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Today is January 17, 2018 -

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Congregation Beth Ohr

A conservative, egalitarian synagogue in Central New Jersey

70 Route 516, Old Bridge, New Jersey 08857
Phone: 732-257-1523
Email: congregationbethohr@gmail.com

Parshat B’shallach

Parshat B’shallach

January 30, 2015

The story of the Exodus from Egypt takes on a new phase in the details of this Sabbath’s Torah portion. Last Shabbat, interrupted by the snow had witnessed the final succession of plagues. After the ninth plague of darkness we read of the last straw if you will, the tenth plague that brought the final curtain down upon the Egyptians and forced Pharaoh’s hand. Here is what we would have read in synagogue last Shabbat had we made it here:

And the Lord said to Moses, “I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you out of here one and all. Thus says the Lord: Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians, and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again; but not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites, at man or beast – in order that you know that the lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.”

Anyone who reads these words today might find them most difficult to fathom. How can God supposedly imbued with compassion bring forth such a sentence? How can God bring about the destruction of the innocent along with the wicked? How can God end the lives of the first-born of all of Egypt? Why was such collective justice without reason administered? These are all fine questions that deserve to be asked.

And yet those of us who remember the words of the beginning of the book of Exodus may in fact understand the method of what is composed in the Torah. For when we first read of the Egyptians oppressing the Israelite people we read of a similar form of justice that was to be administered by the king of Egypt. Here is what we read from the portion that began the book of Shemot:

And yet those of us who remember the words of the beginning of the book of Exodus may in fact understand the method of what is composed in the Torah. For when we first read of the Egyptians oppressing the Israelite people we read of a similar form of justice that was to be administered by the king of Egypt. Here is what we read from the portion that began the book of Shemot:

“The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field. The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of them named Shiphrah and the other Puah, saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is girl, let her live.”

The same punishment that Pharaoh once decreed upon the Israelites will now be meted out to the Egyptians. As one commentary put it, “Pharaoh, who once decreed death for the Israelite male children, will now see the children of his own people struck down. God has tried everything to persuade Pharaoh to relent, to no avail. Of course, God could have struck Egypt with this plague first, but hoped that lesser punishments would bring about the desired result. It turned out that the society that benefited from slaying the Israelite children will now pay the price.”

And so it is that we see that the punishment fits the crime of sorts. As the book of Exodus begins with the enslavement of the Israelites and the sentencing of the Israelite male children to death so the enslavement ends with the killing of the first-born of the Egyptians. And yet, this all could have been avoided – is the underlying message of this part of the Torah. Death, destruction, plagues, all could have been prevented if people had just been decent to each other. If Egypt had not decided to imprison Israel, if Pharaoh had not decided to use human beings as workhorses then the implicit message is that none of the destruction that we have read about would have happened. And perhaps that is the real point behind the mythic force of the story of the Exodus. If we would just treat each other with decency and with goodness instead of with hate and reprehensible behavior all the deaths that are enumerated in these sections of Torah could have been avoided. But unfortunately all too often that is not how we behave. We can’t seem to shake off the wrongs that are imposed upon us and just walk the other way.

The discussion I had with the driver on the way to the cemetery. “I used to let the other drivers get to me. I used to pounce on those who wronged me.” I don’t do that anymore, I just let it go. I just in a sense walk the other way. If we could only do that then maybe our world would become a more human and more civilized place.


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