When Torah Giants Assume

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Kli Yakar on Parshat Bo starts us off by noticing how Moshe changes God’s words about where to place the blood of the Pesach sacrifice. In 12;7, Hashem said the Jews should put the blood on the two doorposts and the lintel; Moshe reverses the order in verse 22. Kli Yakar has three versions of one idea, depending on which great figures of Jewish history God implicitly honored.

God Wants Us to Start, We Want God to Start

He hinges his thoughts on a passage in Eichah Rabbati 5;21 we might not have thought to apply here. Talking about redemption, the Midrash says God calls for us to repent after which He, as it were, will “return” to us, restore us to all our former comfort and success (the idea is based on Malachi 3;7, where Hashem says shuvu elai v-ashuvah aleichem, return to Me, and I will return to you). The Jewish people respond that it is beyond their capabilities [Kli Yakar’s interpretation of the Midrash, but not our issue right now], they need Hashem to take the first step, as they say in Eichah 5;21, return us to you, Hashem, and we will return.

Kli Yakar assumes this is a recurring conversation between us and God, our incident in Egypt an early version of it. Hashem tells Moshe to put the blood on the doorposts first, a nod to the Avot and Imahot, Patriarchs and Matriarchs, who did much to bring God’s Presence to th world, a call for their descendants to also be the first step of this Pesah night revealing of God’s Glory.

Moshe had the people put it on the mashkof, the lintel, to symbolize God (Kli Yakar points out that Tanach uses the verb root of shkf for God’s Providence, such as in Tehillim 102;20), to call for God to take the first step, as the Midrash said we want.

Or maybe it is about more than this night’s events, God’s involvement in the world generally. God says it happens bottom-up, the righteous serve God’s Will and elicit God’s bounty, where Moshe wants the Jewish people to honor God by putting the blood on the lintel first, knowing God’s shefa always comes only because of God’s free choice to grant it. Kli Yakar also accepts the possibility the doorposts symbolize Moshe and Aharon, to the same effect.

[He does not address the fact that he is saying Moshe deliberately changed what God had said. I know of other cases where we say this—such as Moshe adding a day of preparation before the Giving of the Torah—but his comfort with saying it here, without a specific source, seems surprising. I assume he would have said Moshe knew the goal was the blood being there, and the order was less important, but his confident readiness to assume seems to me to bear notice.

Once I’ve brought it up, it’s become a bit of a fixation for me, how great Torah scholars see real questions, then provide answers they are confident is correct. I have no standing to disagree, only to point out where they are assuming without evidence.]

Dogs Don’t Sense Hashem

Hashem includes in 11;7, when laying out makkat bechorot, the plague of the first-born, the idea that dogs will not growl or move their tongues (the Metzudah and Koren translations, which I found on Sefaria), to show how God was differentiating between the Egyptians and the Jews. Hatam Sofer reasonably asks why that was the way to spot the gap between them, wasn’t it good enough that Jewish first-born did not die and Egyptian first-born did?

To answer, he reaches for a passage in Baba Kamma 60, dogs cry when the angel of death comes to a city, and laugh when Eliyahu comes, an idea he takes to mean dogs have an ability to sense the presence of angels of salvation and/or destruction.

Exodus night, the dogs should have been crying for the Egyptians and laughing for the Jews. Instead, Hashem is saying they will remain silent, because they only sense angels. (For Hatam Sofer, the dogs’ mazal, representative in Heaven or role in the world, has this ability; we would probably say it differently, but it is the same idea, whatever they can sense has to do with this world). Their silence will show it is Hashem doing this, indetectable to dogs.

Hatam Sofer implies people would have found a way to deny it was God doing it if the plague had “only” killed the first-born Egyptians and not Jews [our ability to convince ourselves the truth is not true bothers me greatly, leaves me searching for ways to find truths we all will inescapably acknowledge]. Without the dogs’ silence, they could have found “reasons” that did not ascribe it solely to God. With the dogs’ silence, it was more clearly not just supernatural, but directly divine. Hence the verse’s reference to it being “so that” we will see how God separates the Jews from the Egyptians.

Ha’amek Davar Disagrees with Rashi

In halakha, authorities from a later period generally refrain from contradicting those from an earlier one. 10;6 says the locusts will fill the Egyptians’ houses, a level of infestation Ha’amek Davar believes obviates the verse’s continuation, “that neither you nor your forefathers have seen.” He also thinks the connecting word asher does not work well if the topic is the locusts themselves.

He supposes instead the verse meant the types of locusts, that some of the species included in this plague were not known in Egypt, and would now fill their houses.

He recognizes, eight verses later, that Rashi had said the opposite, because a verse in Yo’el said the locust infestation of his time was the worst ever. Rashi resolved the issue with the idea the Egyptian locusts were all of one type, the Yo’el locusts were of many species. Ha’amek Davar ratifies Ramban’s disagreement with Rashi, then is unconvinced by Ramban’s own reading.

Instead, he reverses Rashi, the Egyptian locusts were of many more varieties than the four named in Yo’el. Those four are the usual and main ones, but Hashem brought unusual and unknown ones to Egypt, as our verse says.

Ha’amek Davar is not only positing an answer he finds sensible, he is doing it in the face of Rashi’s explicit disagreement, and because he dislikes Ramban’s answer.

Three assumptions of great Torah scholars: Kli Yakar assumed Moshe allowed himself to change God’s order for no reason other than to honor God. Hatam Sofer was sure dogs sense only angels, the reason their silence would point to God being the one to perform this plague. And Ha’amek Davar assumed he had a better reading than Rashi of how the Egyptian locust was different than the Yo’el one, more species involved, not fewer.

About Gidon Rothstein

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