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Bo(Exodus 10:1-13:16)

It's the Children

The plagues continue; in fact, their severity seems to have increased. Pounded by plague after plague, the Egyptians suffer both physical discomfort and financial ruin. Although the Israelites had, for generations, been the engine that powered the Egyptian economy, the price the Egyptians were now paying to keep the slaves had become excessive. Did Pharaoh not have a competent actuary capable of charting the financial folly of his policy of intransigence, or was he motivated by other concerns? Perhaps the slave-based economy and standard of living was not at the head of Pharaoh's list of problems; rather, his struggle to retain power and stature took precedence. Should Pharaoh capitulate to the demands of the lowest echelon of his kingdom, his days as ruler would be over. Things had already begun unraveling: Even his court advisers had become emboldened enough to do what had once been unthinkable: They voiced an opinion that contradicted Pharaoh's decision, advocating the freeing of the slaves. In their words, "Egypt is already lost." (Shmot 10:7).

Pharaoh, while steadfast in his refusal, begins to show some signs of weakening. In a step toward negotiating a partial and temporary release of the slaves, he inquires about the planned three-day prayer retreat. Who will be going? (Shmot 10:8) Moshe responds that young and old, males and females - every single member of the Israelite nation, must be released. Pharaoh warns Moshe of the folly of this plan: It would be a terrible mistake, he tells him, to take everyone. To Pharaoh's mind, a religious experience of this sort is exclusively "men's work;" the women and children should be left behind. This may have been no more than self-serving advice, designed to insure that the slaves would not run off; alternatively, this may have been an expression of sincere concern, a moment of weakness on Pharaoh's part that allows us a glimpse of his inner world. Pharaoh warned Moshe not to make the mistake of creating a democratic society, a society lacking the clear caste distinctions on which Egyptian culture was based. To do so would be even more destabilizing than the plagues, as it would have a devastating domino effect on the very underpinnings of Pharaoh's rule. If men and women, boys and girls, young and old, people of all social strata, were to serve God equally in the wilderness, where would such feelings of equality lead?

This, of course, was a "deal breaker": Moshe would not agree to a partial exodus. Until they could all leave Egypt to serve God, they would not leave at all.

Had Pharaoh acquiesced, had he let them take a three-day furlough to serve God in the wilderness, the story would surely have had a different ending. The Egyptians' suffering and eventual death could have been averted; all Pharaoh had to do was to allow the Israelites universal worship. After this three-day religious experience, the Israelites would have returned to Egypt, to share the lessons they had learned with their erstwhile oppressors. Slavery and tyranny would have come to an end, and the Israelites would have marched on to the Promised Land. The three days of universal worship in the wilderness would have endowed them, as a nation, with the spiritual fortitude to face whatever lay ahead; everyone, without exception, was to participate.

Moshe's demand stands in stark contrast to the longstanding Egyptian ethos. Egyptian society was built on a clearly defined hierarchy, not only between the sexes but in terms of utility: taskmasters, overseers, Israelite slave handlers, common slaves. From the outset, the Pharaohs had distinguished between men and women, boys and girls: The boys were to be killed, and the girls were to become personal slaves to the Egyptians. Moshe, on the other hand, lays out the first steps of the nascent Jewish nation, and his focus is not limited to the men or even to the adults. When Moshe makes this declaration of universal worship, an authentic Jewish ethic is born: Judaism's greatest investment is in the children. The Jewish People does not exist without the children, and we are willing to remain in Egypt as long as necessary, until such time as the children are freed. We will sacrifice for our children.

Tragically, Pharaoh chose the opposite track, preferring to sacrifice Egypt's children - even his own flesh and blood - to maintain the status quo. From the outset, Pharaoh had been warned that if the Jews (and their children) are not freed - the Egyptians' children will die. After nine plagues, it should have been clear to Pharaoh that Moses' warnings were not empty threats, they were guarantees: The worst plague of all, the plague of the firstborn, was imminent.

The events recounted in this parashah teach us that our children were not merely a part of the Exodus story, they are the focus Exodus itself, and of the retelling of the tale every year on Passover Eve. For at least one night, every Jewish parent becomes a teacher and every Jewish child a student. Our children are the focus of the Passover Seder, and it is our duty to make them feel that they are a part of the events of the Exodus.

The education of our children is no academic exercise; it is a defining element of our religious identity. Although the Seder is a once-a-year lesson designed to draw our children into the Jewish experience, the investment we make in our children goes far beyond that one special night. It is a constant in Judaism that began with Moses' declaration that everyone - men, women, and most importantly, children, worship God equally and directly. When we retell the Passover story each year at the Seder table, our children are the focus, just as they were the focus of the Exodus itself.

For a more in-depth analysis see: http://arikahn.blogspot.co.il/2015/01/parashat-bo-lectures-and-essays.html

NOTE

1. This point I heard from Rabbi Soloveitchik.

January 19, 2015

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