Faith

This Week's Torah Portion: The Ten Plagues and Redemption

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Bo’ (Exodus X, 1-XII, 16)

Our parasha finds us in the middle of the ‘Eser haMakkoth, the ten blows which constituted the Divinely orchestrated campaign to force the Egyptians to release Israel. We know the purpose of the campaign, for Ha-Shem detailed it at the end of parasath Shëmoth:

Vayomer Ha-Shem el Moshe, ‘Atta thir’e eth asher e‘ese lëFar‘o ki bëyad chazaqa yëshallëchém. And Ha-Shem said to Moshe, Now you will see what I shall do to Pharaoh, for with a strong hand he will send them forth (VI, 1).

Rashi elucidates:

Because of My strong hand which will tighten on Pharaoh, he will send them forth.

The Ten Plagues constitute the tightening of Ha-Shem’s grip. This campaign culminated in our parasha with the Makkath haBëchoroth, the killing of the first-born, when Pharaoh finally gave up:

Qum tzë’u mitoch ‘ammi, gam attem gam bënei Yisra’él. Arise, get out from my people’s midst, both you and the bënei Yisra’él. (XII, 31).

Vatechezaq Mitzrayim ‘al ha‘am lëmahér lëshallëcham min ha’aretz. And Egypt pressed upon the people to expel them swiftly from the land. (ibid., 33).

It is therefore astonishing to look back and read Ha-Shem’s instructions to Moshe concerning his mission to Pharaoh’s court. Moshe knew from the beginning what his mission was: as if there was any doubt, Ha-Shem reiterates His promise to the Patriarchs: A‘ale ethchem mé‘oni Mitzrayim el eretz haKëna‘ani …el eretz zavath chalav udëvash (“I shall raise you up from the poverty of Egypt to the land of the Canaanite … a land flowing with milk and honey” III, 17). But then He instructs Moshe: Va’amartem élav, Ha-Shem Elo-nei ha‘Ivrim niqra ‘aleinu vë‘atta nélëcha na derech shëlosheth yamim bamidbar vënizbëcha la-Shem Elo-heinu (“And you will say to him, Ha-Shem, the G-d of the Hebrews has appeared to us; and now, please let us go three days’ journey into the desert and let us sacrifice to Ha-Shem our G-d” ibid., 18).

To our wondering eyes as we read this, it seems nothing less than a Divinely perpetrated fraud, Heaven forfend. If the point of it all was, as we learned in last week’s parasha, Israel’s emancipation from slavery, liberation from Egyptian suzerainty, and establishment as an independent nation in nearby Canaan (as indeed happened), how could G-d, whose seal is truth, instruct Moshe to lie to Pharaoh?

In the event, Moshe and Aharon repeated Ha-Shem’s words virtually verbatim to Pharaoh (cf. V. 1), which then formed the basis of a deal struck with Pharaoh in the wake of the fourth makka, ‘Arov. There we find Moshe again insisting on permission to take a three-day trek into the desert in order to bring sacrifices to Ha-Shem, and Pharaoh answers: … Anochi ashallach ethchem uzëvachtem la-Shem Elo-heichem bamidbar, raq harchéq lo’ tharchiqu lalecheth. (“I shall send you forth and you will sacrifice to Ha-Shem your G-d in the desert, just do not go too far” [VIII, 23-24].) In the end, Pharaoh reneged on the deal when the plague was lifted, but we must assume that had he not done so, Moshe would have been honor-bound to observe it and the bënei Yisra’él would have returned to Egypt after only a few days in the desert.

How could this be? Where is the redemption promised Avraham?

The great 20th century authority Rabbi Ya‘aqov Kaminetsky, in his Eneth lëYa‘aqov, focuses on a famous discrepancy concerning the length of the Egyptian exile. Abraham was told: Gér yihye zar‘acha bë’eretz lo’ jahem va‘avadum vë‘innu otham arba‘ mé’oth shana (“Your seed will be a foreigner in a land not theirs, and they will serve them and they will torment them for four hundred years” [Genesis XV, 13].)

Our parasha insists that the length of Israel’s sojurn in Egypt was 430 years (Exodus XII, 40-41). But, as Rashi demonstrates, the actual length of the Egyptian exile was only 210 years; in the words of the Haggada shel Pesach, “the Holy One, Blessed is He, calculated the end” on His realization that Israel would not be able to stand the trial. Had He actually waited the full 400 years, there would have been nothing left to redeem; Israel would have been indistinguishable from the Egyptians.

By recalculating the period of exile to begin with the issuance of the Divine decree to Avraham, Israel’s actual time in Egypt was greatly shortened; thus, from the decree to the birth of Yitzchaq 30 years elapsed, and from the birth of Yitzchaq to the Exodus 400 years (this explains the difference between our parasha’s 430 years and Genesis’ 400). Ya‘aqov was born when his father was 60 (Genesis XXVI, 25) and was himself 130 when he went to Egypt (ibid., XLVII, 9); if we subtract 190 from 400, we arrive at 210 years for the actual exile.

Rabbi Kaminetsky is concerned with when this re-evaluation took place, and concludes that Israel’s weakness must already have been apparent when Moshe returned to Egypt in the 209th year of the exile, 2447. Therefore G-d instructed Moshe to request what would in effect have been a spiritual retreat for Israel in the desert, a sort of “revival meeting” to re-acquaint the people with their spiritual heritage from the Patriarchs and steel them to stand the course for another 191 years.

That was the purpose of the three-day holiday which Moshe and Aharon requested and which was actually negotiated after Makkath ‘Arov. This intention was frustrated by Pharaoh’s reneging on the deal against his own best interests, for he would have had another two centuries of labor from Israel had he kept the deal. Thus it was that the end was recalculated to enable Israel to leave in 2448.

But the dark side of this re-calculation was that the 191-year relatively milder oppression was now compressed into the much shorter span remaining of the exile, which consequently became much more horrible, so that the “account” could be cleared completely on Israel’s liberation. Rabbi Kaminetsky uses this to explain a puzzling verse in our parasha: ‘Od nega‘ echad avi’ ‘al Mitzrayim, acharei chén yëshallach ethchem mize kësholcho kala, garésh yëgarésh ethchem mize (“I shall bring one more affliction upon Egypt, afterwards he will send you forth from this when he sends forth completely, he will utterly drive you away from this” [XI, 1].) The word kala in this verse is a grammatical anomaly which renders it awkward in the original. This led the early commentators (Rashi, Rashbam, Sforno) to treat it as though it meant kullëchem or hakol, i.e. “when he sends all of you forth.”

But the word kol is derived from a different root (k-l-l) than is kala (k-l-h), though the two are not wholly unrelated; the latter’s root meaning is “complete, finish” and, by extension, “finish off, end.” The Targumim therefore translates it with the Aramaic word gëmeira, “completely.” This interpretation finds support in the suggestion raised by the Emeth lëYa‘aqov: when Israel was liberated from Egypt, whatever debts had led to the exile had been paid in full.

In a footnote to this explanation, Rabbi Kaminetsky’s grandson, Rabbi Dani’él Neustadt, who edited the book for publication, tells us that this notion of a “temporary redemption” was also mentioned in his grandfather’s discourses, and that he regarded the entire Second Temple period in a similar light. As we see in the Book of Ezra (cf. II. 61-63, IX-X) Israel was seriously contaminated during the brief Babylonian exile.

In order for the repentance which resulted from Israel’s salvation through the miracle of Purim (cf. Esther IX, 27; Shabbath 88a) to take hold and enthusiasm to be translated into the steadfast, stolid observance which had not characterized the last years of the Kingdom of Yëhuda, this 420-year “retreat” was necessary. Rabbi Neustadt notes that the comparison is apt: the three days in the desert would have sufficed to stiffen Israel’s resolve for another 191 years of Egyptian exile; to stiffen Israel’s backbone for the long night of our current exile, a longer period was needed.

Ezra’s court, the Anshei Kënesseth haGëdola, who also included in their ranks the last of the prophets, and whose compositions and rulings underlie the contemporary siddur tëfilloth, the common Jewish prayerbook, knew what Israel was being prepared to endure. They expressed it eloquently in the special prayers for Tachanun which we say on Mondays and Thursdays:

We have been the object of mockery and ridicule among the nations, we have been considered like sheep for the slaughter, to kill and destroy, to beat and degrade, and with all this, we have not forgotten Your Name.

Thanks to that long retreat.