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Torah Sparks

January 12, 2008 – 5 Shevat 5768

Annual: Ex. 10:1 – 13:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 374; Hertz p. 248)
Triennial Cycle: Ex. 10:1 – 11:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 374; Hertz p. 248)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13 – 28 (Etz Hayim, p. 395; Hertz p. 263)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

We have come to the climax of the story of the Israelites in Egypt. Pharaoh’s intransigence continues, and Egypt experiences the eighth and ninth plagues – locusts and darkness. God tells Moses that there is only one more plague to come and then Pharaoh finally will let the people go. He instructs Moses to tell the people to request objects of silver and gold from their Egyptian neighbors.

Moses announces the final plague to Pharaoh – the death of the firstborn – but once again Pharaoh doesn’t listen. God then tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to prepare a lamb to be slaughtered and eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs on the fifteenth of Nisan, the night on which God will strike down all the Egyptian firstborn. Moreover, this date is to begin a seven-day celebration in subsequent years. Moses speaks to the elders and tells them to prepare for the first Passover, and the people do as they have been taught.

The final horrible plague occurs and the firstborn of all Egyptians of all strata of society are dead. Finally, Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and tells them to take the Israelites and go immediately. The Israelites leave Egypt after 430 years.

God gives Moses and Aaron the laws of the Passover festival that is to be observed in future years. He also gives them the laws of the redemption of the firstborn and of tefillin.

A Circle Around God

Moses replied, “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe the Lord’s festival. (Exodus 10:9)

  1. “The reason why we must take our young with us,” Moses told Pharaoh, “is that we must hold a feast to the Lord, and how could we rejoice or celebrate a holiday if we were to leave our children behind in an alien land? Without our children, no joy can be complete.” (Shem Mi-Shmuel [Rabbi Samuel Bornstein, 1856-1926, Poland])
  2. We have no intermediary, no priests, no representative before our God. If we are to go, we must all go; the tiniest baby in the cradle, the last sheep of our possessions. Each and all are integral parts of our community. None and nothing may remain, for we are all to form a circle about God. God calls us together around Him, and when God calls us, He wants to see us with every member of our family and with all our possessions, about Him. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
  3. The Baal HaTurim [Rabbi Jacob ben Asher] suggests that when Pharaoh says “men,” his intention is males between the ages of 20 and 60. Pharaoh refused to allow those under 20 or over 60 to leave. … Pharaoh understood something about the Jewish people. In order for there to be a Jewish people, there has to be a past and there has to be a future. Klal Yisroel must have a past. We are a religion with a concept of “mesorah,” a concept of tradition that we get from our fathers and from our fathers’ fathers. This concept is vital to what Judaism is all about. But we are also a religion that believes that unless we have someone to give over this heritage to, we have no future. (Rabbi Yissochar Frand, Ner Yisrael, Baltimore, Maryland)
  4. A community that ignores the spiritual plight of its young and focuses only on the old people is like an old-age home. Conversely, one that shunts aside its elders in favor of the young is like an orphanage. Fortunate are the young who view the wisdom of their elders as a beacon of light by which to make their way through life; blessed are the elders who are strengthened by the alacrity and verve of the young. (Hagigei Asher)

Sparks for Discussion

We live in an increasingly age-segregated society. Few extended families live together; grandparents and grandchildren may see each other only a few times each year. There are surely benefits to “active senior” communities and “child-friendly” vacation destinations, but there are disadvantages as well. Our commentators are clear that the Jewish community not only requires the presence of elders and youth, it requires their interaction. What can the young gain from spending time with their elders? What can elders gain from spending time with children and youth? How can we as a community encourage the young and the old to spend time together? How can we create a truly intergenerational community?

The True Plague of Darkness

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:21-23)

  1. Ordinary “darkness” is no phenomenon in itself and merely the absence of light. When there is no light, it is dark. Darkness of this sort has no existence in its own right and can be readily dispelled by the kindling of a light. But the darkness which came over the land of Egypt was a phenomenon in its own right, so real that it could be felt and could not be dispelled by light. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  2. If a person does not see his fellow, or does not want to see him, there is darkness in the world. (Eshkol Ma’amarim)
  3. The greatest darkness is when a person does not see his fellow and does not participate in the distress of others. People could not see one another – they did not feel the other’s distress. Their senses were dulled -- no one could get up from where he was. This is what the Sages meant when they stated in Shemot Rabbah that “the darkness was as thick as a golden denar.” Running after the golden denar increases one’s egocentrism, dulls his eyes, and makes it difficult for him to feel the distress of other Jews. (Avnei Ezel [Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman, 1897-1943, Poland])
  4. [Only one person was originally created] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One. If a human being stamps several coins with the same die, they all resemble one another. But the King of kings, the Holy Blessed One, stamps all human beings with the die of the first man; and yet not one of them is identical with another. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

Sparks for Discussion

The Torah makes it clear that the ninth plague was not the ordinary darkness of night. Our commentators understand this darkness as a condition of the souls of the Egyptians, blindness to the needs and feelings of others. Avnei Ezel attributes this blindness to chasing after money. To what do you attribute it?

Today, there is another way to understand people could not see one another. Rather than seeing others as people, we often see people simply as representatives of racial, ethnic, political, or other groups. Once we know that someone is Asian, Cuban, Muslim, gay, evangelical Christian, we believe we know everything we need to know about that person. How does the mishnah from Sanhedrin challenge our “red state/blue state” thinking?

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