This week's Torah portion is Bo. Moshe is commanded by God to come unto the most powerful potentate in the ancient world and stand up for his rights and the rights of his charges, the House of Israel. Moshe is told to assume a posture of one who has authority -- as, indeed, he has -- with the might of the Lord behind him. He must set the record straight and tell Pharaoh, "how long will you refuse to see the facts as they are?"
In 1927 a group of religious Jews purchased land in the hills of Hebron, twenty one kilometers south of Jerusalem, where Yemenite Jews established a small village called Migdal Eder. Before they had a chance to make it into a successful enterprise the 1929 Arab riots took place, some seventy Jews were massacre in Hebron, and Migdal Eder was evacuated together with the surviving Jews of Hebron. Six years later, a private company called "el Hahar," whose purpose was to establish Jewish villages and small towns purchased some five thousand acres next to the land already owned by Migdal Eder. They called the whole area "kfar Etzyon," and began to bring in settlers. The great Arab Revolt of 1936, which was actually "the first intefada," put an end to this second attempt at settling in the traditional Land of the tribe of Juda. Finally, in the early 1940s, the Jewish Agency made it a policy to settle the Jewish lands owned in the hills of Hebron. In April of 1943 a religious pioneer group established kibbutz Kfar Etzyon, followed two years later by Massuot Yitzkhak, another religious kibbutz. In 1946, a third kibbutz, Ein Tzurim, was established, and shortly after that a fourth kibbutz, Revadim, came into being in the same area.
All these kibbutzim were established during the British mandate period, and as such had to have exclusive right and conclusive proof of ownership to the land on which it planned to build as well as land it planned to cultivate. The British did not curry favor to Jewish settlements. The four kibbutzim became known by the name of the oldest and largest settlement, the "Etzyon group" -- or "Gush Etzyon" in the Hebrew. The U.N. Special Commission on Palestine recommended that the area of the Etzyon block become a part of the proposed Arab state. However, it was understood that Jews will continue to live there, just as Arabs were to continue to live in the Jewish state. You will recall that the Arab world did not accept the Partition plan, and the "riots" began on the 30th of November 1947, the morrow of the U.N. vote.
The War of Independence of Israel followed, which the Arab call "the great disaster." The British tried to tip the scale in favor of the Arabs, and failed -- except in the Hills of Hebron! The Etzyon block was besieged from the first days of the war. The road to the four settlements ran through the Arab town of Bethlehem and was windy and narrow with many a blind curve -- a perfect road for ambush by cut-throat "patriots." At first Jews traveled in convoys to avoid trouble. When the Arabs became more bold, armored vehicles became necessary, and after a while even those were ambushed and set on fire, their passengers killed in battle and their bodies mutilated and displayed as trophies by lawless villagers that went unpunished. Finally, the road was cut off completely. There was an attempt, by thirty five of the finest young men Jerusalem had, to break the siege on foot. Carrying heavy packs of needed medical and other supplies, they rushed on foot through the hills away from the roads, but where doomed by their own humanity, since they came across an Arab shepherd and let him pass unharmed -- and he rushed to his village and betrayed them. They were pursued, and the battle was joined. They fought valiantly, but in the end they were all massacred. The road was blocked. In the first week on May, 1948, the Arab Legion -- which the U.N. was assured by the British would be removed from Palestine before the end of the mandate -- began a campaign to conquer the Etzyon Block. The battle lasted a little over a week, and ended on the 14th of May, that fateful day when Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel. It may well be that the state was purchased with the lives of the defenders of the Etzyon block -- most of whom were massacred by the men of the Hills of Hebron after they surrendered at the end of their fight! Some four hundred men and women died in Kfar Etzyon and its three smaller neighbors. The land of the Etzyon Block was never resettled by Arabs. The Arab Legion made a military camp out of part of it -- but the rest of the land was left fallow.
After the Six Days War, the sons and daughters of the Eztyon settlers returned to reestablish their homes in the Hills of Hebron, sure that in a sovereign Jewish state they would be safe in their homes at long last. They were joined by others, including a group of religious American Jews who came with their Rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, and established a new town, called Ephrat.
From the first days of Israeli control of and settlement in the area, the Arabs claimed that they own "all the land" and are being robbed by the government and the settlers. It was only after a thorough examination of claims (all of which proved fictitious) that the Supreme Court of Israel gave its approval to declaring the areas to be included in the new settlements state land. Other Arab claims, including some for plots of land which abut Ephrat residences, were recognized as legitimate, and the El Khader villagers till them freely. Only after all doubt was removed was the land leased to Ephrat residents and approved for construction.
Now, again, there is controversy in the Hills of Hebron. The imam of El Khader declared to protesters near Ephrat on Friday that, "Every grain of sand between the river and the sea is Moslem land, to which only Moslems have a right." He was cheered by all the demonstrators, whether Fatah followers, Hamas youths, or plain villagers. The imams viewpoint, describing the country as "Moslem" rather than Palestinian or Arab is more honest and accurate than what the PLO usually says. The Arab claim to the land is based not on nationalistic attachment - invented relatively recently for propagandistic purposes - but on the belief that it is part of Dar al Islam, an area once conquered by Islam, which must stay under its rule. No doubt, the PLO uses more sophisticated terms. The Western-supported Al-Haq organization, for example, which fronts for the PLO while pretending to be concerned with human rights, uses outright fabrications to give the Arab claim a legal patina. The land in question, its latest bulletin declares, has trees and crops belonging to El Khader villagers. That is not true -- in fact, the land has never been owned by El Khader inhabitants -- it is state land which has never been cultivated. The only truth that matters to the Arabs is that it is "Moslem land" illegally occupied by Israel.
And if this is the argument, and if it is a valid argument, then there is no difference between the un-built Ephrat suburb of Givat Tamar - the cause of the current protests - and the parts of Ephrat that have been built over the past 12 years. Nor is there a difference between Ephrat and other towns in the territories, or between the territories and Jerusalem, or even Tel Aviv. As the imam put it, they are all on "Moslem land." And make no mistake, the imams opinions represent the vast majority of Moslem Arabs, both in the Khamas and in the P.L.O., both Palestinian Arabs and other Moslems around the world.
The Oslo agreement, whose wisdom I do not wish to argue here, suspended discussion of the territories destiny for three years. The Oslo idea was to freeze the status quo until then. But human beings cannot be frozen. They wish to manifest their existence and their being by exercising control over their lives and the lives of others. They multiply and expand. And while it may make sense to consider the establishment of new settlements a violation of the status quo, adding a suburb to an existing urban area is a natural development. In fact, not allowing its construction is tantamount to strangulation. Anyhow, the issue is not a new suburb -- but the continued existence of settlements in lands that the P.L.O. or the imam consider "theirs."
Saeb Erakat, speaking for the PLO, has said, "You must choose between building in Ephrat and peace, you cannot have both." If the government decides to capitulate to this ultimatum, the message will be that a riot can change the governments mind, and further -- that Ephrat and the surrounding towns are going to be abandoned, and that the governments promise not to return to the 1949 armistice lines is meaningless. Ephrat, Kfar Etzyon, Maale Adumim, and the suburbs of Jerusalem that are beyond the "green line" contain more than a hundred thousand Israeli citizens, and there seems to be a consensus that they are to remain Israeli sovereign territory.
Indeed, therefore, the issue becomes one of what should be the agenda of the government of Israel. Should this government preside over the piecemeal vivisection of the Jewish state, or should it negotiate an end to violence from a position of fairness unhindered by blackmail and based on reciprocity of good will in gestures and in behavior. An end to violence, an end to rancor, a return to civility, and a recognition that Jews must be permitted to live safely in the Arab world should be the prerequisite for Israeli concessions in the continuing development of Palestinian autonomy -- if Israel wishes to persevere and preserve its sovereignty. The time is at hand to come in unto the current Pharaoh and claim our rights!
This week's portion is Bo -- which means come. I think it is interesting that in the Hebrew God sends Moshe to Pharaoh with the words 'lekh' - go, and 'bo' -- come, while in the English text it reads 'go,' always.
"'Lekh' -- Go to Pharaoh in the morning; lo, he goes out to the water; and you shall stand by the rivers brink until he comes; and the rod which was turned to a serpent shall you take in your hand. And you shall say to him, The Lord God of the Hebrews has sent me to you, saying, Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness; and, behold, till now you would not hear." [Ex. 7:15,16]
"Then the Lord said to Moshe, "Bo -- Go to Pharaoh and say to him, 'Thus says the Lord: Let my people go, so that they may worship me." [Ibid.8:1]
"Then the Lord said to Moshe, "Bo -- Go to Pharaoh, and say to him, 'Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may worship me."[Ibid.9:1]
" Then the Lord said to Moshe, "Bo -- Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his officials, in order that I may show these signs of mine among them" [Ibid.9:1]
Sometimes God tells Moshe to Go to Pharaoh. And sometime God tells Moshe to come to Pharaoh. In Hebrew He has Moshe coming and going... Todays Torah Portion begins with the word bo Come! Commentary tells us: "When Moshe had to see Pharaoh at the river, the word Go was used. When he had to visit Pharaoh in his palace, the word come is used." Why is that?
Maybe, just maybe, we are supposed to learn a lesson about things you can do out-of-doors, and things you can do in-doors. When I was a child, I always wanted to have a pet in the house, but my parents told me, keep it outside. There is a place for pets and a place for people. When Pharaoh and his men are at the river, Moshe is sent to them with the word 'lekh' -- go, have fun, and bring about the plagues of the outdoors. When it is time for serious negotiations, then God tells Moshe, 'bo el paroh,' -- come to pharaoh, make a gesture, speak to him, on his level, as you can do so well, because he grew up with you in the same house, with the same friends, yet you will find that you are not the same. He WAS like you as a child, but he did bad things, he sinned to God, and he became cruel and evil. Don't have any bad feelings about what must happen to him.
This week we read about the last plague -- you know what it was, right? The sudden death in a single night of "all the first-born in the land of Egypt from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle" The tenth plague finally shatters Pharaohs resistance. It is singularly, horribly devastating -- beyond all natural explanation. It is, in a word, a miracle, that only the awesome power of Moshes God could perform. Pharaoh is not only vanquished but also converted. He commands, no, urges Moshe and Aaron to lead their untouched slaves out of Egypt immediately, leaving nothing behind, to worship their Lord as He had commanded, and he adds desperately and pathetically, "And may you bring a blessing upon me also!" How very sad for Pharaoh. What a bitter sweet victory for Moshe.
God had hinted to Moshe about the last plague that had to come. Right after the experience of the burning bush, on his way back to Egypt, Moshe was informed by God that Pharaoh would be a defiant and formidable foe. Indeed, God would repeatedly harden his heart. "Then you shall say to Pharaoh, Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you "Let My son go, that he may worship Me," yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son. But Moshe would not hear the word of God, and certainly Pharaoh would not have understood the enormity of his loss if it had come as a flash of lightning. Moshe had to apprentice in the job of God's prophet -- and Pharaoh had to learn one step at a time just how enormous are the powers of God. Moshe did not want to be a prophet, a messenger of God. He had accepted the task of national leadership reluctantly. At the burning bush God had concealed from him exactly how protracted the struggle would be. At the first obstacle, in Egypt, ambivalence overtook him. Moshes faith was, in due course restored. God will prevail against Pharaoh. But to return to the first point, Gods declaration links the status of Israel as Gods first-born son to the death of the first-born of Egypt. The exodus is perceived by the Torah as an act of adoption and rejection. Those who chose the path of Egypt rejected God and therefore would suffer the death of the first born. Israel will be redeemed by God. An old, world-class civilization, will begin its decline, and a new and seemingly insignificant people, Israel, will begin its ascent to center stage, propelled, guided, directed, and sustained by God.
However, there is a constant danger to the Jewish people. That danger is not from the outside -- it is internal. To give up the burdens of nationhood, of self-defense, political power, self-help, autonomy -- in favor of a chance at the Nobel Prize, marrying the beautiful daughter of the stranger, becoming Presidents or Prime Ministers in the lands of exile, winning universal acclaim -- and losing their own identity. Whether the question is to stay in the land or leave, or to go to the land from outside of it, whether in the name of humanity and universalism or in the name of promoting Jews and Judaism, the temptation has endured and is flourishing today, after thirty five hundred years of post-exodus Jewish history.
What we need to know, just like Moshe needed to know, just like the Israelite slaves needed to know -- is what you do where. Are we coming or going.
This week's Torah portion is Bo -- Shemot chapter 10 to 13:16. The text begins with Moshe Rebenu being commanded by God to come unto the most powerful potentate in the ancient world and stand up for his rights and the rights of his charges, the House of Israel. Moshe is told to assume a posture of one who has authority -- as, indeed, he has: "And Moshe and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and said to him, Thus said the Lord God of the Hebrews, How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me." Moshe informed Pharaoh of the coming plague of locust, the worst that had ever attacked the land of Egypt. The locust was followed by darkness -- and when this plague was lifted, there was only one plague left -- the killing of the first born.
Here is the text in the Torah: "And the Lord said to Moshe, Pharaoh shall not listen to you; that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt. And Moshe and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh; and the Lord hardened Pharaohs heart, so that he would not let the people of Israel go out of his land. And the Lord spoke to Moshe and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, 'This month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for a house; And if the household is too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the souls; according to every mans eating shall you make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year; you shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats; And you shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening. And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, in which they shall eat it.'" There is a break in the narrative of the events of Egypt, as God begins to teach Moshe and the children of Israel some of the mitzvot by which they were to live, the manner in which they had to conduct themselves in the immediate future -- and in all the coming ages of their existence. The question that we may be prompted to ask is "why?" And "why now?" Would it not make a lot more sense to finish the story of the struggle for freedom, to break the yoke of slavery, and later speak of the "peripheral" issues of preparing for the exodus.
The answer is obvious: God is the author of the book, and if He has done it this way, there is an excellent reason for it! However, it is not necessary to "pull rank" in giving a reason for the text. There is a very simple and acceptable reason for the passage concerning the preparations of the sacrifice being there. The sages asked, what was it that made Israel worthy of redemption? How are the Israelites different from the Egyptians in the midst of whom they lived. The answer they gave was that the Israelites had "zkhut avot" -- the righteousness of the patriarchs and their covenant with God. But covenant has to be manifest in some way. When Israel came to Sinai they received the Torah -- but in this pre-Torah time it was necessary for them to have some deed that will show their connectedness with God and their willingness to enter a relationship with Him. This is the purpose of the twelfth chapter of Exodus standing in the middle of the telling of the plagues with its instructions for preparations for a feast of the Lord on the Night of the Passover.
The Israelites were never a large nation. Indeed, in the history of nations and empires, the Israelites were possibly the smallest and least significant of people -- in size. What has set us apart has always been the fact that we were a different people, "am segula" a unique people, as our scriptures put it. We lived by Torah, by the principles of justice and equality that are proclaimed for all and for always in the teachings of our God at the hand of Moshe and those who came after him, the seers, the prophets, the sages of a thousand generation. These principles are the heritage of Israel and its message to a world that is yet to understand and learn to live by its light. We have been proclaiming it for millennia, "Shalom, shalom, lakarov velarakhok" -- peace, peace, to those near and those far. We learn this lesson once again as we observe this week the conclusion of the protracted negotiations for the turnover of civil administration in the City of The Fathers, Hebron, to the Palestinian Authority. You may or may not recall the history of Jewish life in Hebron. In recent reporting it has been stated that four hundred and fifty Jewish families have "forced themselves" upon an Arab population of some thirty thousands. However, that just is not the whole story. Hebron has had a Jewish presence since the days of Abraham, and certainly since the days when David made this his capital before the conquest of Jerusalem.
The Arabs persecuted the Jews and mistreated them since the end of the rule of the Crusaders, in the middle of the 12th century. Jews were forbidden to enter the tombs of the Patriarchs. However, the Jews hung on tenaciously. In 1922 the Jews numbered 450 out of a population of 16,000 and rose to 700 by 1929. However, in that year the Arabs rioted, the British did not defend the Jews of Hebron, sixty seven were killed, and sixty were wounded. The ancient synagogues were razed and the Torah scrolls were desecrated. Still the Jews returned to the city, only to be forcefully evacuated by the British in April 1936 to prevent another massacre. Hebron has shown itself to be a town of Moslem zealots and cut-throats who despise and hate Jews -- and I would not, personally, wish to spend any time in that town. But the principle of equality before the law must prevail, even in Hebron. Jews who wish to live in that town should not be prevented from doing so -- and the authority in control of that town needs to protect all the people who live there. The Jews own land and homes in the town. The test of the agreement that is even now being discussed and will soon become law is whether the Jews of Hebron can remain and live in safety. The Palestinian Arabs crave the rights of self government -- and pledge peace. Lets us hope that they will live up to it, and extend civility to the strangers in their midst.
This week's Torah portion is Bo -- Shemot chapter 10 to 13:16. The text begins with, "And the Lord said to Moshe, Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him; And that you may tell in the ears of your son, and of your grandson, what things I have done in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Lord." [Ex. 10:1,2] In other words, God says to Moshe Rabenu that Pharaoh is set to self-destruct, and He is merely going along with His plan in order to create a historical record for the children of Israel to hold on to as part of their heritage and their character building experience. For we are, as human beings and as Jews, products of our physical being and of our experience, both our own first hand experience of being and that which is acquired through the vicarious experience of our ancestors being. This is true of all humanity -- but it is more true, actually, of Jews. Elie Weisel has said that being Jewish is having a memory four thousand years long. When we lose this "memory," we risk losing our identity as Jews.
A little later in the portion which we read this week, Moshe speaks to Pharaoh at the end of the ninth plague, "And Pharaoh said to him, Get out from me, take heed to yourself, see my face no more; for the day you see my face you shall die. And Moshe said, You have spoken well, I will see your face again no more." [Ex. 10:28, 29] Now God is set to do that which He had told Moshe he would do from the very start, when He first encountered Moshe in the desert at horev, "And the Lord said to Moshe, When you go to return to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in your hand; but I will harden his heart, so that he shall not let the people go. And you shall say to Pharaoh, Thus said the Lord, Israel is my son, my firstborn; And I said to you, Let my son go, that he may serve me; and you refused to let him go, behold now, I shall slay your son, your firstborn." [Ex. 4:21-23] So why did God do all that He had done to Egypt at the hands of Moshe and Aharon up to this point? Why did God not begin with his final and all convincing plague of the killing of the first born, thus sparing Israel the pain and punishment of the recurring wrath of Pharaoh at the end of each encounter with Moshe? More than that, sparing Moshe the need to return to the king's presence, putting his life in jeopardy each time -- when the end was predestined?
Well, this is not a Jewish question to ask. We do what God commands, and we learn the lessons of the experience later. However, we do examine the experience, and draw the conclusions, and we have an answer to the non-Jewish question. It is the same answer that God gave Jonah after the experience of the great repentance of the people of Ninveh. You may recall the story: Jonah is commissioned by God to go to Ninveh and prophecy its coming destruction. Jonah tried to decline God's commission by escaping in a boat -- but a storm forces the boat's men to search for the "sinner" who is putting all their lives in danger. Jonah is discovered and thrown overboard, to be saved by a "big fish" that carries him to the shore of his prophetic charge. Once he fulfills his mission, he witnesses the atonement of Ninveh's population and its pardon. In anger he accuses God of playing with his life, making him the butt of jokes about prophets of doom that does not come. God assures Jonah that He does not play games, and that he cares equally for all His creation -- the evil as well as the good. God goes from "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me." [Jonah 1:2] to "And should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, where there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?" [Jonah 4:11] Why? Because He is our Creator and Father, and He is full of compassion and love for His creation. He sees mankind with a father's eye -- even if the Father is also a judge! He must judge the guilty and punish them -- but He also promises pardon to the repentant!
It is in this spirit that God sent Moshe to Egypt. He was hoping against all the odds, He was hoping against hope itself that Egypt, as manifested in its king, will take heed and repent when it sees the "writing on the wall." Pharaoh was stiff-necked and hard-hearted, and the more he defied His maker, the more his heart became inured to the pain and suffering of his own people. There is a very sad lesson in this story of Pharaoh's inevitable path from the bloodying of the waters of Egypt to the killing of the first born that must not be lost by a twentieth century society that thinks it is far removed from antiquity. The French have a saying for it: "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose -- the more things change, the more they are the same..." Pharaoh of old, in all his glory and his grief, is a long forgotten chapter in history. However, there are new Pharaohs -- there is Saadam Hussein, in Iraq, whose nation is suffering ever so much from his hard-heart and stiff neck. There is Egypt's new ruler, who is playing a dangerous game with his peace treaty with Israel, observing the letter of the agreement but shortchanging the peace process by playing a saber-rattling rabble rouser role to his population and that of his fellow Arabs. Above all, there is Arafat and the Palestinian authority, which pushes the very limit of patience and reason in their lack of civility and reciprocity in dealing with the seed of Abraham and of Moshe.
So you see, there is no pre-destiny! We make our own destiny. However, we do it by the cumulative experience of our life and the life of all who came before us. We make the most basic and fateful choices based on that which we have lived ourselves, and that which we "remember" of the life of our ancestors. Woe to him who acts as though he and he alone rules his destiny. He shall inherit the pain of Pharaoh, nine times warned yet never heeding the warning of the Lord! "Ken yovdu kol oyvekha, adona'y, ve'ohavav ketzet hashemesh bit'hilato So let all your enemies perish, O Lord; but let those who love him be as the sun when he goes forth in his might. " [Judges 5:31]
This weeks Torah portion is Bo Shemot chapter 10 to 13:16. The text begins with Moshe Rebenu being commanded by God to come unto the most powerful potentate in the ancient world and stand up for his rights and the rights of his charges, the House of Israel. Moshe is told to assume a posture of one who has authority as, indeed, he has: And Moshe and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and said to him, Thus said the Lord God of the Hebrews, How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me. What a story! Well, I am sure you know that this story is absolutely the rage this season, with the film that was released in time for the holiday season in December... Well, let me read to you one of the critiques that was written about this film:
In a cascade of color and beauty in three-plus dimensions, DreamWorks has carved itself a permanent place in the landscape of animation with their first such feature release, The Prince of Egypt. This powerful piece walks the fine line between entertainment and biblical content, managing to ignore the Democlean omnipresence of its predecessor - The Ten Commandments - until the imposing memory of Cecil B. Demilles 1956 classic fades before this film finishes its opening musical number.
The Prince of Egypt comes into its own with lustrous animation, a dazzling musical score, a fetching couple of plot turns, and the humility to portray an abiding reverence for its sacred source material. There is a tenacious balance about the whole procedure that is this film, with a storyline and execution that manages to humanize Moses and convey the universality of the storys message without bleaching the main character and his people of their identities.
Val Kilmer gives us the voice of the here-understated Hero. This Moses is an everyman, from whom we are to learn that anyone can be inspired and do great things. Kilmer starts out with a youthful exuberance and his Moses becomes wizened, if not jaded, by the peculiar events of his life. As we know, the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. The Pharaoh gives the order to kill all of the newborn Hebrew boys. Moses is set adrift in a basket by his mother in a desperate bid for his life. These events are articulated with a fabulous musical production piece Deliver Us, wherein the slaves are entreating their creator for salvation. The music bounces from this, their darkest hour of desperation, to the faint ripple of hope accompanying the little boy floating down the Nile. The song is stunning, sometimes heartbreaking. Framed by enslaved Hebrews pleading deliver us! the Last Lullaby is sung by Moses Mother Yocheved (the voice of Israeli pop superstar Ofra Haza). She sings to the baby Moses enjoining the basketeer to try to remember this last lullaby cause itll have to last. Beginning with Hebrew words of comfort, she continues in English:
Hush now my baby. Be still, love. Dont cry.
Sleep as youre rocked by the stream.
Sleep and remember my last Lullaby -
So Ill be with you when you dream
In the audience, tears flow like . . . well . . . like the Nile as young Miriam, after following the basket and seeing the queen take the baby into the Pharaohs house, ends the lullaby and sings:
Brother, youre safe now and safe may you stay,
For I have a prayer just for you.
Grow baby brother, come back some day,
come and deliver us too.
But before he becomes a deliverer, he becomes The Prince of Egypt. This gives us what DreamWorks considers to be the substance of the story. As distinct from the bitter perennial rivalry between Moses and his adopted brother Ramses in The Ten Commandments (last time Ill mention it) the two putative siblings are here the closest of princely brothers. When Moses discovers the truth of his heritage, his life changes; and to say this changes the relationship of the brothers is an understatement of biblical proportions.
The film makers over at DreamWorks went through numerous script revisions and felt that the best version was this story of two brothers, in a perhaps thinly veiled metaphor for brotherhood of nations. Ralph Fiennes plays Moses adopted brother Ramses, who succeeds his father as Pharaoh. His chiseled accent is perfect, as is his palette of emotions: the warmth he feels for his brother, his respect and awe for his father, his devotion to his culture, his regal pride, and his palpable pain in the perceived betrayal of a brother who goes out to the desert and returns with a command from an unknown deity.
Fiennes acting bursts out of the screen and makes for an almost uncomfortably sympathetic Egyptian scion. The part has humor and strength and gives us some inkling of whats at stake when one sits on a throne. This, along with Moses apprehension at afflicting his former brother, kingdom and subjects, makes of the story the tale of two brothers the DreamWorks team was shooting for. A casualty of this focus is Jeff Goldblum as the voice of Aaron in a disappointingly truncated role. Aaron, whom Moses discovers is his long-lost brother, has had his role in the story radically diminished. This, it would seem, in order to focus on Moses relationship with Ramses, his other brother. While the most substantive departure from the biblical account is the absence of Aaron, its all the more disappointing when coupled with its limitation of the role of Jeff Goldblum, whose subdued humor and brackish diffidence go sadly underused. While the bible describes him as Moses partner and spokesman, here Aaron could almost be described as a non-supporting character.
I will go no further with the critics words. I think you get the message that basically he loves the film. Well, I do not! I do not wish to see it used as a film to teach Jewish children, or non-Jewish children, for that matter, about our great teacher, liberator and go between for Israel and their Master. I find Moses to be too... What shall I say? Twentieth century? Yes, I suppose that is a good explanation. Moses and Ramses, two wild kids playing pranks, just boys will be boys, one would guess... Except that it was not that way. Ramses, the future king, would not have been allowed to fool around, and Moses would not have ever become his sidekick.
But that is not the issue, either. Rather, the big bad part of the film to me, is that it does not deal with the real issue, which is the character and nature of slavery. The film has the foundling treated as an adopted child. In Egypt of Ramses and Pharaoh, this would have never happened. The film has Moses growing up from infant to an adult as an Egyptian that is not what the text tells us. Had it been so, the mothers song would have been long lost. Moses remembered his mother because she probably nursed him to his fourth year of life, when one is already very aware of childhood experiences, and they stay as part of ones character for life. Finally, and most importantly, Moses mission: God never told him to tell Pharaoh to let my people go. And when they crossed the Sea of Reeds, his wife Ziporah was not with him to tell him that banal and meaningless line, look, Moses, your people are free... What is the meaning of freedom? Is it anarchy? Is it the breaking of all yokes and the setting of all people loose, to do whatever they please? Where is this kind of freedom going to lead? Surely the lesson of the Torah is clear in the text that I read to you at the beginning of this presentation: And Moshe and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and said to him, Thus said the Lord God of the Hebrews, How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me. When people have no task, no goal and no purpose, they are adrift and lost. The freedom that the Jews received when they left Egypt was the freedom to serve God, to become stewards over His creation, to tend and mend and bend to His will. And this I did not see mentioned even once in the film. In this simplified and simplistic version of the story, Moses is not only deprived of much of his own personality, but, early on, is invested with some of the characteristics of a subordinate Pharaoh wannabe, a non-violent, witty and always politically correct courtier who would not hurt his brother - and Oh, how his heart breaks for brother Ramses son...
Yes, the animation is truly like nothing ever seen before. After learning the truth of his birthright, in a startlingly beautiful sequence, Moses dreams in - one supposes - the prevailing medium of the time wall-paintings. After he leaves Egypt, Moses meets Jethros daughter, who is played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Her part, that of a woman who has strength of character - a tough desert-dweller who becomes a glowing newcomer among her husbands people, second only to Miriam is also not quite what the Scriptures say. Still, one of the most touching scenes, and one that by itself makes the film less than a total waste of time is the one showing the plague of the death of the first born of all Egypt. Instead of showing Egyptian children dying miserably suffering with blood and gore, we see the wind rustle through the alleys and go into the homes, a boy walks into a house carrying a clay jar, there is a faint moan and we hear the jar crashing to the ground. A flopped hand expresses death in a way that shows far more finesse than blood flowing in the streets.
Is "Prince of Egypt" the answer to a Jewish educators prayers? Certainly not! Is it a good film to see with your kids at the movies so that you can enjoy the good points and teach the kids the real story to reinforce and expand what they have been entertained by? By all means.
Once more, as in past years, we read in the Torah the portion of Bo -- Shemot chapter 10 to 13:16. The text begins with, "And the Lord said to Moshe, Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him; And that you may tell in the ears of your son, and of your grandson, what things I have done in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Lord." [Ex. 10:1,2]
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzkhaki, known as Rashi, began his commentary of the Torah with the words, "Rabbi Yitzkhak said, the Torah should not have been started except from This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; [Ex. 12:2] which is the first mitzvah that Israel was commanded (because the essence of the Torah is the Mitzvot)..." [Rashi to Beresheet 1:1] This weeks reading, which arrives at Rashis suggested beginning of the Torah, gives us indeed a great number of mitzvot concerning a number of subjects, some linked to history and others more philosophical or ethical in nature. The consecration of the new month, the sacrifices of the Pascal lamb and the celebration of the holiday of the exodus; the consecration of the first born, matters of leaven and unleavened bread, and finally the mitzvah of teffilin phylacteries.
This is the text, "You shall tell your child on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.' It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the teaching of the Lord may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the Lord brought you out of Egypt." [Ex. 13:8,9] Why a sign on your hand? Maybe because Moshe told the people, "When in the future your child asks you, 'What does this mean?' you shall answer, 'By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery." [Ex. 13:14] By strength of hand," in Hebrew is beyad khazaka. A most important and mysterious concept, which is connected not only to the history of the exodus but also to the secret of Gods nature. God is known in Judaism as "yad hakhazaka."
Actually, God has no name in Judaism. God has no body, no image, and no name! This is a very strange and difficult fact to accept, and even more difficult to understand. Because we are commanded not to make an image or use the "name of God," we have developed different methods to do the undoable. We call Him Adonay or Elohim but only in time of consecration, while in prayer. The rest of the time we use a euphemism, like "gee dash dee" (G-d) in English. We say hashem which means the name and we write the letter Heh in Hebrew. The question that many ask is why?
I would like to suggest to you that the question can be answered by an interpretation of passages from this weeks reading in the Torah. "Heh" is the Hebrew letter with the numerical value of five. The word for hand, as in strength of hand with which God took us out of Egypt, is yad. The numerical value of yad is 10+4 which is fourteen, and the "final sum" (arrived at by adding the digits on the firsty sum - fourteen) 1+4 is five. The nature of a hand is that it has five fingers. The five fingers have fourteen moving parts three parts on four fingers, and two on the thumb. When Moshe performed his signs before Pharaoh, his advisors said to the king, "Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, This is the finger of God;" [Ex. 8:15] and when Egypt's host submerged in the Sea of Reeds, we read "And Israel saw et hayad hagdola the great hand which the Lord laid upon the Egyptians; and the people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord, and his servant Moses." [Ex. 14:31] This "great hand" is the force of God, His creating power, His ability to give life and to take it away.
Israel came out of Egypt to serve God, in accordance with His request transmitted to Pharaoh by Moshe, "Let my people go that they may serve Me." [Ex. 5:1] How can one "work" for Hashem? The answer is given in todays text, "It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand" [Ex. 13:8] this is the mitzvah of binding the teffilin upon the hand, followed by the second which is placed on the head "as a reminder on your forehead." What is the purpose of binding the teffilin on the hand? It is a sign, and it is a symbol. A sign for those who look on from the outside, a declaration to the public that the bearer is a person living by the teachings of Torah, a disciple of the faith of Abraham. Inwardly it is a symbol for the concept of "binding ourselves" to God. As He is the "great hand" so we wish to become a power for good.
In the past I have presented you with the cabalistic teaching of Gods revelation in the numerical values of his name Ehyeh, which has a final sum of three and its relation to truth, which has a final sum value of nine. This weeks thesis continues and reinforces that lesson. "Hashem" has the numerical value of 5+300+40 with a sum of 345, and 3+4+5 gives a sum of 12. 1+2 gives us the final sum of three. We wish to relate to God, and we are told to do it by the binding of our hand "yad" (5) and placing it between our eyes "Ayin" (4) (5+4=9) giving us the sum of nine, the value of truth (emet).
One more mathematical fact of interest: The Shma, the call words of Judaism, tells us to relate to God through love: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might." [Deu. 6:5] The three ways of loving God, in Hebrew, are through lev (value of 5), nefesh (value of 7) and meod (value of 9). So, think back at what we have said before: Five is yad, the "great hand" of God; Seven is the day God hallowed, the Shabbat; Nine is emet -- truth. Put lev and nefesh together (5+7) and you get 12, which has a final sum of three Ehyeh the "name of God." Add meod to the first two, (5+7+9) and your final sum is still three! The difference is in the second stage of our calculations, where 12 the first sum and 21 the second sum. Here, too, there is a lesson. The heart and the soul combine to bring us close to God, but the link has a value of 12, a low number. If we add our might to the first two, our meod (9) plus the strength of God (12 from lev and nefesh) gives us a much greater value, 21. The ways of the Lord are, indeed, mysterious. His teachings, on the other hand, enlighten the eyes.
May we always follow Gods mitzvot, may we learn His teachings and live by His words of love, life and truth.
This weeks reading in the Torah is from the book of Shmot, Exodus, 10:1 to 13:16. In last weeks portion God spoke to Moshe and told him, Therefore say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you from their slavery, and I will redeem you with a outstretched arm, and with great judgments; And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. [Ex. 6:6,7] This is called "the fourfold promise of redemption." Last week we also read about the seven plagues with which God struck the Egyptians. Yet the Isralites were still slaves, and their burden was great. This weeks portion begins with the eighth plague, locust. The text reads, And the Lord said to Moshe, Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him; And that you may tell in the ears of your son, and of your grandson, what things I have done in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Lord. [Ex. 10:1,2]
There are to be three more plagues, two of which will be as ineffective as the first seven, and the last, the killing of the first born, which was predicted from the start, would finally convince Pharaoh to release Gods people to go into the desert to worship Him at Sinai as He had told Moshe they would at the Burning Bush. We read, And this shall be a sign to you, that I have sent you; When you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain. [Ex. 3:12] And you shall say to Pharaoh, Thus said the Lord, Israel is my son, my firstborn; And I say to you, Let my son go, that he may serve me; and if you refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay your son, your firstborn. [Ex. 4:22,23]
While Israel was still in Egypt and before they would be released, we read in the text that God ordained for them the first holiday - the celebration of the feast of Unleavened bread. And this day shall be to you for a memorial; and you shall keep it a feast to the Lord throughout your generations; you shall keep it a feast by an ordinance forever. Seven days shall you eat unleavened bread; the first day you shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel. And in the first day there shall be a holy convocation, and in the seventh day there shall be a holy convocation to you; no kind of work shall be done in them, save that which every man must eat, only that may be done by you. And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for in this same day have I brought your armies out of the land of Egypt; therefore shall you observe this day in your generations by an ordinance forever. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty first day of the month at evening. Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses; for whoever eats that which is leavened, that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger, or born in the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your habitations shall you eat unleavened bread. [Ex. 12:14-20] Note that this passage comes before the Passing over that is the night when God killed the first born of the Egyptians. We do not celebrate their misfortune, nor do we gloat over their loss, nor do we ever wish to see the demise of any of Gods creatures. We rejoice in the deeds of the Almighty, who has personally injected His personhood to perform an act so awesome and profound that it would be remembered by all civilized humanity for ever. There is no question that God had to perform the tenth plague to make Pharaoh release his strangle-hold on the Children of Israel. There is reason to believe that He knew from the start that it would take place, hence the prophetic twenty third verse in chapter four. However, God Himself had pity on the Egyptian children, and he tried to convince Pharaoh to let them go at a bargain price of one or more of the plagues that were called sings and wonders - ottot umoftim. It was not to be - Pharaohs heart had been hardened by his wickedness that knew no bounds. May we learn the lesson of Pharaoh and his Egypt. We are taught that "Mitzvah goreret Mitzvah vaavera goreret avera" - One good deed promoted the next good deed, and one transgression makes the next transgression all but inevitable.
This week we read in the Torah the portion of Bo -- Shemot chapter 10 to 13:16. The text begins with, "And the Lord said to Moshe, Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him; And that you may tell in the ears of your son, and of your grandson, what things I have done in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Lord." [Ex. 10:1,2] The text continues with the telling of the signs and wonders of God, which he wrought in Egypt, and ends in the words, "And the Lord said to Moshe, Pharaoh shall not listen to you; that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt. And Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh; and the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart, so that he would not let the people of Israel go out of his land." [Exodus 11:9,10] These two verses end the chapter, and with it the tale of the "sings and wonders" wrought by God in Egypt.
It is important to note that these "sings and wonders" occurred without any preparation on the part of the Children of Israel. Moshe came out of the desert to announce that God will "bring out and rid from slavery, and redeem and take" Israel to be his people - without consultation, without any preconditions - strictly because He had made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - and because he had heard the cry of the Israelites in their suffering. Now there is one more awesome, fearsome and terrible thing that will befall Egypt - and this time is different from all the others. This time God speaks to Moshe and commands him to inform the Israelites of what is to happen - and inform them that they must prepare for the event. This preparation involves an ordinance for the celebration of the Passover, which Moshe institutes even before the event takes place, to be a memorial for the Israelites in perpetuity.
Why is that? How can a leader with little credibility and even less of a track record of success in setting his people free demand the establishment of a perpetual feast? Our sages tell us that this is the formula for bringing about the redemption. First there has to be an act of faith on the part of the people who wish to be redeemed, then there is a need to establish a system by making a rule that will stand "for all time" - and then you can arrive at a condition of consecration. Our sages explained our escape from the fate of the death of the first born of all Egypt by saying that we created an atmosphere of holiness in the places where the Pascal lamb was being eaten, where the blood had been used to mark the door posts. It was not for God that the blood was smeared on the door posts - but rather for all those who were inside. It was a sign of the commitment - to become God's people, to "enlist" into His service, to live by His teachings, first among which was the one concerning the sacrifice of the lamb and the communal celebration.
That and more - for this was not merely a night out on the town. The Israelites made a commitment to leave Egypt, and there would be no turning back. Moshe, at the command of God, told the Israelites to borrow gold and silver from the Egyptians, and take it with them as payment for their generations of servitude. This act of leaving Egypt with their neighbors' silver and gold, did not, of course, endear them to their former task-masters. In fact, it acted as one more reason to resent them and wish to bring them back and punish them. It is as though God plants in the midst of the departing Israelites the cause for Egypt's change of heart for releasing them. "Get back the slaves, by all means, for with them goes the wealth of Egypt" Of course, from the vantage point of history we are aware that they and their labor were the true wealth of Egypt - but at the time of the exodus, the gold and silver were much more readily recognized for value.
After we are told of the actual event of the death of the first born of all Egypt, we read the following: "And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even on that very day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. It is a night of watchfulness to the Lord for bringing them out of the land of Egypt. This is a night of watching kept to the Lord by all the people of Israel throughout their generations. And the Lord said to Moshe and Aaron, This is the ordinance of the Passover; No stranger shall eat of it; But every man's servant who is bought for money, when you have circumcised him, then shall he eat of it." [Exodus 12:41-44] The future celebration of the Night of the Passover and the Festival of Freedom. is to be conditional on another commitment witnessed by blood - namely the act of circumcision. This physical act, which in our tradition is called "the covenant in the flesh," is a permanent manifestation, in the most private manner, of our commitment to live as Jews by the teachings of the Torah. We call it Etz Kha'yim - a Tree of Life, as we are taught by the words of the prophet: "Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope is the Lord. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, that spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not see when heat comes, but its leaf shall be green; and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, nor shall it cease from yielding fruit." [Jer. 17:7,8] And the book of Proverbs seals our lesson with the words we chant in the synagogue after reading the Torah: "[The Torah] is a tree of life to those who lay hold on her; and happy is every one who holds fast to her." [Proverbs 3:18] May we always be privileged to live by Torah and be blessed by its precepts as we have been to this day.
This week's reading
in the Torah is from the book of Sh'mot, Exodus, Chapters 10:1 to 13:16. Two
weeks ago we began reading this book, and we heard God say to Moshe "And
you shall say to Pharaoh, Thus said the Lord, Israel is my son, my firstborn;
And I say to you, Let my son go, that he may serve me; and if you refuse to
let him go, behold, I will slay your son, your firstborn." [Ex. 4:22,23]
Yet, last week we began to read about the "signs and wonders" that
God brought upon Egypt, which we call "the Plagues." These continue
and come to their inevitable terrifying peak in this week's reading.
I would like to take a few minutes to speak to you about these "signs and wonders." We all know that there are ten of them, right? We are all aware, furthermore, that the last was "first in God's plan," as we read in the quote above. Which leaves us with nine. I need not tell you that nine is the "squaring" of three in fact, the nine are three sets of three signs. They are:
Blood, Frogs, Vermin;
Wild beasts, Pestilence, Boils;
Hail, Locusts, Darkness;
What do all these "signs" have in common? They are all "natural occurrences" that take place once in a while in life in Egypt. How are they different from events that happen in nature? They are much more directed and augmented. The "blood" in the rivers and lakesd of Egypt could have been similar to the "red tide" that we are familiar with in Florida but the rendering of all of Egypt's waters, the rivers, the lakes, the creeks and the wells "bloody" well, it is a sign. Similarly, wild beasts may proliferate at times and attack some of the domestic animals or even a human but when wild animals appear in hordes and proliferate throughout the land, to attack the population and cause havoc one ought to take note!
Another interesting thing about the three "sets" the first is always announced by the river, the second is announced at Pharaoh's court, and the third is not announced at all, it just comes about. It also seems as if the "agent" involved in the sign is diminished from first to second to third. All the water of Egypt to frogs to lice of flies; wild beasts to sickness to boils; a storm that covers all Egypt to jumping locust to darkness. Still, the result is always more depressing, more awesome, bringing more suffering. Each sign ends when Pharaoh wishes it to end to give him a chance to repent and return to the good grace of God.
He does not.
Finally, it was the beginning of the month of spring, when the whole world is renewing itself, and God gave the Israelites the word: prepare to depart. The text turns from a narrative of the events of Pharaoh versus God to the first legislation ordained by God: celebrate the Passover. Before it took place, before they left, before, in their haste, they did not prepare hallah and had to eat "crackers" already God commanded concerning the holiday. "And this day shall be to you for a memorial; and you shall keep it a feast to the Lord throughout your generations; you shall keep it a feast by an ordinance forever. Seven days shall you eat unleavened bread; the first day you shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel. And in the first day there shall be a holy convocation, and in the seventh day there shall be a holy convocation to you; no kind of work shall be done in them, save that which every man must eat, only that may be done by you. And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for in this same day have I brought your armies out of the land of Egypt; therefore shall you observe this day in your generations by an ordinance forever. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty first day of the month at evening. Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses; for whoever eats that which is leavened, that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger, or born in the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your habitations shall you eat unleavened bread." [ibid. 13:14-20]
Please understand and keep in mind Moshe is speaking to the people who have been disappointed so many times before. They have seen all the signs and the wonders, they knew that it came from God and they observed how Pharaoh shrugged them all off. Surely they were afraid. Surely they were not so sure that this last "sign" would impress the king more than all the previous ones. Could they trust Moshe and Aaron? Nay, the question was: could they trust God?
The Torah text ends this passage with the words, "And the people of Israel went away, and did as the Lord had commanded Moshe and Aaron, so did they." [ibid. 13:28] The sages asked, "what kind of a sentence is this?" If the people obeyed God's command, it should have said, "And the people of Israel went away, and did as the Lord had commanded." If you want to be a stickler for detail, you could even make it "commanded Moshe and Aaron" but why do we have those last words, "so did they?"
This is the ennobling of the people Israel. Recall for a moment among the seed of Abraham birthright is not an accident of birth - it is an earned position. Yitzkhak was made first over Yishma'el; Ya'akov was made first over Esav; Yoseph and Yehuda were placed first above Re'uven. In every age, among the children of Yisrael, the best and the finest rise to the top. Pharaoh is the God king of Egypt, he is the "father " of his nation. That is why God spoke from the first, saying, "Israel is my son, my firstborn; And I say to you, Let my son go, that he may serve me; and if you refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay your son, your firstborn." The people of Egypt have fallen victim to the pride and arrogance of their king. Now, before God would come down to show His mighty hand in all Egypt, Israel had to earn their place as His "firstborn." This they did when they accepted the word of Moshe, and followed his instruction as well as he himself would have done it. That is the meaning of the final words of verse 28, "as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron, so did they." They did even as Moshe and Aharon would do, no less. The die was cast, the time was at hand, prophecy would become reality.
Amen. Shabbat shalom.
This week's Torah
portion is Bo -- Shemot chapter 10 to 13:16. The text begins with God speaking
to Moshe Rebenu commanding him to come unto the most powerful potentate in the
ancient world and stand up for his rights and the rights of the Children of
Israel. Moshe is told to assume a posture of one who has authority -- as, indeed,
he has, being a messenger of God Almighty: "And Moshe and Aaron came to
Pharaoh, and said to him, Thus said the Lord God of the Hebrews, How long will
you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve
me." Moshe informed Pharaoh of the coming plague of locust, the worst that
had ever attacked the land of Egypt. The locust was followed by darkness --
and when this plague was lifted, there was only one plague left -- the killing
of the first born. The narrative flows quite well with the tale of the suffering
of the Egyptians at the mighty hand of God – when suddenly and inexplicably
the text chnges direction. It goes from history to religious legislation.
While the Israelites were still in Egypt and before they would be released, we read in the text that God ordained for them a calendar, “This month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you,” [Ex. 12:2] and the first holiday - the celebration of the feast of Unleavened bread. “And this day shall be to you for a memorial; and you shall keep it a feast to the Lord throughout your generations; you shall keep it a feast by an ordinance forever. Seven days shall you eat unleavened bread; the first day you shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel. And in the first day there shall be a holy convocation, and in the seventh day there shall be a holy convocation to you; no kind of work shall be done in them, save that which every man must eat, only that may be done by you. And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for in this same day have I brought your armies out of the land of Egypt; therefore shall you observe this day in your generations by an ordinance forever. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty first day of the month at evening. Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses; for whoever eats that which is leavened, that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger, or born in the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your habitations shall you eat unleavened bread.” [Ex. 12:14-20]
Our sages asked, “why break the suspense and change direction in this manner?” And they argued back and forth about it. They concluded that before they would be redeemed in this personal and physical way by the Almighty - they had to be “mitzvah fulfilling people.” To be worthy of God’s personal intervention they had to know that they have obligations, too, and that God responds to those who respond to Him. Thus, even before they come to Sinai, where the Torah was revealed to them, the Israelites already had the obligation of a number of mitzvot.
This is a very important concept – and one that we often fail to consider seriously. We always ask about what we view as God’s “responsibilities. “How could God allow this?” We ask, or we state that “God should not have allowed the holocaust to happen,” or many other challenges and repudiation of God’s control and leadership of His creation. Yet I have never heard any of those doubting and denying people accept for even one second a life in a world where they are not free agents, where they are made to follow a very strict predetermined path in life. Oh, no! They are endowed by the very creator they don’t want to acknowledge with those inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the happiness of pursuit – the pursuit of any nonsense they wish to blame on the Almighty.
This attitude, perhaps, is the worst transgression against Him, and one that keeps those who hold this attitude in bondage: slaves of their own ignorance, of their pride and overblown self-delusion of their worth. They are the ones that did not get redeemed from Egypt.
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