The question seems so obvious that this week even a 1st-grader asked it. That could be a good thing, but perhaps not. More on that later.
Here's the chain of events: locusts, darkness, slaying of the first-born, exodus. "Why," the 1st-grader asked, "didn't the Israelites sneak out of Egypt while it was dark?" "yeah," another chimed in. "You told us it got so dark the Egyptians couldn't see anything." Another chimed in "It got so cold they were frozen in place." "Yes," I answered. "The Torah says 'v'lo kamu ish mi takhtav'-no man got up from his place', and the rabbis tell us the Egyptians couldn't move. And a midrash says that the Egyptians could hear noises all around them-doors opening, footsteps, etc-it was the Jews, checking out the beautiful things the Egyptians owned that they knew Hashem had promised they would be taking with them when they left Egypt." "But how could they see?" I answered, "the rabbis tell us that the Jews, wherever they went, there was light, and they could see, but no Egyptian could see." "So why didn't the Jews just leave Egypt?" my original questioner asked.
It's a good question. The rabbis have a few answers. The most obvious one is that Gd had not yet told the Israelites it was time to leave. Gd needed to work that final, awful plague to be sure Pharaoh on the Egyptians-and even the Jews themselves, learned of Gd's awesome power and learned that Gd was in charge. That's the classic answer I offered the students in this rather traditional Day School where I teach. But when one teaches, one is also a student, a learner, and I wasn't even fully satisfied with that answer. The rabbis also tell us that the Jews needed to collect the spoils of Egypt when they left, and that needed to wait until later. But there's a problem with that solution too. The Jews could just as easily taken the Egyptian's gold, silver and other valuables under the cover of darkness and then snuck out of Egypt while the Egyptians were frozen in place and blind.
Now, who I am to question Gd? Well, I am one of Gd's creations, endowed with the very ability to do so-so I assume my creator wants it that way. It wasn't enough to decimate the Egyptian economy with these plagues. Gd had to go ahead and kill all those first-born sons of Egypt. and later on, Gd wipes out most of the rest of the sons, drowning them in the sea! Was all that killing really necessary to make the point? How much punishment is enough?
"If all the first-born were killed, why wasn't Pharaoh killed?" asked another student. "A good question," I answered. "Of course, Pharaoh might not have been a first-born, but we all know Kings usually leave their kingdoms to their oldest sons, right? The rabbis tell us Pharaoh was left alive because someone had to be around to tell the story of Hashem's great power." A classic answer but yet one that troubles me. Even with all the decimation, might not leaving Pharaoh alive make it look to the Egyptians that perhaps Pharaoh, after all, did have some gd-like powers? But no, Pharaoh had to still be there- to face that ultimate humiliation and tell Moshe to take the Jews and get out of Egypt. And to be alive for that ultimate defeat at the sea of reeds. Ah, the old "puppet master" Gd. Not particularly satisfying.
But Gd, even with such ultimate power and unfathomable plans recognizes that human beings need to have things demonstrated in terms they can understand (something I wrote about in a last week's musing.) And sometimes human beings need to encounter things in terms they can't understand, so the mystery that is Gd can remain. And we have all that here in our parasha. Plainly understandable and totally incomprehensible at the same time.
Perhaps all this killing and destruction was a necessary part of our history, a necessary part of Gd's plan. Perhaps the Jews not sneaking out of Egypt under cover of darkness was part of all that. The same for Pharaoh not being slain as a first-born, if indeed he was. But I would be less than the creature the Gd made me if I didn't wonder if that really was all necessary. A moot point, since that's how it happened and it's how we got to where we are today? Perhaps. But maybe what Gd really wants us to do is to ask these question anyway. And ask them I shall. I won't live like an Egyptian in total, utter darkness. My questions are perhaps the light that I, like the Jews in Egypt, carry with me at all times to help me illumine at least a little bit of Gd. May our questioning always fuel our inner and outer light.
©2001 by Adrian A. Durlester
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