“Passing Over and Passing Through” Parashat Bo 5776

Everything has been leading up to this moment. Pharaoh has weathered nine plagues and yet he has not relinquished his hold on Am Yisrael. His country is in tatters and yet he remains steadfast. And now Moshe informs Pharaoh that he will soon be hit with the “mother of all plagues” [Shemot 11:4-5]: “So said Hashem: At around midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt and every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die”.

What does Hashem mean when He says that He will “go out” into Egypt? Both Onkelos and Yonatan ben Uziel translate this term as “I will reveal myself”. Well, if that’s what it means, why doesn’t Hashem just say “I will reveal myself”? This term is not used in any previous plague. Hashem does not “go out” and smite the Nile with blood – He just plain smites the Nile. Does this mean that for the first nine plagues Hashem somehow “stayed in”? A closer look shows that in the tenth plague Hashem does not only “go out” on His way to smite the Egyptians [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”. How does Hashem “pass through” a place? Again, both Onkelos and Yonatan ben Uziel translate this term as “I will reveal myself”, and again, further explanation is required. Rashi, quoting from the Midrash, explains that Hashem was going to pass through Egypt “like a king who passes from place to place, and with one passing and in one moment they are all smitten”. Fair enough, but the second part of Rashi’s explanation seems to contradict the first part: When a king “passes from place to place”, he goes from Point A to Point B, first smiting the people at Point A and only afterwards smiting the people at Point B. How can Rashi state that “in one moment they are all [simultaneously] smitten”?

Before we answer these questions let’s take a closer look at the word “Passover”. The source for this word is found in Hashem’s description of the tenth plague quoted above [Shemot 12:13]: “The blood will be for you for a sign upon the houses where you will be, and I will see the blood and skip over you (u’fasachti aleichem), and there will be no plague to destroy [you] when I smite the [people of the] land of Egypt”. Unsurprisingly, “Passover” means “to pass over”. Hashem promised Am Yisrael that as long as they would sacrifice the Paschal Lamb and smear its blood on the doorpost then they would be safe. Hashem would go from house to house looking for Egyptians to kill but He would “pass over” all the homes with the bloody doors. In Rashi’s words “Every [expression of] ‘pesach’ is an expression of ‘skipping’ and ‘jumping’… [Hashem] was skipping over the houses of the Israelites to the houses of the Egyptians because they were living one in the midst of the other”. Similar to “passing through”, “passing over” is something that is done to get from Point A to Point B. If all of the Egyptian first-born were killed at one moment, then “passing over” is out of place.

Now we can start digging ourselves out of this hole and in order to do so we begin with Moore’s Law. Gordon Moore, one of the co-founders of Intel[1], had observed that the number of transistors on a chip was doubling every two years or so. Eventually this “observation” became a “law” which was rewritten as “The overall processing power of a computer processor doubles every two years”. Years later the law was modified so that the power-doubling now occurs every eighteen months, meaning that a computer becomes obsolete within about three years. How is the power of a processor increased? Until around 2005, power was increased by decreasing the size of the transistors, which enabled increasing the speed, or frequency, of the processor. The problem is that the faster transistors are switched on and off, the more heat will be generated. Eventually processors became so fast and dense with transistors that any further increases in frequency would fry the processor. We pretty much maxed out processor speed at about 4 GHz and this happened ten years ago.  The next step was to go to “multiple cores” or “multicore processors”[2]. These processors divide data into smaller chunks and send the chunks to different cores, where they are processed in parallel. With multicores, each beat of the clock enables much more work to be performed than with older single-core processors.  We can summarize by stating that modern computers are moving from “serial processing”, where one instruction is performed at a time, to “parallel processing”, where multiple instructions are performed at one time[3].

Back to Egypt. When Hashem smote the Egyptian first-born, did He do it serially or in parallel? In other words, did He smite them one after the other, or did He kill them all simultaneously? Different words in the Torah allude to different answers. Let’s look at the verses chronologically. First we have [Shemot 11:4] “At around midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt”. The first part of the verse seems to indicate serial processing: the plague will strike “around” midnight. It won’t happen at one instant. The second part of the verse indicates parallel processing: Hashem will “go out”. There is no “passing through” in this verse – at one instant He’s there and at the next instant He’s gone. The next verse is less ambiguous [Shemot 12:12]: “I will pass through the land of Egypt on this night”. As we stated earlier, “passing through” seems to indicate serial processing. Finally, we have the verse describing the actual plague [Shemot 12:29]: “It came to pass [precisely] at midnight, and Hashem smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt”. This is clearly parallel processing. How, then, are we to understand these contradictory verses?

The answer lies in the infinity of Hashem. It is relatively straightforward to understand how Hashem can be infinitely large: “Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere…” It is also clear what people mean when they say that Hashem is infinitely powerful[4]. Infinity in time, however, is a murkier concept, because it means more than just “Hashem has no beginning and no end”, or “Hashem can see until the end of time”. Just as “infinity in space” means that Hashem is “above space”, on a balcony, as it were, overlooking the universe, “infinity in time” means that Hashem is “above time”. This concept is best explained by the Tralfamadorians[5], the aliens from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five”, who exist in all times simultaneously: “The universe does not look like lot of bright little dots to the creatures from Tralfamadore. The creatures can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti. And Tralfamadorians don’t see human beings as two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millipedes – with babies’ legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other”. Hashem saw all the Egyptian first-born both alive and dead. He saw them everywhere and he saw them nowhere. At that very “spot on the spaghetti”, every one of them died.

It should now be clear that the concepts of “parallel” and “serial” are irrelevant to our discussion, as Hashem and His creations are not operating in the same plane of existence. This is precisely the message that Hashem wanted to convey to Pharaoh and to Am Yisrael through the ten plagues: Hashem has complete and utter dominion over the universe. The tenth and final plague sealed this message: When Hashem would “pass over”, He would not only pass over houses made of wood and stone with blood on the doorpost – He would pass over time and space.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya, and Yoav ben Chaya.

[1] When it was still called Integrated Electronics Inc.

[2] My LG G3 mobile phone is powered by a quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor with four cores.

[3] It’s obviously more nuanced than this, but for the purposes of this shiur this will suffice.

[4] Other than the question “Can Hashem create a rock that He cannot move?”

[5] Tralfamadorians come from the planet Tralfamadore, a planet that appears in many other of Vonnegut’s books. Only in Slaughterhouse Five do the Tralfamadorians exist in all times.

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.