for us!”
Exodus Rabbah 9:3
Ecclesiastes Rabbah 10:11
Kings Likened to a Snake
“The Egyptian army
will slither away
like a terrified snake…”
(Literally: “Its hiss will go like the snake…”)
“We engage in the Tefillah with utterly complete concentration…:
even if a king greets us, we do not respond;
even if a snake winds around our foot, we do not stop.”
(Mishnah Berachot 5:1)
Why did the Sages juxtapose in this teaching
the behavior of the king of Egypt to a snake?
Rabbi Shimon ben Pazzi explained the reason based upon the prophet (cited above): Just as the snake hisses before it kills, so also the king of Egypt hisses before he kills. How so? The king arrests his victim, puts him in prison, and whispers about him (conspires with others) to kill him.
Mirkin Commentary: This could apply to other kings as well, especially in its time to the Roman kings. When they wanted to eliminate an opponent but lacked a legal indictment, they would detain him on some lesser, ambiguous charge and eliminate him under the cover of secrecy and later claim that he took his own life or that he suffered a fatal heart attack.
“If a snake bites without a whisper,
what value is there to the whisperer?”
Rashi: The “whisperer” is the teacher who educates his community on the laws of Torah so that they do not bite like the snake and hurt others. The sage here is condemning the teacher/”whisperer” who should be teaching/”whispering” but fails to fulfill his charge.
But Rabbi Abba bar Kahana read the first half of the verse as a rhetorical question: “Would a snake bite without hissing?” No, the serpent never bites unless it hisses first! Likewise, the lion never attacks without growling first, and the government never incites against its subjects without making sounds first.
Another explanation: Just as the snake is twisted, so also the king of Egypt is crooked in his ways and therefore not to be trusted. So the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: Pharaoh is as dishonest as the snake is twisted, so when “Pharaoh speaks to you…, say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it before Pharaoh,’ so that it turns into a snake” (Exodus 7:9), as if to say, “This shall be your fitting punishment!”