‘Who Let the Dogs Out?’ Pesach 5780

Yogi Berra, a Hall of Fame baseball catcher and philosopher, once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. This statement holds a certain amount of truth even as it applies to the Torah. Here is one Pesach-related example: Egypt has been gutted by nine plagues. The country lies in ruins. The Jewish slaves have long ceased working. But there is still one last plague waiting in the wings. Moses warns Pharaoh [Shemot 11:5-7]: “Every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl… and all the first-born of the cattle. There shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. But not [even] a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites, at man or beast – in order that you may know that G-d makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” Three things are predicted to happen: [1] The Egyptian first-born will all die, [2] the Egyptians will cry out as a result, and [3] no Jew will be affected by the plague.

Comparing the prediction with the outcome, we find a discrepancy [Shemot 12:29-30]: “G-d struck down all the 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… and all the first-born of the cattle… there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead.” Two things happened: [1] The Egyptians first-born all died and [2] the Egyptians cried out as a result. What about the Jews not being touched by the Angel of Death? The Torah says nothing. Maybe they died, maybe they didn’t. But there is more: Before the plague, G-d explicitly commanded the Jews [Shemot 12:22-23] “None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. For when G-d goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and G-d will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home”. It seems clear that Jews who did not heed this warning and left their homes before morning would be putting their lives at risk[1]. Perhaps some Jews did die that night. What happened to Moses’s prediction?

Another reason that G-d had no reason to spare the Jewish People from the fate of the Egyptians is that He had already tried that trick. In the fifth plague, a plague of pestilence that decimated the Egyptian livestock, G-d specifically promised Pharaoh that the plague would not affect the livestock of the Jews. After the plague is over, the Torah tells us [Shemot 9:7] “Pharaoh inquired and he found that not a head of the livestock of Israel had died; yet Pharaoh remained stubborn and he [still] would not let the people go.” If G-d’s differentiation between the Egyptians and the Jews had already been proven to have no effect on Pharaoh, what would be the use of trying it again?

Moses’s prediction takes on a completely different flavour if we alter our assumption that he was speaking only to Pharaoh when he said that “not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites”. At first glance, this hypothesis does not fit into the words of the scripture. The Torah begins its description of Moses’s prophecy of the tenth plague with the words [Shemot 11:4] “Moses said, “Thus says G-d: Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians”. Rashi, the ultimate medieval commentator, who lived in Troyes, France, in the eleventh century, comments, “When [Moses] stood before Pharaoh, this prophecy was said to him, for after [Moses] left [Pharaoh’s] presence, he did not see his face [again]”. Rashi understands that Moses was standing face to face with Pharaoh. The last verse of Moses’s prophecy strengthens this assumption [Shemot 11:8]: “[After completing the prophecy, Moses] exited from Pharaoh with burning anger.” It seems clear that Pharaoh, and only Pharaoh, was the intended recipient of the prophecy.

Nevertheless, there are certain indications that Pharaoh was not the only recipient but that there was a broader audience. For instance, when Moses says “in order that you may know that G-d makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel”, he uses the plural “lema’an ted’un” – “that [many of] you should know” – rather than the singular “lema’an teda” – “that you [personally] shall know”. If Moses was speaking only to Pharaoh, he should have used the singular. Further, the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [4a] discusses a disagreement as to when this prophecy took place. The Talmudic Sage, Rabbi Ashi, suggests that the prophecy occurred one night before the tenth plague and the ensuing exodus. Rabbi Ashi says, “Moses was standing at midnight of the thirteenth [of the month of Nissan], leading into the fourteenth, when he pronounced his prophecy, and Moses told Israel that the G-d said that tomorrow, at the exact time like midnight tonight, I will go out into the midst of Egypt.” Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, who lived in Pinsk and in Jerusalem in the middle of the last century, notices that the Rabbi Ashi says that “Moses told Israel” and not “Moses told Pharaoh”. Based on this inference[2], Rabbi Sorotzkin asserts that what appears in the Torah is not the actual prophecy that was delivered by Moses to Pharaoh, but, rather, Moses’s recap of that prophecy to the Jewish People. He is telling them what went on when he and Pharaoh squared off in Pharaoh’s palace.

Using Rabbi Sorotzkin’s explanation, we can completely reinterpret the words “not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites, at man or beast”. These words are not a prediction to Pharaoh, they are an order to the Jewish People. Moshe is telling them, “Tonight everything that you know to be true will change. Tonight, G-d will force Pharaoh to relinquish his grasp upon you. Tonight, you will become free men. Tonight, you will be redeemed. But know that to bring this about, the world as you know it must undergo a tectonic change. The most powerful empire the world has ever known must be brought to its knees. There will be an upheaval. It will not be pretty. It will be downright frightening. People will scream out in terror. But know that it is a necessity. To be redeemed from your bondage, you must be courageous. You must not recoil in terror. You must be strong, you must be silent and you must be ready to move.” To paraphrase Colonel Nathan Jessup in “A Few Good Men”: You want redemption? Show me you can handle redemption!

The past century has been tumultuous. The world has undergone earth-shattering changes at an ever-accelerating pace. In less than one hundred years, we have seen the destruction of one third of our people[3], the return to Zion after two thousand years of exile, the fall of the Berlin wall and the ensuing freeing of Soviet Jewry, six wars, three intifadehs, countless smaller “operations” in Gaza and Lebanon, thousands of rocket attacks on our cities, Israel’s metamorphosis from a third-world nation into the Start-up Nation, and now a virus that has shut down society and wreaked havoc on the global economy. Some refer to our era as “Ikveta d’Meshicha” – “Footsteps of the Messiah”. It is clear that something immense is afoot. It is more difficult to understand exactly what it is. We have no other recourse but to have faith that the processes that we are undergoing are leading to something better. We, too, are leaving our own Egypt into a vast and unknown desert, armed only with a Divine promise that a Promised Land awaits. And so we, like our forefathers, must submit to the words of Moses [Devarim 31:6]: “Be strong and resolute, be not in fear or in dread… for G-d Himself marches with you: He will not fail you or forsake you.”

Shabbat Shalom, Chag Same’ach v’Kasher, and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] One cannot help but to compare the order to stay indoors with today’s identical order by the Ministry of Health to stay indoors to prevent the spread of coronavirus. How many people openly flaunted this instruction to go about their business as if there were no pandemic, cognizant that they were putting their lives at risk? One can only imagine that 3,000 years ago, there were Jews that absolutely positively had to pray in a minyan on the night that G-d killed the Egyptian first-born along with anybody else who happened to be walking the streets…

[2] Rabbi Sorotzkin bases his explanation only on the Talmud in Tractate Berachot. The plural-singular (ted’un – teda) mismatch is my own innovation, albeit one that meshes quite well with the innovation of Rabbi Sorotzkin

[3] See our lesson on Parashat Vayikra 5780.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five 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 2001 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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