Blog: January 2007

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Bo: the tenth plague

This is roughly the d'var torah I gave yesterday morning. Warning: the tenth plague, the death of the first-born, isn't light stuff.


Last week we read the first seven plagues against Egypt, and this week we read the final three, including the terrible final one. After each plague Paro initially relents and then his heart is hardened. God tells Moshe that the reason for the plagues is to demonstrate God's superiority over Paro; it appears that Paro is supposed to retract his promises to free the Jews. When Paro stops doing it himself, God helps him along. What clearer account could we have that really, God is just a puppeteer, the author who has already decided how his creations will behave?

Further, the final plague appears to be particularly cruel. Some plagues are direct attacks against things Egypt holds holy, like the Nile and the sun. Others are inconvenient, painful, and economically devastating, but they are not life-threatening and they target the people who benefitted from the Jews' slavery. But the final plague is different; not only does it kill, but it kills many who are too young to be involved, too young to be held accountable. Yes, children can be tainted from an early age, as anyone who has seen television from the Arab world knows, but surely not every first-born killed in the plague had it coming. Shall not the god of justice deal justly? What could possibly explain this?

Before you get your hopes up -- no, I don't have a definitive, reassuring answer for this plague, some teaching to offer that will make it all better. If I could do that, I'd probably have s'micha. :-) But in thinking about this plague and trying to figure out just what I could say about it this morning, I found another way to look at this event.

Imagine that you're a Jew in slavery in Egypt. Things are bad, but they've been bearable so far. Then this pampered prince who's never been there in the fields with you comes along and dangles hope in front of you. But every time he goes to talk to Paro, your life gets worse -- the work gets harder, the task-masters' beatings increase, and the food gets worse. The false hope Moshe offers you about impending freedom adds insult to injury. Moshe and his god don't seem to be doing you any favors; what can you do to make him stop?

People can be remarkably good at adapting to bad situations and enduring. We get used to the status quo -- even when it's the bad job, the abusive family member, the destructive habit. Standing up and making a change can be much, much harder than enduring whatever you think life has dealt you. And how much the moreso when it's not just personal, when your entire people is under attack?

The midrash says that 80 percent of the Jews didn't want to leave Egypt, despite the conditions. One midrash even says that God punished some of them for this during the plague of darkness, when the Egyptians wouldn't be able to see. It sounds like most of the Jews in Egypt would have preferred that Moshe and God stop stirring up trouble.

Against this backdrop, perhaps God had to do something dramatic, something that would force them to act. The final plague is different from the rest; the Jews had to take positive, public action to avoid being stricken. The penalty for not acting was the death of one of your children -- not your own death, which some would accept, but having to witness the death of someone close. Lesser threats had apparently not gotten through to most of the people. Maybe, rather than being Paro's punishment for enslaving the Jewish people, this plague was the thing that finally got the Jews to stand up for themselves. Maybe this is not what God tha manipulator planned, but rather what God the all-seeing knew would be necessary.

Was it just? Maybe in the grand scheme of things it was less unjust than the alternatives; maybe a few Egyptians had to die to prevent 80% of the Jews from dying in Egypt. We don't get to make decisions about those kinds of trade-offs; people have imperfect knowledge and questionable motives. But God, we have to believe, has a better position from which to judge, even if we don't understand.