Eleven years ago, I wrote wondering why the Israelites had simply not left Egypt under the cover of darkness during the 9th plague. I wrote:
Random Musing Before Shabbat – Bo 5771 – Cover of Darkness
The question seems so obvious that this week even a 1st-grader asked it. That could be a good thing, but perhaps not. More on that later.
Here’s the chain of events: locusts, darkness, slaying of the first-born, exodus. “Why,” the 1st-grader asked, “didn’t the Israelites sneak out of Egypt while it was dark?” “yeah,” another chimed in. “You told us it got so dark the Egyptians couldn’t see anything.” Another chimed in “It got so cold they were frozen in place.” “Yes,” I answered. “The Torah says ‘v’lo kamu ish mi takhtav’-no man got up from his place’, and the rabbis tell us the Egyptians couldn’t move. And a midrash says that the Egyptians could hear noises all around them-doors opening, footsteps, etc-it was the Jews, checking out the beautiful things the Egyptians owned that they knew Hashem had promised they would be taking with them when they left Egypt.” “But how could they see?” I answered, “the rabbis tell us that the Jews, wherever they went, there was light, and they could see, but no Egyptian could see.” “So why didn’t the Jews just leave Egypt?” my original questioner asked.
It’s a good question. The rabbis have a few answers. The most obvious one is that G”d had not yet told the Israelites it was time to leave. G”d needed to work that final, awful plague to be sure Pharaoh on the Egyptians-and even the Jews themselves, learned of G”d’s awesome power and learned that G”d was in charge. That’s the classic answer I offered the students in this rather traditional Day School where I teach. But when one teaches, one is also a student, a learner, and I wasn’t even fully satisfied with that answer. The rabbis also tell us that the Jews needed to collect the spoils of Egypt when they left, and that needed to wait until later. But there’s a problem with that solution too. The Jews could just as easily taken the Egyptian’s gold, silver and other valuables under the cover of darkness and then snuck out of Egypt while the Egyptians were frozen in place and blind.
Now, who I am to question G”d? Well, I am one of G”d’s creations, endowed with the very ability to do so-so I assume my creator wants it that way. It wasn’t enough to decimate the Egyptian economy with these plagues. G”d had to go ahead and kill all those first-born sons of Egypt. and later on, G”d wipes out most of the rest of the sons, drowning them in the sea! Was all that killing really necessary to make the point? How much punishment is enough?
“If all the first-born were killed, why wasn’t Pharaoh killed?” asked another student. “A good question,” I answered. “Of course, Pharaoh might not have been a first-born, but we all know Kings usually leave their kingdoms to their oldest sons, right? The rabbis tell us Pharaoh was left alive because someone had to be around to tell the story of Hashem’s great power.” A classic answer but yet one that troubles me. Even with all the decimation, might not leaving Pharaoh alive make it look to the Egyptians that perhaps Pharaoh, after all, did have some G”d-like powers? But no, Pharaoh had to still be there- to face that ultimate humiliation and tell Moshe to take the Jews and get out of Egypt. And to be alive for that ultimate defeat at the sea of reeds. Ah, the old “puppet master” G”d. Not particularly satisfying.
But G”d, even with such ultimate power and unfathomable plans recognizes that human beings need to have things demonstrated in terms they can understand (something I wrote about in a last week’s musing.) And sometimes human beings need to encounter things in terms they can’t understand, so the mystery that is G”d can remain. And we have all that here in our parasha. Plainly understandable and totally incomprehensible at the same time.
Perhaps all this killing and destruction was a necessary part of our history, a necessary part of G”d’s plan. Perhaps the Jews not sneaking out of Egypt under cover of darkness was part of all that. The same for Pharaoh not being slain as a first-born, if indeed he was. But I would be less than the creature the G”d made me if I didn’t wonder if that really was all necessary. A moot point, since that’s how it happened and it’s how we got to where we are today? Perhaps. But maybe what G”d really wants us to do is to ask these question anyway. And ask them I shall. I won’t live like an Egyptian in total, utter darkness. My questions are perhaps the light that I, like the Jews in Egypt, carry with me at all times to help me illumine at least a little bit of Gd. May our questioning always fuel our inner and outer light.
These words speak for themselves and bear repeating. However, I want to add to them, and question another case of “cover of darkness.” Our parasha tells us the the last plague came “in the middle of the night. It’s tempting to ask whether G”d chose the middle of the night because even G”d was feeling a bit guilty about having to kill all these Egyptians. Then again, my opinion of whether G”d would be so concerned or considerate is tempered by the fact that Torah makes a point of telling us the all Egyptians, from the Pharaoh himself, to the lowest prisoner in the dungeon. I presume this also means from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor – poor, that I might add, had probably been made serfs and poor through G”d’s servant Joseph when he acquired their land in exchange for food during the famine. Talk about a double-whammy. Was that really necessary? Where is the love and compassion for the downtrodden? Then again, we are talking about the G”d who didn’t spare Sodom or Gomorrah, and as I have speculated before, may have done so knowing there actually might have been 10 or more righteous people in them.
I don’t like this G”d. This G”d who finds it necessary to harden Pharaoh’s heart, to make the suffering of the Egyptians so great, who shows no compassion or mercy except when it’s convenient. This G”d who singles out the children of Israel and keeps them safe whilst plaguing everybody else. While killing others. Directly.
We sanitize our G”d. We have the rabbis and the midrash to help with the whitewash. Why is it that we have a story of G’”d chastising the angels for celebrating at the Reed Sea, reminding them that many Egyptians died. Where is the same outcry for the indiscriminate, darkness-hidden slaying of the first born?
Tell me – when you spill your drops of wine at your Seder, are you thinking of just the soldiers who drowned in the sea, or are you thinking about all of G”d’s victims in the Passover story? All of G”d’s victims throughout the biblical texts? For that matter, all of G”d’s victims, at any time, past, present, or future.
I believe, with almost absolute certainty, that G”d could have accomplished what needed to be accomplished without so much death. If that’s not the case, then I call into question how G”d structured the universe.
G”d calls upon us to be pursuers of peace. G”d tells us we should not murder. Yes, it doesn’t say we should not kill, so G”d gives us, and even G”d, an out. Yet how can one look upon the tenth plague or the drowning at the Reed Sea (or Sodom and Gomorrah, or the biblical flood, or our violent takeover of Canaan) and not consider those not just killing, but murder? Is there one standard for G”d and a different one for human beings? Apparently so, but I reject that and will not accept that.
As long as we allow G”d to hide these deeds, these murders, under the cover of darkness, we allow G”d to get away with them. We must not allow the G”d of light to hide misdeeds in the darkness. We must not stand by idly while our neighbor bleeds. J’accuse, G”d. Are you ready to stand trial at my Seder this year?
©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester. Portions ©2001 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Bo 5771 – Keretz MiTzafon-Again! (not the same as 5769)
Bo 5769-Keretz MiTzafon
Bo 5768 – Good Loser (Redux 5763)
Bo 5767-Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5766 – Random Disjunctions and Convergences (Redux 5760)
Bo 5765-Four Strikes and You’re…Well…
Bo 5764-Keretz Ani
Bo 5763 -Good Loser
Bo 5761-Cover of Darkness
Bo 5762-Teach Your Children Well