In Essays

Parsha Bo | Bye Bye Firstborn

Photo by Gaurav D Lathiya on Unsplash

Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Bo, Exodus 10:1 – 13:16. Click here to read last week’s, Parsha Vaera.

It’s déjà-vu all over again in Parsha Bo. Like in last week’s Parsha Vaera, God lets loose a series of plagues on Egypt only to continue hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that “I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them––in order that you may know that I am the Lord.”

God sounds a bit like a WWE wrestler here:

“I’m gonna bring Pharaoh a world of pain, but I’m gonna keep him in the ring long enough to fill the pay-per-view, primetime requirement so that you’re still talking about this heavyweight bout for generations to come!”

It reads gratuitous, just as it did last week, but the hosts at Parsha In Progress shared an interesting idea in their commentary of last week’s Parsha. It’s relevant here because it has to do with the whole hardening of the heart thing.

In “Is God A Show-Off?” they discuss the idea that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart not just to prolong the suffering, but so that this moment is more meaningful throughout Jewish history. In other words, if Moses turning his rod into a serpent did the trick and set his people free, it’d be a bit of an anti-climax. Would Jews the world over still be celebrating the exodus once a year if the fight for freedom ended so quickly? Probably not.

Even in our own lives, our greatest achievements are likely characterized by overcoming some obstacles. Now imagine overcoming slavery as the obstacle. I’d venture that the sense of accomplishment and meaning that’d carry in one’s life would be just a tad more than, say, that time you hit the cementing free throws in a junior high basketball tournament. (I DID THAT! THAT WAS ME!)

Extrapolating that lesson is nice, but I still can’t help but be bothered that it was God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Couldn’t Pharaoh just continue being a dick on his own? He was so good at it! Instead, we’re left with yet another example of the Israelites’ complex relationship with God.

(Remember, the Torah and indeed this story was recorded by humans in exile long after the story is thought to have taken place. It’s more than likely that creative license was taken. That or God really was a prick who wanted to show-off and the exiled Israelites really wanted to preserve that detail.)

Bye Bye First-Born

Parsha Bo runs through some more plagues (locusts, etc.) and repeats the song and dance of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart to prolong the narrative. It’s all familiar territory through the killing of the first-born, but a line stuck to me.

When Moses quotes the Lord, describing what’s going to happen in the final plague, he says, “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.”

I mean, hot damn, God! Even if you could rationalize the killing of Pharaoh’s first-born by saying he’d likely grow up to be just as horrible to the Israelites as his father (not unlike the thought experiment of going back in time to kill baby Hitler)––do we really need to take out the slave girl’s firstborn? Of the cattle, too!?

The only moral I can wring out of this one is that we’re all somehow complicit in the crimes committed by the world we’re born into. It reminds me of how defensive some white people can get when discussing white privilege. If they grew up poor, they might have a hard time acknowledging privilege. Likewise, why should an Egyptian slave-girl suffer because of the Egyptian treatment of the Israelites? Though her life experience is certainly valid, she is presumably better off in the story than the Israelites.

(Admittedly, I have a hard time swallowing even this explanation because she is noted as a slave and I can’t imagine how God could see fit to hold her just as responsible for the suffering of the Israelites as the Pharaoh and his kid.)

Or less harshly, perhaps the lesson is that you have an obligation to own up to the crimes of your people––past and present. I see that in Germany where, in general, there’s a strong memory culture to ensure that something like the Holocaust never happens again. In fact, it’s interesting to note that we’re reading this Parsha detailing the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt in the same week as the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

A Passover Manual

Anywho, the story goes on just as you remember. The Israelites slaughter a lamb to mark their doorposts and God lays out pretty clear instructions on how to celebrate this Passover in the future.

“This day shall be to you one of remember: you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.”

So… No challah?

God continues with His Passover instructions and the final plague goes on as planned, without a hitch. And Pharoah, finally, has had enough and God isn’t going to harden his heart.

“Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Lord as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!”

Kinda odd that Pharaoh would ask for or even expect a blessing on the way out, no?

And so the Israelites split, leaving Egypt after 430 years.

Onward with Parsha Beshalach.

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