January 5, 2011
Appreciating the Tension
Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)
Nature abhors a vacuum. And so do biblical stories.
If we take a minute to read the story of the Exodus not from our point of view — that of the liberated
victims — but from the objective view of an outside mediator, we will likely find ourselves asking the following questions: Did it really have to end this way? Did the story really have to climax in violence? Wasn’t Pharaoh slowly but steadily coming around to Moshe’s position? Wasn’t a negotiated settlement still plausible?
The biblical narrative certainly seems to suggest so. Remember where the parties began: In response to Moshe’s request for a three-day religious furlough for the people, Pharaoh responds, “Who is God that I should hear his voice?! I do not know God!” But by the time the frogs are wreaking havoc in Egypt, Pharaoh petitions Moshe, “Pray to God so that He may remove the frogs, and I will send the nation out, and they may worship God.” Pharaoh now acknowledges the power of God, and recognizes Israel as a nation deserving at least a modicum of dignity. When the frogs actually disappear, Pharaoh’s offer disappears with it. Pharaoh’s pride and ego run deep after all. Yet an objective mediator would note the progress in the recalcitrant party’s position — progress that could be built upon.
And very shortly thereafter, major positive changes on the ground indeed begin to occur. Ibn Ezra, basing himself on a talmudic teaching, writes that following the fourth plague, Pharaoh actually began to ease the burden of slavery. Even more dramatic is the comment of the 19th century sage Netziv, who notices that Pharaoh refers to Israel as “Israel,” rather than “the nation,” following the plague of hail, signaling a paradigm shift with far-reaching implications. In Netziv’s words, “after the plague of hail Pharaoh lifted the bondage altogether [!]. He only refused to send them out, intending rather to treat them with honor [in Egypt]” (Netziv’s commentary to 9:35). Pharaoh was far along a trajectory heading unmistakably toward the ultimate release of Israel — all without a single drop of Egyptian blood being shed.
As we move into the ninth and 10th plagues, Pharaoh, already having lifted the bondage, comes closer to fully granting the three-day religious furlough in the desert, which is all that Moshe had ever explicitly asked for. “Go and worship God. Only leave your flock here. You may take your children as well.”
How much distance is there now between the two positions? A mediator would think that this is the moment for God and Israel to recognize how far things have come, and even to accept — for now — the offer being made. And then, after returning from three days in the desert, at least giving moral suasion (backed up by an obviously big stick) a shot, and perhaps securing the ultimate goal of complete freedom without ever needing to actually kill any Egyptians at all.
In fact, this is the kind of approach that would align much more closely with the commands that God Himself would later issue to us, and the talmudic legal tradition that would derive from them. We are instructed in great detail concerning the rejection of vengeance taking, the value of compromise, the conduct of warfare so as to inflict minimal damage on noncombatants. We are even commanded to “not abhor the Egyptian, for we were strangers in his land.” The violent climax of the Exodus story stands in stark contrast with our normative legal tradition, and to read the story in a vacuum, without simultaneously consulting our legal tradition, would result in a severe disfigurement of Torah. The inherent tension must be a vital part of our learning.
Clearly, God had a wider agenda in Egypt. Beyond securing Israel’s freedom — a goal that might eventually have been attained even without the slaying of Egypt’s firstborn — God was out to establish, once and for all, that no man, no matter how powerful, is a god. That no people, no matter how weak, should be abused. That no voice, no matter how commanding, ought be heeded when it opposes the voice of God. This was a unique historical moment, requiring, in God’s judgment, a unique, spectacular and forceful manifestation of power. And the firstborn of Egypt were caught in the crosshairs.
Yet, the tension between the story and the law is thick. The vital questions as to how to balance basic legal values and unique historical needs, how to negotiate the tension between normative interpersonal laws and the pressing urgency of a particular moment, are timeless questions, and they must occupy a central place in our learning and thinking.
Biblical stories abhor a vacuum.
Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.