D’var Torah: Parashat Bo from Tzfat

18 Jan
Torah inside of the former Glockengasse Synago...

Torah inside of the former Glockengasse Synagogue in Cologne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Greetings from the holy city of Tzfat where I am spending this weekend and Shabbat with my parents.

Parashat Bo is almost always difficult for me to read. Although I certainly have a deep desire to  witness the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, it comes at a significant cost. To my Western educated mind, the slaying of the first born, whether at the hands of Pharoah or the Angel of Death, sends more than chills up my spine when I consider the genocidal nature of both sets of neonatal fatalities.

Tradition is not entirely comfortable celebrating the death of the Egyptians either, one of the reasons that we do not say full Hallel (Psalms of Praise) for the entirety of the Pesach holiday. On seder night itself, when every action has symbolic meaning designed to incline the heart to feel as if every individual is experience the exodus personally, wine, a symbol of happiness, is taken from our glasses as we recount the plagues that God wrought upon the Egyptians. Further, a similar tension is witnessed in the cases of Purim and Hannukah, where we are unsure of exactly which elements of those holidays to emphasize. In the case of Hannukah, is it the miracle of the oil, or the military victory that brought the slaughter of thousands? In the case of Purim, of course we are beyond ecstatic that Haman’s evil plot was foiled, but when Megilat Esther lists the names of Haman’s sons, we read them quickly and quietly so as not to dwell on their destruction.

In our parasha, Exodus 12:41, the night of The Passover is called a, ליל שמורים (lit. night of watches). While we can certainly take this to mean that it is a night which was affixed on the calendar earlier in the parasha as a watershed point in Jewish history, both for that generation and all generations forthcoming, it was also a night of a terrible plague. It is hard to imagine that the Israelites themselves were not guarded and anxious as a result of what was happening just beyond their doors. In the book of Proverbs, 24:17, we are taught, “In the falling of your enemy you shall not rejoice, and in his stumbling, do not gladden your heart,” a statement that is not only definitive, but also appeals to modern Western sensibilities. It reminds me of the massive celebrations that erupted upon learning of the death a long-wanted terrorist. Yes, the blood of thousands was on his hands, but does that justify the celebration of his downfall?

While I do not have an answer to the tension, I do believe that it is incumbent upon us to be aware of our actions. Should we cease in our efforts to attain the highest possible level of achievement even if it means that somebody else does not get the promotion, scholarship? No. But should be we sensitive to the ways in which those things impact the lives and feelings of others? Absolutely. If the Torah and The Rabbis sense the tension it is equally incumbent upon us.

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