Friday, January 29, 2010

Bo (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to my blog, at Febryary 2006, and January 2007, 2008 and 2009.

“The Time of Love Has Come”

With Parshat Bo we begin the story of the Exodus proper: Moses’ final warning to Pharaoh, the preparation of the Paschal sacrifice, the plague of the firstborn, and the hasty departure from Egypt in the dark of night. The entire process is seen as a manifestation of the Divine love for Israel; hence, many midrashim on this parasha, specifically, are based upon the return of springtime and love as portrayed in the Song of Songs or, as in the following passage, in the bitter-sweet 16th chapter of Ezekiel, in which God adopts Israel as a foundling woman–child. The following well-developed midrashic aggadah appears in the tannaitic midrash Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, Parshat Hahodesh (as cited in Ginzburg’s Yalkut Yehudah, Vol. II [Shemot], pp 22-23). Unlike the parallel Mekhilta of the school of Rabbi Yishmael, which is confined almost exclusively to halakhic matters (as are most of these ancient midrashim), this passage quickly moves from the opening question about a technical halakhic issue to the poetic world of aggadah. (Note the comment we made here last week about the difference between the school of Rabbi Akiva and that of Rabbi Ishmael):

“And you shall keep it [the lamb set aside for the Paschal sacrifice] set aside …” [Exod 12:6]. Why did the taking of the paschal lamb precede its slaughtering by four days? [i.e., the Torah commands the people to select and put aside the lambs on the 10th day of the month, even though the actual sacrifice was only performed on the 14th]

[Rabbi Matya ben Heresh said: It is written, “And I passed by you and saw you; and behold, your time was a time of love” [Ezek 16:8]. [i.e., it was clear that you were already a young woman, ripe for love. Metaphorically..] the time had come to carry out the oath made by the Holy One blessed be He to Abraham that He would redeem his children. But they did not have any mitzvot at hand with which to be engaged, that they might be redeemed. As is said: “Your breasts were firm and your hair had sprouted, but you were naked and uncovered” [ibid., v. 7]. “Naked”—of all the mitzvot. So he gave them two mitzvot to engage in—the blood of the Passover and the blood of circumcision—that they might be redeemed. As is said “And I passed by you, and I saw you wallowing in your blood [and I said to you, ‘In your blood, live! In your blood, live!]” Therefore, Scripture preceded the taking of the paschal lamb to its slaughtering by four days, for one only receives reward for an act.

An interesting principle is implied here: notwithstanding the notion of zekhut avot, “merits of the fathers”—i.e., the idea that the Jewish people enjoy a certain innate favor in God’s eyes simply by virtue of being descendants of the Patriarchs, with whom God made a special covenant—they also require merit based upon their own actions.

These mitzvot are symbolized by the double call “In your blood, live!”—Pesah and milah, that is, Passover and circumcision. Both involve blood; both are defined by the rabbis as positive mitzvot for whose non-fulfillment there is the punishment of karet (in this respect they are sui generis); and, most important, both are central covenantal acts: circumcision symbolizes the initiation into the covenant of each individual male shortly after birth, while Passover is an annual shared ritual feast, symbolizing the renewal of the covenant. Interestingly, these two (the Paschal sacrifice, in its post-Temple metamorphosis as the Passover Seder), are among the most widely observed Jewish rituals to this day, even among those Jews otherwise distant from their tradition. Also interesting is the constant parallel between the sensuous love of man an woman, and God’s love for Israel: “your time of loving”=time for God to fulfill his promise; “naked”=bereft of mitzvot; and so forth.

The view of Rabbi Eleazar ha-Kapar, in the second half of this passage, is rather different. True, the Jews did not perform any positive mitzvah-actions while in Egyptian servitude, but they were not bereft of mitzvot; they had to their credit at least four negative commandments which they observed faithfully, and which served to distinguish them from their surroundings:

Rabbi Eleazar ha-Kappar in the name of Rabbi said: And did not Israel observe four mitzvot worth more than the entire world? That they were not suspect of sexual licentiousness, nor of evil speech, that they did not change their names, and that they did not change their language.

From whence do we know that they are not suspected of licentiousness? As is said, “And the son of the Israelite woman [and he was the son of an Egyptian man; according to Midrash, his father was the same Egyptian whom Moses killed in Exod 2:11, who used his power to rape or seduce an Israelite woman in her husband’s absence] went out” [Lev 24:10]. To teach the praise of Israel, that there was none among them [who was the fruit of adulterous relations] save this one, and Scripture publicized it and made it known.

And from whence that they were not suspected of evil speech, and that they loved one another? Scripture says, “And each woman shall borrow of her [Egyptian] neighbor…” [Exod 3:22]. And they [the borrowed objects] were already in their hands twelve months, and there was not one of them who denounced his fellow.

And from whence do we know that they did not change their names? That they were identified by pedigree when they went down [to Egypt}: “Reuben, Shimon, Levi, Judah” [Exod 1:2], so were they identified when they went up, as is said “And they gave birth according to clans and to their father’s houses” [Num 1:18].

And from whence that they did not change their tongue? As is said, ‘For my mouth speaks with you” [Gen 45:12; i.e., Joseph spoke with his brothers without an interpreter]; and it says, “the God of the Hebrews has called to us, saying..” [Exod 5: 3; i.e., that they were known in Egypt as “Hebrews”]; and it says, “and the one who had escaped came, and he told to Abram the Hebrew” [Gen 14:13].

What do these four mitzvot have in common? They are not merely arbitrary taboos or proscriptions, but each one contributes to social bonding. Sexual licentiousness: of the three “cardinal sins”—alongside bloodshed and idolatry—it is perhaps the one that is most common, for which there is the greatest temptation—and whose avoidance is an essential basis of the family unit. Lashon hara, gossip or slander, while in formal terms less serious, is symbolic of social solidarity and brotherly feeling; specifically, not denouncing one’s fellow Israelite to the Egyptian task masters. Maintaining one’s name and one’s spoken language are likewise key signs of identity.

How many of these mitzvot do the rank and file of American Jewry maintain?

One more thought: even though Eleazar ha-Kappar dissents from Matya ben Heresh on the nature of the mitzvot required, he agrees that some sort of mitzvah–merit is required. I wonder whether this might be, among other things, an early expression of the polemic with nascent Christianity over the issue of faith vs. works? That is, Judaism always held that finding favor in God’s eyes requires, not only “faith”—i.e., inner adherence to certain principles of belief—but also “works”: i.e., concrete deeds in the world, if only in the passive sense of observing a certain code of “don’ts.” Food for thought.

Why, then, did the taking of the Paschal sacrifice precede its slaughtering by four days? Because they were immersed in paganism in Egypt, and idolatry is considered equal to all the other mitzvot combined. Therefore he said to them: “draw” [Exod 12:21] your hands away from idolatry, and adhere to the mitzvot.

So too the concluding paragraph, based on a clever double–entendre on the word “draw,” indicates, notwithstanding their adherence to four basic mitzvot, a clearcut break with paganism that was an essential first step to all else!


1. “God” and “Prophet.” It is interesting that in two places in these chapters—in Exod 4:16 and in 7:1— Moses is referred to as elohim, a word generally used to refer to God (in the generic sense) or to judges. In both cases his brother Aaron is described as his navi, the usual word for “prophet,” but here used in the sense of “spokesman” or “he who brings his words” (from the root בוא, “to bring”). Thus, in this context “god“ and “prophet” clearly refer to functions, to status (elohim as “mighty one” or “authoritative one”), and not to innate qualities.

2. More on Frogs. In wake of my discussion of the plague of frogs, long-time reader Stan Tenen, a highly original and creative thinker on the nature of the Hebrew language, sent me the following comments (which I have somewhat abridged):

I’ve been entertaining the thought that all of the so-called “plagues” which plagued the Egyptians were also lessons the Israelites needed in order to leave slavery and reach Sinai. Every one of them is a mass and/or “swarming” event. Flocking, schooling, and swarming—the formation of a Knesset—is necessary for the formation of a community, and also for the emergence of the miracle (the word nes may be seen as derived from knesset).

The word צפרדע, translated as “frog,” is a combination of two words: Zephyr and Da‘ (Zadi-Pe-Resh; Dalet-Ayin). A Zephyr—Zadi-Pe-Resh—implies the communication—whistling, hooting [and of course croaking–JC]—that birds and other creatures use to form coordinated assemblies. (Zephyr, of course, is also a minor Greek godling associated with the whistling (West) wind, and thus also the modern English word for a breeze.) Da‘ —Dalet-Ayin—of course, refers to knowledge or wisdom.

The wisdom of the “hooting birds” is the quality that emerges when birds or other creatures flock, school, or swarm—and the ability to form a coherent assembly is what is required to build a nation, to draw down Torah at Sinai, etc.

Thus, frogs, which in our culture are often thought of as rather comic creatures (reinforced by Kermit and suchlike cartoon characters) or as the epitome of ugliness (in the fairy tale of the prince turned into a frog, the need to kiss a frog is seen as a particularly repugnant act), in fact carry a serious meaning. The wisdom of flocking, of community, of “species-life,” is a lesson our culture often seems to have forgotten in its overly-sophisticated adoration of the isolated individual.

Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, writing on this in his weekly Covenant and Conversation (Bo), refers to the Egyptian mythological figure of Heket—a frog-headed goddess who serves as a symbol of fertility and who assists women in childbirth. Here Heket is, as it were, turned against the Egyptians, much as the River that was the source of life was turned against them in the first plague, that of blood. This plague was thus a kind of “measure for measure,” punishing Pharaoh for ordering the midwives to kill the Israelite male infants.

3. The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart. Again, Rabbi Sacks (C&C, Vaera) has something interesting to say about the nature of teshuvah. God only hardens Pharaoh’s heart after he has himself acted stubbornly four and five times, “immunizing” himself against responding to the overwhelming manifestations of God’s sovereignty and His clear command to free the Israelites; at this point, it is a natural consequence, emblematic of his own descent into evil. Good and evil are not simple, polar opposites; for most of us, good and evil are intermingled; moral choices are emotionally complex, ambiguous, reflecting the dynamic changes we are constantly undergoing in real life. Hence, Sacks adds, the Torah uses narrative—seemingly artless, simple stories—rather than philosophic discourse to depict the complexities and ambiguities of human emotions, moral decisions, and personal growth (or stagnation).

4. Was Pharaoh Orthodox, Moses Conservative? This whimsical thought occurred to me upon reading the penultimate negotiation between Moses and Pharaoh in Exod 10:8-11. Pharaoh seems ready to capitulate and, in response to Moses’ request to go into the wilderness to celebrate a festival to God, asks “Who and whom are going?” When Moses says “with our youths and old people, our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds,” Pharaoh responds (in my free paraphrase): A likely story! If you want to take the whole kit and caboodle, it’s clear that you mean trouble; if you really want to go for sober religious purposes only, let the men go by themselves! Get out of here!

Of course, the whole business of the so-called “festival to the Lord” was a foil, a ruse—and both sides knew it. (Why Moses found it necessary to put up this facade is an interesting question, which I will try to examine another time). But Pharaoh’s comment reflects a deep-seated attitude that was evidently rife in Near Eastern religion, and which is felt implicitly by many Jews to be the authentic attitude of the “old-time religion”: that religion, worship, davening, mitzvot, etc., are basically men’s business, and that women’s role is to stay home and take care of the children, prepare the festive Shabbat and Yomtov meals, etc. (in terms of the old German proverb, one would say: Küche und Kinder, but not Kirche).

But of course, authentic halakhic Judaism sees women as having a vibrant spiritual life, in which prayer and mitzvot play a vital role. The Talmud sees a woman Hannah, as providing the paradigm for the laws of prayer. A woman, particularly a young mother, may not have the necessary time at the beginning of the day for a full-length Shaharit; moreover, at certain times in history women were often unlettered in Hebrew—but prayer, addressing their Creator every day, was as much a part of their life as it was for men—whether this took the form of reciting the Amidah, with all its formal rules and strictures, at some point during the day, or that of of vernacular Tekhines.


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