This week’s parsha is a real challenge. It begins with a staggering atrocity, and ends on the exact day when the Israelites, finally, escaped the yoke of slavery in Egypt. There is a deeply disturbing juxtaposition here: revolutionary upheaval provides both fresh suffering and fresh life. One person’s slave rebellion, is another person’s social collapse.
As I said, there’s a lot to contend with, and most of it isn’t pretty.
I have to admit, reading and re-reading the first two verses, I found myself flirting with a dangerous question:
“Is G-d a monster?”
After all, what kind of being does this:
I’d like to point out that the verse does not simply say “the first-born died.” The verse specifically catalogues the scope of the operation. Everyone suffers equally: from Pharaoh, to the prisoners, to the livestock. The upper strata, the forgotten criminals – everyone.
The other plagues may have left the Egyptian empire battered; this one is an atomization that we could associate with any number of tyrants throughout history, who killed at demographically meaningful scales. We could call it democide.
To respond to my own question, whether G-d is monstrous, I’m wondering if G-d is neither purely monstrous nor purely angelic; by definition, G-d is everything. G-d contains every contradiction; G-d contains every answer. (I’m not sure this answer is especially helpful.)
A few other thoughts:
First, the passage tells us that the Israelites were held captive for 430 years (Exodus 12:40). We’re right to be so troubled about the fate of Egyptian first-born. But I think it is also entirely fair to wonder how many Israelite first-born were sacrificed to the man-god Pharaoh in that four-century span. Didn’t Pharaoh himself worry about controlling the population of the over-populous Israelites (Exodus 1:9).
We can expand the discussion: Egypt was a great empire, and great empires were (and still are) made by corralling competition. How many other groups did the Egyptians also enslave? And how many of those first-born were consumed by Pharaoh’s imperial machine?
How many of Egypt’s own first-born did Pharaoh consume in pursuit of his majesty?
I’ve been thinking about this “loud cry.” What is the cry for?
The cry is because the Egyptians are now being touched with G-d’s hand – death. The cry comes because this now touches their houses. As far as I can tell, these cries of pain have nothing to do with the original sin of keeping humans as beasts of labor.
Is G-d bringing to Pharaoh what Pharaoh was accustomed to bringing on everyone else? Is this an arbitrary massacre, or is it an ancient act of revolutionary violence? (This raises questions about the basic nature of all political revolutions, but that’s for another post.)
If we are to condemn G-d’s bloodbath as the act of a monstrous being, we would do well to wonder if G-d is doing anything here that humans haven’t done to each other first. I wonder if part of G-d’s judgement here is a condemnation of all of us, that nothing is more despicable than building a regime on the backs of human cattle.
I have to also remember: at this point, we Israelites have not been given Torah. That comes much later in Exodus. Perhaps, in this pre-Torah world – a world “pre” morality if you will – G-d is now laying clear boundaries about what is permissible behavior, and what behavior will result in revolutionary violence.
Part of this verse actually makes very little sense to me. The Israelites were in no sense “driven” out of Egypt. They fulfilled G-d’s commands and G-d’s hand swept down and punished Egypt with such severity that Egypt was begging the Israelites to leave – that’s right from the text. I can agree that the Israelites were exfiltrated from Egypt; they escaped; they fled; they broke out. I can’t read Hebrew so I can’t speak to the translation, but I can’t reconcile “driven” with the events that have transpired.
I have a question about the cakes of dough, too.
The preparation of matzah is important enough to come up twice, so it is worth thinking about. Obviously, the Israelites were mobile and had to mobilize quickly. But what greater meaning is there? Unleavened bread is kind of inactivated bread – maybe in a sense, “dead” bread. Here we’ve got an essential food, a food that has to sustain a newly freed people on the move. Even though this food is minus its its key “life-making” ingredient, it sustains life anyhow.
We end the parsha with the Israelites en route out of Egypt. Nothing about this process was cheap or fun or throw-away. It required the invocation of G-d’s hand, which swept down and annihilated a vast number of Egyptians. We got the radical change we wanted; and it meant great suffering was inflicted on another group of people, who, like us, cry out when death visits our homes.
In this case, we have two contradictory things that are both true. We are right to be overjoyed at our escape. But we must show humility, and great repentance, for the price that was paid to get it.