Torah: Exodus 10:1 to 13:16.
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46: 13-28
This week's Torah reading describes the final three of the ten plagues - locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the first born males. The final plague was truly a genocide:
At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well. Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. Exodus 12: 29-30.And, in next week's Torah reading, we shall read how many of the survivors of this genocide, who were soldiers in Pharoh's army, would drown in the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds).
On a previous D'var Torah diary, one person asked: Why couldn't an all-powerful Deity have brought the Israelites out of Egypt without killing so many Egyptians? Couldn't this God have just zapped Pharoh and let all the other Egyptians live? It's an excellent question, which I shall attempt to answer.
First, the mass slaughter of Egyptians cannot have been (as the commenter suggested) an example of early ultra-nationalism - cheering for the suffering and deaths of our enemies, for, later on in the Torah, God commands us:
You shall not hate an Egyptian, for you were a stanger in his land. Deuteronomy 23:8.The mass slaughter of the Egyptians troubled the Rabbis. Commenting on Exodus 14:20:
And it [the cloud] came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel; thus there was the cloud of darkness, and it cast a spell upon the night, so that the one could not come near the other all through the night.the Rabbis (two at least) commented:
Rabbi Samuel ben [son of] Nahman said in Rabbi Jonathan's name: What is meant by, "And one could not come near the other all through the night?" In that hour the ministering angels wished to break forth into a song [of praise] before the Holy One, blessed be He, but He rebuked them, saying: My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea; yet you would sing a song before me! Talmud Sanhedrin 39b.In the Middle Ages, the custom arose at the sedar table to spill out a drop of wine for each of the ten plagues, in sadness for the Egyptians who lost their lives. This custom was noted in the 1500's by Rabbi Moses Isserles, in his commentary to the then just completed Shulchan Aruch, to have been a long standing custom.
So Jews, to be true to our faith, must feel sadness for all the Egyptians who died while God was freeing our ancestors from slavery. But that begs the question, why did all these Egyptians have to die? Was God so powerless that He/She could not free the Israelites without killing hundreds of thousands of Egyptians?
The Bible is one of the greatest works of literature ever written. It is surely the greatest work of literature to come out of the ancient Middle East. And what makes the Bible a great work of literature is that it is not a morality play - the human beings portrayed are all too human. Most of Genesis documents four generations of a highly disfunctional family composed of individuals who are supposed to be both our ancestors and role models, while much of the final four books of the Torah describes an Israelite nation wandering through the Sinai desert, a nation composed largerly of whiners constantly complaining about, and occasionally rebelling against, the leadership of Moses.
A Biblical account of a God who zaps Pharoh with lightning bolts to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, while no other Egyptian suffers a scratch, would not have been realistic, and would have been lousy literture with the result that the Bible may have, and should have, joined other ancient writings now lost to posterity.
History has shown, time and time again since the Biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt, that tyrants who unleash nationalist emotions to persecute the "other" wind up killing their own people. Thus, in 1937 the fascist militarists who controlled Japan invaded China and launched the Rape of Nanjing, murdering up to 300,000 Chinese residents of Nanjing, and would murder up to 10 million people in China and the other countries and islands their armed forces would occupy (although I have seen estimates as high as 20 million). These wars of aggression and mass murder would not, however, save the Japanese people from their own destruction - 2,120,000 Japanese soldiers, sailors and airmen would die in the war, and between 500,000 to 1 million Japanese civilians would die from the bombs rained down by American and other allied planes. (Link here).
The record of Germany in World War II is more well known. Adolf Hitler launched invasions of Autria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and neutral Denmark, Norway, Luxemburg, Belgium, Netherlands, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union, and murdered in the lands he occupied 6 million Jews (out of about 9 million Jews who lived in Nazi occupied territory), plus millions of Soviet prisoners of war, Roma, and other civilians. Link here. Again, Hitler's wars of aggression and genocide did not save the German people from mass death. Per the above link 5,530,000 German soldiers, sailors and airmen would die in the war, and another 1,100,000 to 3,150,000 German civilians would die in the war (German Jewish Holocaust victims accounting for between 135,000 and 142,000 of these civilian deaths).
Unlike the right wingers who compare Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler (an obscenity in itself), I will not compare George W. Bush to Hitler. President Bush did not commit genocide, he did not build gas chambers, his crimes pale in comparison. But he did invade one country, based on lies and garbage, and, as a result, over 100,000 Iraqis were killed (the estimates vary and are subject to debate) while 4,409 of George Bush's fellow Americans died, and another 31,928 were wounded in action.
The Torah, by teaching us how the Egyptians too suffered from Pharoh's oppression of the Jews, teaches us that it is our duty to stand against oppression of anyone, not only out of a sense of justice, but also for our own self-interest. Abraham LIncoln said, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy." Those who oppress others, or stand by and allow their fellow countrymen to oppress others, destroy themselves. That is what this week's Torah reading teaches. That is why an all powerful God allowed so many Egyptians to suffer and die.