Five Rashis, Parshat Bo: Being Alert to the Patterns of Our Lives

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya

The Rashis I found this week point to aspects of our lives we might miss. We will see one subtext of the Jews’ lives that ran from the beginning of the Exodus to the time of Yehoshu’a; an example of how both Jews and Egyptians were still able to overlook that which they did not want to see; be taught that the Torah puts time into different packages than we sometimes notice; be shown the challenge of actualizing even values we have espoused; and that engaging fully with what’s going on around us can be the difference between wisdom and stupidity.

רעה, and Beautiful Drush, In Front of Our Faces

Rashi to 10;10, the words ראו כי רעה, contains one of my favorite pieces of drush, because it highlights the kinds of Midrash Rashi had said he would cite, Midrash that does not claim to represent the simple meaning of the text, but yet hews closely to that text, reading it carefully to arrive at its conclusions.

The occasion is Par’oh’s response to the warning about locusts. Rejecting Moshe’s insistence that the whole nation is going to leave, Par’oh says ראו כי רעה נגד פניכם. As Rashi notes, Onkelos tells us that the simple meaning of that is that they’re setting their sights on רעה, something bad for them.

The Midrash Aggadah had it that Par’oh was telling them there was a star, called רעה, a sign of blood and death, indicating that leaving then would lead to their being killed. The Midrash then points out that when Moshe is trying to save the people’s lives after חטא העגל, the sin of the Golden Calf, 32;12, he says, למה יאמרו מצרים…ברעה הוציאם. Most simply, that means why should the Egyptians say He took them out for the bad, in that it led to their death.

Except that it’s another slightly off use of the word רעה, and fits the Midrash, which reads it as why should the Egyptians crow that they knew this would happen, since Hashem took them out under the star רעה? Hashem’s response is to convert the blood that should have been spilled in punishment for this sin to blood of circumcision, which is why Yehoshu’a 5;9 speaks of the Jews’ circumcising themselves upon arriving in Israel as a removal of the shame of Egypt.

Usually, this is read as the shame of their failure to circumcise throughout their time in the desert, but this Midrash actually explains it a bit better—it is the shame of the Egyptian claim that their fate was set by the stars; now that they have fully converted that fate into this mitzvah act, they have shown that the Egyptians misunderstood the Jewish people’s immunity to fate, since Hashem converts our fate into whatever Hashem deems most fitting.

I like the ideas in the Midrash—such as its’ offering one more example of the battle between fatalist astrologers and Jews who know that Hashem runs the world, including diverting the fate of astrology to another track– but I am more taken with the linking of three seemingly disconnected verses, two by a word that doesn’t quite fit, and the third because of a reference back to Egypt that similarly doesn’t quite fit where it shows up.

The Purposes of Darkness

10;22 tells us that the plague of darkness was so all-enveloping that, for three of the days, the Egyptians didn’t move at all. Rashi, commenting on the words ויהי חשך אפילה, explains that this was for two reasons. First, it was during this plague that Hashem killed those Jews who were not going out. While the Midrash he’s referencing doesn’t mention a reason these Jews weren’t going out, Rashi says it was because they were evildoers and did not want to leave.

To me, that is a recurring cautionary tale about becoming overly attached to a country that is not ours—the Jews who did leave were lacking in many areas we would consider central to religion (other sources suggest they were idolaters, for one simple example), yet Hashem was happy to take them out. All it took was wanting to go, which wouldn’t seem such a big barrier, but was (and for Rashi, for eighty percent of the people).

The Obtuseness of the Egyptians

Hashem’s killing them in darkness, Rashi says, was so that the Egyptians wouldn’t say the Jews are being struck as we are. Similarly, on 11;5, the words עד בכור השבי, Rashi comments that captives’ first-born were included in the plague to forestall the Egyptians’ saying it was their god doing all this.

I find it ascribing a remarkable stubbornness to the Egyptians. Here they are, on their ninth or tenth plague, two out of every three announced by Moshe ahead of time, many of them brought on by an action of Moshe or Aharon’s, many ceasing when Moshe is convinced to ask for them to stop, and yet Rashi thinks the Egyptians would have fastened on any excuse to avoid drawing the necessary conclusions.

Rashi also seems to think that when the Egyptians got out of darkness, they wouldn’t notice that many of the Jews were gone (four-fifths of them, according to Rashi at the beginning of Beshalach).  That might not be stubbornness, it might be disinterest, but it still speaks to the Egyptians’ insistent focus on only what they wanted to see.

Last, the darkness gave the Jews a chance to case the Egyptians’ homes, so they could bull through the Egyptians’ denials, later, when it was time to take some of that gold and silver for themselves. For Rashi, the darkness, like many of Hashem’s actions, achieves multiple goals: it lets Hashem cull the Jewish people of those who won’t be able to go out (a fate that is wholly self-inflicted) without the Egyptians noticing and interpreting it in a way convenient for them, and it lets the Jews scout out the valuables they will be taking with them when they leave.

The Nature of Time

There are several Rashis in this week’s parsha that speak of time as if it is something, not just the way we mark the passage of our lives. In 10;22, Rashi understands the words שלשת ימים to refer to a three-day period. When we speak of three days, we mean that it happens to be three days, whereas Rashi means a “threeday,” much like we call a seven day period a week (and Rashi notes, on 12;15, that שבעת ימים means a group of seven consecutive days, a sevenday).

In 11;4, Moshe tells Par’oh that כחצות הלילה Hashem will be going out over Egypt. Rashi says the simple sense of the word is “when the night splits,” when it divides into two. The Rabbinic reading has it as “about midnight,” to avoid Par’oh’s astrologers miscalculating the time and claiming Moshe to have gotten it wrong.

That seems another way for Chazal to stress their sense of the Egyptians’ addiction to denial. If all the first born had died precisely a half hour after midnight, by their calculations, that would have been enough to say Moshe got it wrong. After all he had already shown them. Really, Egyptians?!

The simple reading is what interests me here, though, because it speaks of the night as naturally divided in half. כחצות means when the night splits, itself seemingly, between its first and second halves.

A last example comes at 12;6, where Rashi notes that the Torah uses the term בין הערבים for afternoon, since it is the time between the two versions of ערב, of the day waning. The first is when the sun begins its descent from its highpoint at mid-day, and the second is when the night starts to arrive (which is probably sunset, the complete waning of day, allowing for night to begin its advent).

The examples offer a richer approach to time than we sometimes do. We might be more exact in our calculations of time, but we can treat it as all concatenations of seconds into minutes, hours, etc. Yet even for us, a week is a unit, as is a month or a year. For Rashi, afternoons were discrete portions of a day, three days together were a unit of their own, as were seven days (another example would be fortnight, which Wikipedia tells me comes from Old English; French and other Romance languages have a quinzaine, which is a 15 day period).

So how we watch time, to me, tells us something about ourselves.

The Truth Values Necessary for the Exodus

Several Rashis understand the players in the Exodus to have had to fully admit what was happening, not give in grudgingly. On 12;13, Rashi understands the words והיה הדם לכם לאת to mean that it was a sign for you, that the Jews put the blood on the doorposts and lintel inside their houses, where only they could see them. That changes the challenge involved—how hard could it be to obey this command, when no one else had to see it? Why would that be the factor that protected them from the plague?

Later in the chapter, I think we see part of why. On verse 31, Par’oh finally fully caves, and says the Jews should go worship Hashem כדברכם, as Moshe had said, against all of Par’oh’s various claims that he would not send them at all, or would only send this or that group. Hashem required unconditional surrender (as Ulysses S. Grant used to, such that one of the ways his soldiers read his initials was Unconditional Surrender Grant), and that was not easy for Par’oh.

The Jews themselves seem to have gotten the point, since verse 39 notes that they didn’t take any sustenance with them for the road. Rashi says that shows their trust in Hashem, in that they didn’t question how they could leave on an indeterminate journey in the desert without a way to support themselves. That is the “kindness of your youth” that Yirmiyahu 2;2 references.

To get back to the blood on the doorposts, sometimes the hardest step is to internalize truths we might mouth. We might say we believe that Hashem will do this or that for us, but when we have to put it into action, it’s not always so easy. For the Jews to believe that spreading blood on their doorposts could protect them from plague (imagine if a prophet today announced that some illness was a plague from Hashem, and the way to avoid it was to take the blood of a sacrifice and put it on our doorposts!), for them to leave on a long trip with almost nothing, was an actualizing of faith commitments they were supposed to have, and might even have claimed.

The test was putting actions where words might already have been.

Defining Stupid

13;14 speaks of a child who will ask us מה זאת, what’s this, when we’re preparing for Pesach. We are used to speaking of such a child as the תם, the simple one, but Rashi speaks of him as טפש, which we commonly translate as stupid. Except that Rashi contrasts this child to the wise one, who asks (Devarim 20;6) about the testimonies, statutes, and laws that Hashem commanded us.

The difference, crucially, is not in their capabilities. If a child is too limited to ask, there would be no point in comparing him or her to the wise child. The difference here, for Rashi, is in the level of interest the child takes in formulating the question. The wise child knows a great deal about the system before asking, such as the kinds of laws to be on the alert for in coming to a new observance.

The טפש child could have noticed, but didn’t bother. For this child, “What’s this?” was as far as he or she was willing to go.  An important distinction between can’t and doesn’t care to. For Rashi, it’s the latter who’s a טפש. The one who can’t is doing his or her best; there’s nothing stupid in that.

There it is—the ways that we can live our lives fully, or miss much of what’s happening around us as it happens.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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