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‘Exacting Judgement’ Parashat Masa’ei 5782

My family ebulliently sings “Dayeinu” each year at the Passover seder. As with many families, it is one of our favourite songs. And yet, even while I speak a fluent Hebrew, it now seems that I have had no idea what I have been saying over the past half century.

The first two verses of Dayeinu read as follows: “[1] Had He taken us out of Egypt and not exacted judgement upon them, that would have been sufficient (Dayeinu). [2] Had He exacted judgement upon them and not against their deities, that would have been sufficient”. Two questions arise:

  1. Where does the Torah state that G-d “exacted judgement” upon the Egyptians?
  2. What does “exacting judgement” entail?

Surprisingly, the answer to the first question is “Absolutely nowhere”. When G-d predicts the tenth and final plague and the subsequent exodus from Egypt, He informs Moshe [Shemot 12:12] “I will pass through the land of Egypt on this night, and I will smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast, and upon all the deities of Egypt will I exact judgments,  I am the L-rd”. When the Torah summarises the travels of the Jewish People in the desert in the portion of Masa’ei, we are told [Bemidbar 33:4] “The Egyptians were busy burying [their dead] because G-d had struck down their firstborn and had exacted judgement against their deities”. According to the first verse, G-d never intended to exact punishment on the Egyptians, only upon their deities. According to the second verse, G-d exacted punishment only upon the Egyptian deities. What, then, are we singing about in Dayeinu?

Which leads us to our second question. The medieval commentators are divided as to precisely how G-d “exacted judgement” upon the Egyptian deities. One school of thought, led by Rashi[1], the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, explains that G-d physically destroyed all of the Egyptian idols: Wooden idols rotted and metallic idols melted. Another school of thought, led by Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor[2], who lived in France during the second half of the twelfth century, suggests that the Hebrew word “elohei mitzrayim” – translated heretofore as “the deities of Egypt” – should be translated as “the [human] judges[3] of Egypt”. That is to say, when G-d killed the Egyptian first-born, He took down their judicial system as well as it had been leveraged to subjugate the Jews. The problem with both of these explanations is that the Torah never explicitly mentions their occurrence. When the tenth plague hits, the Torah tells us [Shemot 12:29] “At the stroke of midnight, G-d struck down all the [male] first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle.” Not the idols, not the judges, only the first-born. This inconsistency is pointed out by Rabbi Isaac Karo[4], who lived in Italy at the turn of the sixteenth century. Writing in “Toledot Yitzchak”, Rabbi Karo asks why the exacting of justice on the Egyptian deities is not mentioned as-it-happened in the Torah. He suggests the Egyptians did not notice that G-d had destroyed their deities because they were “busy burying [their dead]”. Rabbi Jacob Tzvi Mecklenburg, who lived in Germany in the nineteenth century, writing in “HaKetav veha’Kabala”, proposes an innovative explanation, suggesting that the Egyptians worshipped their first-born[5]. When G-d killed the Egyptian first-born, He ipso facto exacted judgement on their deities. Continuing down this path, Rabbi Mecklenburg explains that the reason that the Egyptians buried their first born so quickly was to cover up their embarrassment: Not only were the Egyptian deities powerless to save their subjects, they could not even save themselves. While Rabbi Mecklenburg’s explanation makes good sense, it does not fit into the structure of Dayeinu, in which the exacting of punishment [1] upon the Egyptians and [2] upon their deities are considered two separate items. According to Rabbi Mecklenburg, it would have been sufficient to say “Had He taken us out of Egypt and not exacted judgement upon their first-born deities, that would have been sufficient.” What, then, are we singing about in Dayeinu?

My wife, Dr. Tova Sacher, suggested a completely different approach. At the stroke of midnight[6], not one nanosecond earlier or later, the heart of every single Egyptian first-born ceased beating and they all dropped dead. In one instant, G-d unequivocally demonstrated His complete and utter mastery over the universe in a way that left no room for other deities. This demonstration closed a circle that began when Moshe first approached Pharaoh with a demand to free the Jewish People from bondage. Pharaoh answers Moshe [Shemot 5:2]: “Who is ‘G-d’ that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know ‘G-d’, nor will I let Israel go.” G-d? Never heard of him. When G-d strikes down the Egyptian first-born, there is no greater proof that He exists and must therefore be heeded[7]. This explanation is alluded to by the JPS translation of Bemidbar [33:4] found on the Sefaria web site: “The Egyptians meanwhile were burying those among them whom G-d had struck down, every [male] first-born – whereby G-d executed judgment on their gods.” By means of striking down every male first born, G-d simultaneously exacted judgement on the Egyptian deities. This hypothesis can present a novel interpretation to the Talmud in Tractate Sukkah [29a]: “There is no nation that is afflicted whose deity is not afflicted with it, as it is stated: “Upon all the deities of Egypt will I exact judgments,  I am the L-rd”. It is not that G-d afflicts a nation’s deities and its worshippers in parallel, but, rather, that as a direct result of G-d afflicting a nation, its own deities are retroactively shown to be null and void.

Now we can return to Dayeinu with a new and improved understanding by combining the first two verses: Had G-d taken us out of Egypt without punishing the Egyptians in a way that left room for doubt of G-d’s perfection, that would have been sufficient. All we wanted to do was to leave Egypt. And yet we merited an exhibition of infinite might that left no room for the existence of any other source of power. Dayeinu.

It is surprising that even after their entire system of belief had been so convincingly perforated, the Egyptians still chased the Jewish People, not stopping until they drowned in the depths of the Reed Sea. If the killing of the first born left no room for doubt, how did the Egyptians still, well, have room for doubt? Rabbi Zev Wolf of Zhitomyr, Ukraine, who lived in the eighteenth century, takes us back to the verse in which the “Egyptians were busy burying [their dead]”. Rabbi Wolf compares the Egyptians burying their with their burying of the truth. The Egyptians were suffering from cognitive dissonance. Even while the truth stared them in the face, they could not rectify what they had just experienced with what they “knew” to be true. This is why we sing Dayeinu. We are not merely thanking G-d for his beneficence – we are recognizing his beneficence: Look what He did. Look what He has been doing. Look what He continues to do. Dayeinu.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, and Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah.

[1] Rashi’s hypothesis is espoused also by the Ramban.

[2] This thesis is also espoused by the Da’at Ha’zekenim m’Ba’alei ha’Tosafot

[3] The word “Elohim” takes on this mundane (chol) meaning in a number of locations in the Torah. See, for instance, Shemot [22:27].

[4] Rabbi Karo was the uncle and teacher of Rabbi Joseph Karo, the author of the monumental “Beit Yossef” and “Shulchan Aruch”.

[5] This idea is not as farfetched as it might sound. Originally, the Jewish first-born were meant to officiate in the Holy Temple (Beit haMikdash) meaning that they were imbued with spiritual superiority. They were replaced by the Priests (Kohanim) only after they sinned with the Golden Calf (egel).

[6] See Shemot [12:29] and Rashi ad loc.

[7] See the Rashbam on Bemidbar [33:4].

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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