Bo: Jews, Egyptians, and the Nature of Time

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

It Was Hard to Get Out of Egypt, For Some

The Jews leave Egypt by the end of Parshat Bo; our commentators show complications in the process we might not have seen. Ramban to 12;42, while arguing the Jews actually spent more time in Egypt than Gd had told Avraham they would (as we will see below), says the Jews did not deserve to leave at that point, either. He notes Yehoshu24;14, where Yehoshu’a pleads with the people to set aside the gods their forefathers had worshipped in Egypt. (In 2;25, Ramban had pointed to Yehezkel 20, where the prophet reminds the Jews of Gd’s coming to them in Egypt, promising to redeem them if they put aside their idolatrous worships, and they having refused).

Rashi thought Jews found it hard to extricate themselves from Egypt, four-fifths of them (more than a Holocaust’s worth) with no interest in leaving, killed in the plague of darkness. The Midrash he was quoting, 10;22, had not given a reason for their death other than being evil; Rashi supplies the idea their resistance to leaving was the cause.

In other comments, Rashi recognizes more pieces to the puzzle of when the Exodus would happen. Jews were commanded to put the blood of the Pesah sacrifice on the inside doorpost of their homes, to declare to themselves their belief in Gd’s power and the coming plague; the plagues did not end until Par’oh surrendered unconditionally, agreed all Moshe and Aharon had been saying was what would come to be; and the Jews who did leave did not provision themselves, showing they had come to accept the value of complete trust in Gd.

Some non-Jews made the jump, too. Three verses bring up the erev rav, whom Rashi explains as non-Jews who decided to join the Jewish people for their ascendancy. Rashi knows they will eventually cause problems, such as at the Golden Calf, where they instigated much of the trouble. Onkelos seems to take a more neutral attitude towards them here, translating erev rav (a mixed multitude) as nukhraa sagiin, many foreigners, a nonjudgmental phrase.

A Choice Made Over and Over

Perhaps the erev rav went wrong in thinking one good and bold decision to join the Jewish people was all it took, where Rashi and Onkelos show us righeousness is a choice taken again and again. The Torah speaks of a son who will ask “what’s this?” about the Pesah preparations, 13;14, to Rashi a contrast to the question in Devarim 6;20, where the child has taken the time to recognize three kinds of laws on Pesah, edot, hukkim, and mishpatim (however we choose to define those).

Rashi calls the first child a tipesh, a word we might translate as “stupid,” a matter of capabilities. Rashi means it instead as a matter of the child’s obliviousness to the value of details in questions. Part of growing up well involves looking and noticing and studying, over and over.

Lack of interest can lead, Gd forbid, to a loss of observance, which then might lead to exclusion from cherished rituals. The Torah says a ben nekhar cannot partake of the Pesah sacrifice, a phrase Onkelos takes to mean a Jew de-yishtamad, who has become an apostate (Rambam thinks it’s about embracing an idolatrous worship, where ArtScroll cites others who include willful renunciation of any mitzvah).

On the other hand, Onkelos understands the Torah to allow converts to partake of the Pesah sacrifices, what the Torah means by ger ha-gar, 12;49, an ambiguous phrase that could have meant strangers who happen to live in Israel.

Choosing unwisely can lead to worse than exclusion from the sacrifice, because 12;15 speaks of karet, a Jew being cut off. The Torah refers to the soul being cut off, where Onkelos writes ve-yishtetze enasha ha-hu, the person. ArtScroll pointed us to Rabbenu Bahya and Abarbanel, who thought Onkelos was softening the blow, the person would be cut off, his or her soul still part of the people. It seems to me the reverse might also be possible, Onkelos thought the Torah sometimes used the word nefesh, soul, to mean the person.

However we take this particular instance, Parshat Bo shows us ways people can go wrong or right, in their original decision to leave Egypt, Jewish or not, manifesting enough interest in Pesah to ask detailed questions, staying with the religion enough to be allowed to join the Pesah sacrifice, or Gd forbid going the other way, losing their right to be part of the Jewish people.

The Egyptians Struggles

For the Egyptians, the challenge of the runup to the Exodus was seeing what was happening with the right lens. Par’oh warns Moshe, 10;10, against leaving Egypt because raah was opposite them; for the Midrash and Rashi, Par’oh had made a star-based prediction of a disaster to befall the Jews should they leave. (Later in the Torah, according to Rashi, Moshe saves the Jewish people from destruction for the sin of the Golden Calf by reminding Gd the Egyptians would say Gd took them out be-raah, 32;12 (and, two verses later, Gd reconsiders the raah.)

I note it here because it is of a piece with several other comments portraying the Egyptians as focused fully on their own view of how the world works, unable to see where Gd steps in. For another example, we above saw the Rashi about Gd killing four-fifths of the Jews; Rashi thinks it was done during darkness so the Egyptians wouldn’t see it. This already implies Jews were not important enough to the Egyptians to notice four-fifths of them had disappeared.

The reason Gd didn’t want them to see it opens another window on Rashi’s view of the the Egyptians’ psyche. Had they seen the Jews die, he says, they would have taken it as proof the plague wasn’t from the Jews’ Gd. In the same vein, Moshe says the killing of the first-born will happen ka-hatzot ha-layla, around midnight, according to Rashi because were the Egyptians’ clocks to be a little off, such that by their calculations it happened a little before or after, they would be sure Moshe’s prediction had not come true.

During the plague, captives’ sons were also killed, 11;5, according to one view in Rashi to avoid the Egyptians deciding it was the captives god who had brought the plague. A point worth lingering on for fear we might do the same: nine and ten plagues into the process, Rashi thinks the Egyptians would still have grasped at any straw to avoid conceding the truth of Gd’s involvement.

Onkelos gives us a reason the plague of the first-borns forced their hand. The Torah tells us the plague struck all the Egyptians, from Par’oh’s first born, ha-yoshev al kiso, 11;5. Ha-yoshev sounds like a continuing present, who sits, where Onkelos writes de-atid le-metav al karsei malkhutei, who is slated to sit on the throne. Onkelos seems to me to be saying the sight of their future being destroyed, the loss of those they planned to continue their legacy after they left this world, brought the message home to the Egyptians, who until then were happy to twist themselves into whatever pretzel it took not to have to face the truth.

Time in Small and Large Chunks

The idea of the future as what loomed large enough for the Egyptians to take it into account segues us into the many upcroppings of time in the parsha. Earlier, we saw Moshe’s reference to ka-hatzot, around midnight. Rashi suggests it might also mean when the night divides itself, with hatzot as a verb, to split in half. He explains bein ha-arbayim as the time between the two “evenings,” the evening of the switch from rising in the east to setting in the west (at noon), and the evening of actual sunset. In 10;22, Rashi tells us sheloshet yamim means a three-day period, rather than just three days, as shivat yamim (12;15) means a week, a unit, not just seven days.

Rashi calls our attention to smaller slices of time than we might usually notice, Ramban draws our attention to larger ones. He thinks Gd told the Jewish people to make the month of the Exodus the first of their year, 12;2, because the Jewish calendar was to reflect their redemption history; when they eventually were exiled again and returned, they brought names of months with them, a way to have the calendar allude to that second redemption as well.

Moving beyond months, Ramban thinks the time in Egypt lasted longer than Rashi did. To explain how 12;40 says the Jews were in Egypt for 430 years, when Gd told Avraham his descendants would be strangers in a land not theirs for four hundred, Ramban says the Jews’ sins led to their languishing there more than decreed (Gd did not promise Avraham the Jews would leave after four hundred years, Ramban adds, He informed Avraham they would be in exile for at least four hundred years).

In addition to solving the textual problem, it explains Sanhedrin 92b’s idea of some members of the tribe of Efraim leaving Egypt thirty years early, to go to Israel. For Ramban, they had kept accurate count, without realizing the Jews also had to deserve to go when the time came.

Bringing us full circle—I love closure– how hard it was for Jews to get out of Egypt, showing Bo to be about the Jews’ and other adjuncts’ strivings (and some failing) to be part of the nation, the Egyptian’s imperviousness to seeing Gd’s in the world, and the Torah’s attention to time, in small and large doses.

About Gidon Rothstein

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