Baltimore and the Death of the Firstborn: Drasha Parshat Bo

Many of you may have seen an article in the NY Jewish Week citing allegations of child sexual abuse (CSA) and cover up in the Baltimore Jewish community. You can read more about it over, or after, shabbos, but the allegations and the reaction from both the leaders and the general community are nothing less than harrowing. (It is available here)

This conversation may be difficult for me to get through, but if you read the accusations, you know why (available here).

CSA is nothing short of a plague in our community. While certainly one case is too many, the fact that these cases continue to fester puts an increasing number of children at risk. And, the initial trauma is just the beginning. A 2001 Australian study found that 32 percent of CSA victims attempt suicide later in life (abstract here).

How should we relate to this story? What should our reaction be to such horrifying news?

I believe I found some insight in the reaction Hashem asks us to have after witnessing the death of the firstborns of Egypt.

The Death of the First Born
Erastus Salisbury Field, The Met

The plague itself even in the text seems horrific beyond imagination. However, the different commentaries stress how expansive the plague was. The verse tells us the Hashem smote “Kol Bechor Mitzrayim”, ALL the firstborns of Egypt. There are different explanations as to why the Torah writes “ALL the firstborns of Egypt” and not just “the firstborns of Egypt”. Perhaps it even included firstborns of people that were in Egypt, not just Egyptians. Perhaps it included Egyptians who were elsewhere at the time. Perhaps it included both the mother’s first born and the father’s first born, allowing multiple tragedies in one family. Why so expansive? Was the plague in the text not bad enough?

Rashi, quoting a Midrash from Midrash Rabba and the Tanchuma says that the reason even the other slaves in Egypt were part of the slavery of the Israelites. They benefited from their slavery, and were part of the system that enslaved them, so they were punished accordingly. Therefore, it would make sense to see the plague as expansive. All people who were part of the system of enslaving the Israelites were guilty parties, for they did not protest. We hear of no uprising within the people, even during the Makkot. While some advisors try to convince Pharoah otherwise, we see little attempt to set anyone free, even to spare themselves. Only after the deaths are out in the open do we see the Egyptians as active participants.

וַתֶּחֱזַק מִצְרַיִם עַל-הָעָם, לְמַהֵר לְשַׁלְּחָם מִן-הָאָרֶץ:  כִּי אָמְרוּ, כֻּלָּנוּ מֵתִים.

12:33 And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste; for they said: ‘We are all dead men.’

The Egyptians were so stuck in the cycle of backbreaking slavery that it took them to believe they would all die to finally take stock of where they were at.

After the pronouncement of the plague we are given two mitzvot, seemingly unrelated mitzvot (commandments), the mitzva of blessing the new month (Rosh Chodesh) and then the mitzvot of the Korban Pesach (Pascal sacrifice). How are these mitzvot a proper reaction to the Death of the Firstborn? What is Hashem trying to tell us?

Soforno, an Italian Medieval Rabbi in the 15th/16th century, gives a very interesting explanation, one that explains minutia in the text, but also explains the mitzva’s placement. Why does the Torah tell us “This month shall be FOR YOU, the first of the months”? Why not “This month shall be the first of the months”?

“From now on, the months shall be yours, to do with what you wish. Therefore, this month is the first month of the year, for it begins your freedom” (translation/paraphrasing mine)

The Jewish people are commanded to start anew. Nissan becomes the first month because it literally begins anew. They are to remember, but not be stuck in the past. They are not to be stuck in the slavery that ruled their lives for 210 years. They are to look ahead and say “this month is MINE”.

What are they supposed to do with their first free month? They are supposed to come together. Not metaphorically, but literally, in groups, to altogether partake in the Pesach and the beginning of their freedom. They do so not with freedom as we usually define it, but with many many rules. 16 separate mitzvot according to Maimonides.

How do they start again? They begin by not being stuck in old habits, by coming together, and having rules govern their existence.

The Egyptians, even those that were low down on the totem pole, even those that were visiting, or had left were stuck in old paradigms, not realizing the real harm they were doing. We are therefore told to break free of our own and to move forward.

We, as a Jewish community, and as a larger population, need to break out of our old habits. We need to see the destruction that is being caused and decide that this is a new month. We need to come together and tackle the problem together, just as everyone participated in the Pesach. We need to have rules that govern our existence. What those rules are may vary by institution, but it is vital to keeping our children safe. With rules, abusers are stopped before they can even have access. Had there been real rules in place, rules that were enforced, there would not have even been allegations to speak of. Instead, rules were not even made after the indications of CSA were levied.

Our reaction to this story should be anything but digging in our heals. It should be taking an account of where we are and moving forward.

Kol Israel is dedicated to ensuring our children’s safety. We hope to in the near future have a shabbat were we discuss these issues with an expert in the field. Together with experts, hopefully Dr. Shira Berkovitz of Sacred Spaces, who has spoken here before, we will craft careful guidelines to protect all our children. Unfortunately, the school and much of the wider community have doubled down (and again yesterday). Let us do better. We will aspire to be the Israelites leaving Egypt, heading to their new destinies, not the Egyptians mired in their old ones. Our children’s lives are at stake.

About the Author
Sam and his wife, Hannah, recently moved to Crown Heights when he became the Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Kol Israel (CKI) in Prospect Heights. Sam received his ordination from Yeshiva University where he also received his MA in Philosophy, and BA in Mathematics. During the week, Sam works for Prudential as an actuary, and makes too many puns for his wife's well being.
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