Excellent Jews

A question often asked is why it was necessary to bring 10 plagues in order to liberate the Israelites? For example, the rabbis of the Midrash tell us a story of how Pharaoh was terrified by Aaron's staff. After it swallowed up the staffs of the Egyptian magicians, Pharaoh was terrified that the staff was going to come for him next.

So, why didn't Moses indeed threaten to sick the staff on Pharaoh unless he let the Israelites go? He most certainly would've agreed! Not only does this not happen, but God allows the Egyptian magicians to re-create some of Moses' miracles. They can turn their staffs into reptiles, they can turn water into blood, they can bring out more frogs into Egypt. Then, there are some plagues they can't do, such as lice and wild animals. The last time they are mentioned is when the plague of skin boils occurs, and "the magicians could not stand in front of Moses because of their boils." What does this little anecdote tell us?

Another question that bothers me is the seemingly dishonest way that Moses phrases his request to Pharaoh. "Let us go three days in the wilderness, so we may sacrifice to our Lord," Moses requests. It is clear to us, however, that Moses has no intention of returning to Egypt after those three days. When the Israelites go, they will go for eternity. So why not be honest with Pharaoh, and tell him exactly what he is asking for?

The answer to the first question is quite profound. The Exodus was not exclusively for the benefit of the Israelites, but rather for the Egyptians, and, through them, for the entire world. The Exodus continues to this day! The echoes of that transformative event are reflected in the editorial choices of almost every news organization, world over. How so?

God instructs Moses in the art of persuasion. The entire process of the 10 plagues, including God hardening Pharaoh's heart, was geared to persuade Egypt to change its direction. And not just Egypt, rather the whole world.

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Divinsk explains the importance of Egypt and its magicians. This was the great Empire of the day. This was the land where science and culture were at their peak. The entire world looked to Egypt for leadership. It went so deep that, according to the Midrash, the magicians of Pharaoh were actually little children! Egypt was the land of black magic, and thus its theology was also massively influential. What was needed now was the first step of persuasion, to catch attention.

It's no great accomplishment for me to beat my four-year-old son in a running race. It's an impressive accomplishment if I can beat an Olympic gold medal athlete in a running race! That would mean that I am the best. That would get the attention of every single sportswriter in the world.

So it was with Egypt. God allows the Egyptian magicians to ply their craft, but, at some point, He shows His mastery over them. As the song goes, "anything you can do, I can do better." God is Master of the Masters, King of the Kings. Rabbi Meir Simcha explains that the fact that the magicians couldn't stand before Moses because of the boils as being one of embarrassment, not physical ability. They were humiliated, because they themselves had boils, but could not inflict them on Moses. They could no longer compete.

There is a hidden lesson here. A Jew, whose eyes are always to God, will strive for excellence. A great Rabbi, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, was known far and wide as a brilliant mathematician. When a leading mathematician, who was an assimilated Jews, met the Rabbi, he asked him how the Rabbi knew so much about math? After all, most of his time was spent in studying Torah! While he, himself, was devoted exclusively to math, and yet this Rabbi knew as much as he did.

The Rabbi answered with a parable: a man sees a shop owner deliver a large order in many boxes, and realizes that the customer gets to keep the boxes. This man needed boxes himself, so he asked the shop owner to give him a supply. The shop owner then quoted a high price to him. "But that other man got all those boxes for free," said the man. "Correct," said the shop owner, "but he paid for a large order of goods. The boxes were simply included in that order."

In other words, because the Rabbi was immersed in Torah, the "boxes" of worldly wisdom, including mathematics, are included at very low cost. But you, who have no interest in Torah, and only focus on the mathematics, must pay the full price in time and effort.

In order for the Jew to fulfill his purpose in the world, he must pursue excellence in every field of endeavor that he engages. Most importantly, he must pursue ethical excellence. By doing so, we gain the attention of all of humanity. They then ponder where all of this excellence came from, and will thus find their way to God. It is God who gives us the power and wisdom to achieve excellence. If we believe in God, we must pursue excellence. If you don't buy enough Godliness, you won't get the boxes.

But that is not where it stops, because intellectual attention will not bring about a change in behavior. For that, we need action. In our prayers, we ask God to help us "learn and teach, guard and do." I believe that is why Moses asked for three days, and why God kept hardening Pharaoh's heart. It was critical to get Pharaoh to take one good step, do one good thing, for the right reasons. Had he released the Israelites from fear, it would not have indicated any change in his character. That was not the end game. It was to get Pharaoh started on the path of goodness.

That's why I believe that when Moses was asking for three days in the wilderness, he intended to initiate Pharaoh on a path of good deeds that would culminate with his ultimate release of the Israelites forever. Let them go for three days, "and then let's talk." Such is human nature. We crave consistency, and if Pharaoh can do a completely good deed, let the Israelites go for three days, and not from fear but from kindness, he will then continue on that new path. He will release the slaves, and perhaps change the Egyptian society. And from there, to he whole world.

In the end, even this failed, but that's not important. Humans have free choice, and Pharaoh chose evil until the end. What's important for us is to learn what Moses attempted to do. Our job as Jews and as God's partners, as it were, is to persuade the entire world to live according to God's will. We don't do it with the sword, because the sword does not change the heart. We do it in the method of the Exodus: 1. Gain the world's attention by showing that God is the source of all excellence, and 2. Encourage the world to take baby steps in the direction of goodness. Once that is accomplished, change and redemption will grow faster and faster.

Who Really Killed the Egyptians' Firstborn Sons?

There are two main differences between this 10th plague and the nine that preceded it that I wish to focus on. First of all, in all of the other plagues, the Israelites were spared automatically. For this one, though, they are given explicit instructions as to what they must do to be spared. They have to prepare a sacrificial lamb, smear the blood on their door posts and lintels, and eat the sacrifice together with matza and bitter herbs. Further, they must eat it in a state of readiness to depart, with staff in hand.

The second difference is that this plague is preceded by a number of seemingly tangential commandments, especially the one about tefillin, or, phylacteries. These are small boxes containing chapters from the Torah that are tied onto the arm and the forehead during prayer services.

Why these differences? Why is it so critical for the Israelites to perform this sacrificial ritual, and what is the relevance of the commandment of tefillin?

God does not engage in punishment as vengeance. When there is divine punishment, it is didactic. It is to teach man to correct his ways. Jewish tradition teaches that God's punishments are "measure for measure," meaning that they directly address the sinful attitude of the transgressor. This is no more apparent than in the most famous of Biblical dictums on Justice: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a leg for a leg, and so forth.

In many parts of the world, this principle is interpreted literally, and that is a tragedy. Jewish law states that what is required by this dictum is monetary compensation, not the amputation of the limb of the aggressor. Simple justice requires this understanding! Let's say, for example, that a singer cut off the hand of a pianist. Is justice served by cutting off the hand of the singer? The pianist has lost his livelihood, while the singer can continue unharmed! That is not justice.

But there is a more fundamental understanding of this dictum that we must learn. It is that punishment is not vengeance. Those who interpret this literally make a tragic mistake, understanding punishment as a form of doing to the aggressor what he did to the victim. He caused the victim great pain, so he should suffer accordingly. What this understanding says is that the past is what matters. A. caused B. to suffer in the immediate past, so he must suffer as well.

That is not what the Torah teaches. When we evaluate the monetary worth of the severed limb, and require the perpetrator to pay that, we are stressing two things. First of all, that the future is the most important element. The aggressor has denied the victim their capabilities for the future, and it is that which must be compensated. Secondly, it focuses the aggressor on what he has done to the victim. He must think of how he has changed that person's life. We have suddenly moved our focus from the perpetrator himself to the other, to the victim.

Now we can explain the plague of the firstborn in greater depth. Egypt was a completely self-absorbed nation. It was the home of all manner of sexual licentiousness, and a pagan belief system that elevated material possessions and wealth and power. It was a society that lived for pleasure, that lived for today. This goes in direct opposition to human nature.

Human nature is built upon planting trees, upon beautifying the world for others, for the future. Our spirit drives us to sacrifice our rest and sloth to go out and build something for posterity. For this, our children are not only recipients, but transmitters into the continuing future. We are not to teach them to pursue pleasure, we are to teach them to pursue responsibility and posterity.

The Egyptians taught their children something else. They taught them hedonism, materialism, pursuit of fleeting pleasures and possessions. God brought the 10th plague, the slaying of the firstborn, as a lesson to the Egyptians: by living your lives according to your false values, you have spiritually killed your own children.

We see in the world around us tragic examples of child destruction in a spiritual sense. How can we watch the Isis terrorists teaching young children to kill without our feeling deep sadness and revulsion? And if those children get killed in some future battle, who are the real killers? I would say the grown-ups who trained them to walk down that tragic path.

Thus, the Israelites must prepare for this plague as well by reaffirming their commitment to the future. They are to eat the Passover sacrifice in readiness to march, staff in hand. This entire ritual is to cause them to embrace the future, to commit to transmitting their spiritual heritage to their children, their children's children, and beyond, into eternity. By doing this, they save their firstborn spiritually, and they are spared the plague of the Egyptians.

What is the legacy they are to transmit? In one word, Torah. God's Word is the spiritual life of the universe. The tefillin, with the four chapters of Torah within them, must be tied upon our arms and our heads. They must guide our actions and our thoughts. They are the keys to the future, they are the keys to giving spiritual life to our children. The answers to all of life's mysteries and questions can be found in the Torah, but only by delving deep into its secrets. This commitment is what gives us life, and what gives us true meaning.