At Midnight: Bo 2016

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Leadoff Questions: When you speak of the Ten Plagues at a Passover Seder, what kind of tone is present at your Seder table? Is it matter-of-fact, seen as merely another chapter of the story of the Exodus? Or is the tone more somber? How do we deal with the suffering of Egyptian citizens in the process of our ancestors’ liberation?

Arguably, the tenth and final plague – the smiting of the Egyptian firstborns – is the most challenging plague to grapple with.

Text: “In the middle of the night Adonai struck down all the [male] 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. And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians – because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead.” (Exodus 12:29-30)

Commentary #1: “As we read of the great cry that went up throughout Egypt at the death of the firstborn, it is difficult to avoid asking whether a demonstration of overwhelming divine power … justified such a great burden of human suffering. Perhaps all we can report is the conviction, apparent throughout, that God has a design for this people, and through them, for humanity; and that the opposition to that design, then as often since, inevitably brings suffering in its wake.” – Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch

Commentary #2: “The most horrifying of all the plagues, and the reaction to it, are described in only two verses, whereas the rest of the narrative concerns itself with preparations for and actual description of the exodus. Note how … the narrative is surrounded by ritual concerns – trying to explain the subsequent reason for eating unleavened bread.” – Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

Commentary #3: “Rabbi Simeon used to say: The King Who is the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, is unlike flesh and blood. When he goes out to war, flesh and blood goes with throngs and legions; and when he goes to [make] peace, he goes alone. But characteristic of the King Who is the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, when He goes out to [make] peace, He goes with legions and throngs, as it is said: ‘thousand thousands served Him’ (Daniel 7:10). … But when He goes to war, He goes alone, as it is said: ‘I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with Me: for I have trodden them in My anger, and trampled them in my fury’ (Isaiah 63:3). Thus you find when He punished the generation of the flood, He punished them alone … and you also find when He punished the generation of the dispersion, He punished them alone  … And you find that when He punished the Egyptians, He punished them alone.” – Sifrei Zuta

Late-Inning Questions: Blenkinsopp seems to tread lightly when addressing the 10th plague, claiming only that the punishment is simply a result of impeding God’s plan. Fox points out the text’s lack of comfort with the firstborns’ deaths, noting that the plague is described in minimal detail. Perhaps Sifrei Zuta makes the boldest pronouncement, insisting that the plague is God’s handiwork alone; maybe by doing so, Sifrei Zuta wishes to absolve any of God’s people from feeling any guilt.

To what extent do these commentaries reflect sensitivity to the suffering of the Israelites’ enemies? Do any of them enable you to feel more comfortable with the 10th plague? Or perhaps, is the whole point of the episode to ensure that we feel uncomfortable with it? When we spill wine for every plague mentioned at the Seder, is this a sufficient reaction? Should we seek out new ways to note the 10th plague individually?

On Deck at Emanu-El: I’m so pleased that we will devote an upcoming weekend to exploring how music can make our prayer services come alive. Each year, the Sabbath in which we read the Torah portion of Beshallach is designated “Shabbat Shira”, the “Sabbath of Song”. At this year’s Shabbat Shira – Friday, January 22nd-Saturday, January 23rd – we will be fortunate to host Dara Rosenblatt, a former Charlestonian and now a first-year cantorial and Jewish education student at Hebrew College. Dara will lead services both on Friday night and Saturday morning, utilizing both familiar and new tunes. She also will periodically add kavvanot, brief explanations about the prayers, in order to add depth to our understanding of Shabbat services. I am confident that Dara’s presence will teach all of us the blessing of song, “Shira Uv’Racha”. Please be a part of it.

The Big Inning at the End: Pitchers and catchers report in slightly more than a month from now. That is all.

Shabbat Shalom!