Bo (the last plague)

I gave a d'var torah a couple weeks ago on shortish notice and forgot to post it then. This is for Bo, the parsha that contains the last three plagues and the actual exodus from Egypt.

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The pattern is familiar: Moshe goes to Paro to demand freedom, Paro refuses, Moshe announces the next plague, and God carries it out. Paro says he's sorry and asks for relief, God lifts the plague, and then Paro hardens his heart and we start all over again. There's no change; the oppression never seems to end.

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky points out that for most of the plagues these negotiations are strained but civil. Moshe and Paro are on opposite sides of an argument, but nobody is throwing tantrums as far as we can tell. But their last meeting is different: after telling Paro what is to come, the torah tells us that Moshe went out from Paro in hot anger.

Was he angry about Paro's stubborn refusal to let the people go? That doesn't seem likely; they've had that well-worn exchange many times before. No, what is different this time is the cost of Paro's recalcitrance.

The first nine plagues caused extensive damage to Mitzrayim, to the point where even Paro's advisors are urging him to give up because Egypt is surely lost. The first nine plagues destroyed crops and livestock, caused injury and sickness, and massively inconvenienced people -- but they weren't fatal to anyone who heeded the warnings to come in out of the hailstorm.

The last plague is different: there is an unavoidable human cost. The last plague targets based on who you are, not on what wrongs you did, and it kills. It's not individual punishment; it's a tax on those living in Egypt. Surely not all of the dead deserved it, even in a society with many evildoers and oppressors.

God does not want the death of sinners, our prophets tell us, but that they should repent. God wouldn't be sending this last plague if there were an alternative. Moshe sees this, Rabbi Kamenetzky points out, and it fills him with anger at the Paro who causes widespread death. This could have been avoided. These deaths are Paro's fault.

But wait, one might say -- it is God who sends this plague, and thus God could avert this widespread loss of human life. It's God's fault, not Paro's, right?

My father, of blessed memory, taught me many things. One of them is that we solve problems with words, not with fists. Another of them is that giving bullies what they demand does not end the bullying. There was a kid in my grade who, starting in kindergarten, was physically abusive to me, and in the many parental conferences that followed, his parents told my parents that boys will be boys and if I didn't react he would probably stop. My father said that was unacceptable. This went on for years, until I was given permission to respond. The bullying ended the day I decked that kid with my large-print dictionary. We don't solve problems with violence, except that sometimes we have to.

I hit the kid; did that make it my fault he got hurt? Absolutely not, according to me, my parents, and the school principal. Lesser interventions had failed. Now my attack didn't do permanent damage, didn't even break his nose -- nothing like the last plague in that regard. But the principle is the same: the oppressor is culpable for the consequences of his behavior. The blood of the victims of collateral damage is on the hands of the evildoers who refuse to resolve conflicts peacefully.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer from Hadar points out a surprising passage near the end of the parsha, after the final plague, when Paro asks Moshe and Aharon to pray for him. Say what now? The Paro who has done so much damage asks his victims to pray for his welfare? Why would they do that?

Rabbi Kaunfer points out a rabbinic tradition that Paro did not die at the Sea of Reeds with his army. Through the midrashic principle of the conservation of biblical personalities (that's not Rabbi Kaunfer's label), Paro went on to become the king of Nineveh. When Yonah comes to Nineveh to announce their impending destruction, it is the king who asks for forgiveness and leads his nation in teshuva to avert the decree.

Perhaps Moshe and Aharon did pray for Paro like he asked. More specifically, perhaps they prayed that he repent and do teshuva, like we pray our enemies will do in the daily Amidah. That's a prayer I can get behind -- that oppressors big and small soften their hearts, stop doing harm, and turn toward the right path. Ken y'hi ratzono.