Thursday, January 18, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Bo 5778–Sub-contracting Death

Ah, the difficulties of trying to be unique. I’ve spent the better part of this week laying out the theme for my musing for parashat Bo. Along the way, I have, of course, looked at many other resources. Wouldn’t you know it – today was the day in which the resource I discovered was the musing I had planned to share this week – already written and shared a year ago by another!

So rather than attempt to do a better job than they already have, I’ve abandoned that effort, and direct you to the other one. I’ll go off in another direction.

I had planned to write about the erev rav, the mixed multitude that accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt. Who were they? Why did they come? What are the various theories about these questions that our sages have propounded? The other writer tackled these, and more. The real kicker is when the author of the other article used the same homonymic humor I had planned to use in mine. So I now direct you to this article, “What It Means to be Erev Rav” written by  Rabbi Gail Labovitz

Game over. Reset. New topic.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה כֹּ֖ה אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֑ה כַּחֲצֹ֣ת הַלַּ֔יְלָה אֲנִ֥י יוֹצֵ֖א בְּת֥וֹךְ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

Moses said, “Thus says the LORD: Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians,

וּמֵ֣ת כָּל־בְּכוֹר֮ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֒ מִבְּכ֤וֹר פַּרְעֹה֙ הַיֹּשֵׁ֣ב עַל־כִּסְא֔וֹ עַ֚ד בְּכ֣וֹר הַשִּׁפְחָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר אַחַ֣ר הָרֵחָ֑יִם וְכֹ֖ל בְּכ֥וֹר בְּהֵמָֽה׃

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. (Ex. 11:4-5)

and later:

וְעָבַרְתִּ֣י בְאֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַיִם֮ בַּלַּ֣יְלָה הַזֶּה֒ וְהִכֵּיתִ֤י כָל־בְּכוֹר֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם מֵאָדָ֖ם וְעַד־בְּהֵמָ֑ה וּבְכָל־אֱלֹהֵ֥י מִצְרַ֛יִם אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֥ה שְׁפָטִ֖ים אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃

For that night I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I the LORD. (Ex. 12:12)

So, where’s the “angel of death” to which we refer in the Haggadah, and which has become so associated with the Passover story?

At most, there’s a hint here, in this later verse:

וְעָבַ֣ר יְהוָה֮ לִנְגֹּ֣ף אֶת־מִצְרַיִם֒ וְרָאָ֤ה אֶת־הַדָּם֙ עַל־הַמַּשְׁק֔וֹף וְעַ֖ל שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֑ת וּפָסַ֤ח יְהוָה֙ עַל־הַפֶּ֔תַח וְלֹ֤א יִתֵּן֙ הַמַּשְׁחִ֔ית לָבֹ֥א אֶל־בָּתֵּיכֶ֖ם לִנְגֹּֽף׃

For when the LORD goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the LORD will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home. (Ex. 12:23)

The Destroyer, הַמַּשְׁחִ֔ית  HaMashkhit. Is this a separate entity, or just another of G”d’s appellations?

To further confuse things:

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּחֲצִ֣י הַלַּ֗יְלָה וַֽיהוָה֮ הִכָּ֣ה כָל־בְּכוֹר֮ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֒ מִבְּכֹ֤ר פַּרְעֹה֙ הַיֹּשֵׁ֣ב עַל־כִּסְא֔וֹ עַ֚ד בְּכ֣וֹר הַשְּׁבִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּבֵ֣ית הַבּ֑וֹר וְכֹ֖ל בְּכ֥וֹר בְּהֵמָֽה׃

In the middle of the night the LORD struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. (Ex. 12:29)

So which is it? Did G”d do the striking down, or was it through some agency of G”d, some angel, some destroyer?

Is this an attempt to whitewash G”d, to protect G”d’s image, and shift the blame for the dirty work to something else? Is it less public relations and more philosophical, trying to portray G”d as creative and not destructive?  Is it a put-down of the Egyptians – they’re not worth G”d’s direct effort to destroy their first-born sons, so G”d uses a sub-contractor? Is it an admission of a limitation of G”d, perhaps self-imposed, after the guilt of the flood, S’dom and Gomorrah and  other mass killings of human beings by G”d? Was G”d worn out from generating all those other plagues, and G”d needed help with this last one from one of the angels?

Is this original text, or a later insertion by folks attempting to deal with the issues I’ve raised above?

There’s no shortage of G”d being responsible for human death in the Torah. (There’s also no shortage of humans being responsible for human death, but that’s a discussion for another time.) we haven’t even gotten to Nadav and Avihu, to the thousands killed for being rebellious to Moshe, and so on. Yet somewhere along our historical and religious journey, we’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with a G”d that acts directly to kill humans. Obviously, by the time the Haggadah took its basic form, we’d decided to embrace the agency of the “angel of death” in the slaying of the first-born. We don’t need no stinking angels of death.

Hey G”d. If You created us, it’s Your responsibility to destroy us. No intermediaries, angels, sub-contractors.

What? What’s that You say? It was the Egyptians, and not Your chosen people? Gimme a break. If you are the One and only G”d, they are your creations too.

They worship other gods, You say? But those are not real gods, so why do You care?

To get Your love and protection, they can only believe in You? That sounds like a terrible idea. Yet, according to another religious tradition that worships you, that really is the case – they must believe in You and accept You as a personal savior in order to be redeemed. Come to think of it, in a way, that particular faith tradition is sort of using a sub-contractor as an intermediary.

Yes, yes, I get that Your creations are individuals, free-thinking, with free will, and that many different paths to You are possible.

You, G”d, are HaMashschit. Own up to it.  You’d stand a better chance of getting us to own up to our imperfections if You’d own up to Yours.

You want sub-contractors, hire us to do all the work. What’s that? You say that’s exactly what You want us to figure out – that we’re Your sub-contractors. If that’s the case, better we should be the creative sub-contractors than the destructive ones, right?

How that’s for turning what could have been a real downer of a musing into a happy ending (sort of?)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Bo 5777 - Good Loser (Revised 5763)
Bo 5776 - Four Strikes and You're...Well...(a fractured midrashic fairy tale)
Bo 5775 - Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5774 - Spellcheck On My hand
Bo 5773 - Dear G"d...Love, Pharaoh
Bo 5772 - Lifting the Cover of Darkness
Bo 5771 - Keretz MiTzafon-Again! (not the same as 5769)
Bo 5769-Keretz MiTzafon
Bo 5768 - Good Loser (Redux 5763)
Bo 5767-Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5766 - Random Disjunctions and Convergences (Redux 5760)
Bo 5765-Four Strikes and You're...Well...
Bo 5764-Keretz Ani
Bo 5763 -Good Loser
Bo 5761-Cover of Darkness
Bo 5762-Teach Your Children Well


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