Parshat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – Only a people committed to universal freedom has the right to benefit from a revolution and create its own nation-state. Most revolutions in history have failed, with the leaders of the new regime acting far more cruelly and high-handedly than the despots they replaced.
When former slaves begin to rule, they generally do so with a vengeance, zealously and vengefully expressing their new-found invincibility.Witness the French Revolution and the Communist Revolution; sadly the same seems to be true of the Arab Spring as well.
The nation of Israel was born out of a revolution against the despotic regime of the Egyptian Pharaohs. But this revolution did not fail; much the opposite, its message of the inalienable right of universal freedom and its abhorrence of all forms of enslavement reverberate to the present day.
The Israelites emerged from slavery to freedom as a result of 10 plagues which brought havoc to the most advanced civilization of that time.We celebrate their exodus every year at the Seder, reading together the Ten Plagues. These plagues, declares Rabbi Yehuda, are remembered and symbolically categorized by a mnemonic device which divides the plagues into three groups: DATZAKH (dam, tzfardea, kinim), ADASH (arov, dever, shehin), BAHAB (barad, arbeh, hoshekh, b’khorot): blood, frogs and vermin; then wild animals, animal illnesses and boils; finally hail, locusts, darkness and the slaying of the firstborn.
Each group highlights the mastery of God over another aspect of Egyptian life: The first three, in which the Nile turned to blood, the waters spewed forth frogs and the dust turned into vermin, demonstrate control over the waterways and the land; the second three, wild animals, animal illnesses and boils, demonstrate control over those who populate the land; and the last three, hail, locusts and darkness, demonstrate control over what comes out of the heavens. The slaying of the firstborn expresses God’s power over life and death.
The Maharal of Prague and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch provide an even deeper insight into these three categories of plagues. They hark back to God’s initial covenant with Abraham, when the patriarch is informed, “Your seed will be strangers in a land which is not theirs, they shall be enslaved and they shall be afflicted” (Gen. 15:13).
Since the Egyptian experience serves as a paradigm for all subsequent Jewish and human exiles and persecutions, this prophesy delineates the three characteristics ascribed by every totalitarian persecutor to any minority group: alienation (gerut), enslavement (avdut) and affliction (inui). This is what Pharaoh did to the Hebrews, what Hitler did to non-Aryans, and what Stalin did to any group that threatened his authority.
The Hebrews in Egypt were first delegitimized as aliens or strangers, then they were enslaved and finally they were persecuted (afflicted) with the mass murder of the Hebrew male babies. The Maharal and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch ingeniously suggest that God punished the Egyptians measure-for-measure by means of the plagues – and Rabbi Yehuda brings this allusion to the forefront in his tripartite division of the plagues.
The first plague in each of the three groups – blood, wild animals and hail – would make the Egyptians feel like aliens in Egypt as the Nile turned to blood, wild animals ran rampant and hail poured down on a defenseless Egyptian populace.
The second plague in each grouping – frogs, animal illnesses and locusts – would make the Egyptians feel enslaved, devoid of property ownership. The frogs took over their homes, the animal illnesses destroyed their livestock, and the locusts consumed their agricultural crop.
And the last plague of each of the three categories – vermin, boils and darkness – afflicted every Egyptian with severe personal discomfort, making it impossible to continue living, working and socializing. The Egyptians became subject to the very alienation, enslavement and affliction to which they had subjected the Hebrews! The most important point is not that the victims turned the table on their masters, as is the case with most revolutions; it is rather that the God of both the Hebrews and the Egyptians teaches the world the necessity of universal freedom under the God of all humanity.
The Bible does not depict the Hebrews as invincible conquerors after the Exodus; they are only grateful freedmen, beholden to the Lord God of the universe for their redemption.
This is the message of our revolution against Egypt as well as of the four (for us, now five) expressions of redemption which is the major source for our four (five) cups of redemption-wine highlighting the Passover Seder: “I have taken you out from under the sufferings of Egypt, I have saved you from their enslavement, I have redeemed you with great miracles, and I have taken you for Me or a nation so that I may be your God,” “I have brought you to your land.” (Exod. 6:6(.
We dare not exit from our revolution in order to lord it over any other minority; God freed us from Pharaoh’s enslavement only in order that we may be free to serve God. He teaches us and the world that we must “love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10: 19), and gave us a Sabbath day in order that our gentile servants “may rest like you” – for everyone must be free under God (Deut. 5: 14(.
Only a people committed to universal freedom has the right to benefit from a revolution and create its own nation-state; the formation of yet another totalitarian regime will only increase human misery and prevent the advent of a world of peace. Herein lies the challenge to the Arab Spring.