Thursday, January 25, 2007

Thoughts on Bo

If you're having trouble remembering how many plagues are in parshat Vaera and how many in Bo, use the following mnemonic. The gematria of Bo is 3, and it contains 3 plagues. The gematria of the first two letters of Vaera is 7, and there are 7 plagues in Vaera.

Zecher Leytziat Mitzraim

There are lots of cool internal structures in the 10 plagues, which are well explained in this week's VBM articles by Ravs Bazak, Spiegelman, and Granot. One of them is the division of the first nine plagues into sets of three consecutive plagues each, with each set having a different purpose. The purposes are reflected in the content of the plagues, and are also explicitly indicated at the beginning of each set:

  • Before the 1st plague: "By this you shall know that I am the Lord" (7:17) - to prove that God exists, by showing that the world's best magicians can only do part of what God's envoy does.
  • Before the 4th plague: "In order that you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the land" (8:18) - to prove God's involvement in human affairs, by making the plagues affect Egypt and not Israel.
  • Before the 7th plague: "In order that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth" (9:14) - to prove God's uniqueness, through plagues whose destructiveness is unique in history.

Interestingly, these three purposes are very similar to the themes of the first 3 brachot of shemoneh esreh. The point of the first bracha of shemoneh esreh is to "make prayer possible" by recognizing God's existence and initiating a relationship with God (the Avot provide models for this relationship; see here). The second bracha details God's involvement in the world, as shown through both mundane (rain) and miraculous (resurrection) events. The third bracha recognizes God as qualitatively different ("kadosh") from everything else in existence.

We say the bracha "gaal yisrael" partly to fulfill the Biblical commandment of remembering the Exodus. Clearly, though, remembering the Exodus does not end with "gaal yisrael", but rather continues into shemoneh esreh. We connect "redemption" to "prayer" not only because redemption necessitates praise and allows for prayer, but also because the specific prayer we recite alludes to the specific redemption we are commemorating.

Alternatively, the plague/bracha parallel reminds us how deeply religious the significance of the Exodus from Egypt was. Yes, the exodus ended the exploitation of Israel, and is an appropriate model for the ending of exploitation today and in all of history. But while most of the exodus story is peripheral to the ending of slavery, nearly every event in the story has a clear religious purpose. The concepts that are important for us to invoke in prayer are the same concepts that God felt the need to demonstrate through the plagues. If the Exodus is the story of the birth of the people of Israel, then let us not forget Israel's imperative from birth - to be a moral people, walking with and loyal to God.

God will pass over the paschal offering ("Upasach hashem al hapesach") (12:23)

A reasonable verse, right? Because of the paschal offering, God - the agent of destruction - will stay away from the houses "protected" by the offering?

Unfortunately this is one of those times where Ashkenazi pronunciation leads not only to general ignorance regarding the Hebrew language, but to a specific and glaring misunderstanding of the text. Because, as anyone with a more sensible accent would realize, the word "pesach" does NOT occur twice in the verse. The second time it's actually "PETACH" - door - and the verse really means "God will pass over the doorway". If you grew up with an Ashkenazi accent, though, you'd never know the difference.

Even religious texts from Ashkenazi communities contain this particular error. (Don't blame the authors, who no doubt knew what they were talking about, but rather the copyists and printers.) See for example Rashi to Zevachim 115a ("yachol sheani"). I remember seeing a Metzudat Tzion on Divrei Hayamim with the same error, but couldn't find it this time around. There are probably other examples, and I would be interested in hearing about them.

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