Parshat Bo – Dungeons and doorposts
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Parshat Bo – Dungeons and doorposts

This week’s Torah portion narrates the familiar story of the final three plagues wrought by God against Egypt – locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the Egyptian first-born – and describes much of our commemoration of God’s redemption of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery – the seder night, avoiding leavened bread during Pesach, and the commandment to eat matzoh. In his final deliberations with Pharaoh, just before the 10th plague, Moses warns Pharaoh of the disaster to come, explaining that “… 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 who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle” (Exodus 11:5). After Moses leaves Pharaoh’s presence in heated anger, the Torah continues that the Israelites could turn back the 10th plague from their homes by dashing blood on the lintel and doorposts of their settlements in Egypt. The Israelites are then commanded to preserve their rituals for all time, and to teach the story of their redemption.

But when the 10th plague is actually meted out, the Torah shifts its language subtly: Exodus 12:29 records that “In the middle of the night the Lord 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 who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle.” That is, instead of describing the plague as having struck Egyptians of all social status – from Pharaoh, whom the Egyptians believed to be divine, to the lowly slave-girl forced into labor often performed by animals – in the event itself, the Torah describes the plague as having struck Egyptians in every physical location – from Pharaoh on his throne to the prisoner rotting away in his cell, perhaps even forgotten, in the dungeon.

A number of rabbinic commentators try to harmonize the two verses, explaining that slaves in the ancient world were often captives, who would grind grain by day and then be thrown into the dungeon at night, with the heavy millstones that they had used to grind the grain placed in front of their cell doors to keep them inside. Perhaps the most colorful of the attempts to harmonize these verses comes from the 13th century French commentator Hezkuni, who explains that “upon finding out that they would be treated just like the children of Pharaoh, the sons of the slave-girls rejoiced; when their masters saw that the sons of the slave-girls were rejoicing in the downfall (of their masters), they threw them into the dungeon.” Thus the two are one and the same, the sons of the slave-girls and the first-born of the captives!

It would seem, though, that the two verses are expressing slightly different visions of what is important in the world: Pharaoh’s concern would hardly have extended to prisoners rotting in his jails, while the destruction of slaves as chattel belonging to him and to other Egyptians would indeed be the capstone of the economic and physical destruction effected by the 10 plagues. On the other hand, when the event itself is described, directly following on the reminder to observe Passover, we are reminded that the hand of God can reach even into the deepest and darkest dungeon, even extending to those others have forgotten. The Torah is talking about the hand of God, but it also teaches us an important lesson about exactly how far even our own actions can reach.

When we experience the winds of misfortune in our own lives, we must remember that the repercussions of our misfortune extend beyond even what we can see or imagine, let alone what affects us directly. When we withhold charitable gifts, even to protect our own economic wellbeing, we may well be leaving others without the same protection we seek. Some of us do have the resources to protect ourselves – in these times, some of us may have savings to rely on or we may be able to reduce our spending – but we cannot forget that there are others for whom misfortune can darken their doorposts in a seeming instant. It is on behalf of these people that we must be mindful of the resources and blessing we are in fact able to share, and in these moments when it is most difficult to give, we must not hide in the shadows.

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