Bo & Beshalach: Winds

A plague of locusts descended on Egypt in last week’s Torah portion, Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16). A swarm of Egyptian charioteers pursues the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16). Both the locusts and the charioteers are frightening in their numbers and  destructiveness—and the God character controls both hordes with winds, to spectacular effect.

Locust winds

The eighth of the ten plagues the God character creates in Egypt is a plague of locusts that eat all the vegetation remaining after the previous plagues.

And Moses held out his staff over the land of Egypt, and God guided a ruach kadim through the land all that day and all the night. And in the morning the ruach hakadim carried in the locust swarms. And the locusts went up over the whole land of Egypt and settled down very heavily throughout the territory of Egypt. There were no locust swarms just like it before, and there will be none after. (Exodus 10:13-14)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, disposition, mood.

ruach kadim (רוּחַ קָדִים), ruach hakadim (רוּחַ הַקָּדִים) = wind from the east; dry east wind.

Actual desert locusts in northern Africa and southwestern Asia (Schistocera gregaria) breed in areas where there has been sufficient rainfall (to moisten the ground for egg-laying) and vegetation (for the larvae to eat). The breeding grounds in the early spring, when the locust plague in Exodus occurs (see map above) are different from the breeding grounds in summer. Adult locusts congregate into swarms when there is enough vegetation. They can fly short distances, but for long distances they take advantage of winds, catching a ride only on warm, relatively humid winds. Locust swarms from winter and spring breeding grounds around the Red Sea would need to catch a warm wind from the south to southeast to reach Egypt to the north.1

So why does the Torah say the wind that carries the locusts into Egypt is a ruach kadim, a dry east wind? One theory is that the Israelite wrote down this story was thinking in terms of winds in Canaan or Judah. When a wind brings disaster there, it is a dry wind from the eastern desert.

The God character ends the plague of locusts by changing the direction of the wind.

And God turned around a very strong ruach yam, and it lifted the locusts and blew them toward the Yam Suf. Not one locust remained in all the territory of Egypt. (Exodus 10:19)

yam (יָם) = sea, Mediterranean Sea; west.

ruach yam (רוּחַ יָם) = wind from the sea; wind from the west.

suf (סוּף) = reed, reeds, water plants.

Yam Suf (יָם סוּף) = Sea of Reeds; Red Sea.

If the God character reverses the wind from the southeast, it becomes a wind from the northwest. A strong wind coming down from the Mediterranean northwest of Egypt would indeed blow locust swarms in Egypt back toward the Red Sea or the Sea of Reeds.

The important point in the book of Exodus is that God controls the locust plague, bringing the devouring swarms into Egypt with one wind, and removing them with another.

The Hebrew Bible also uses the word for wind, ruach, to refer to someone’s mental spirit, ranging from calm wisdom  to insane jealousy or rage. And in the land of Canaan, dry desert winds were dangerous because they stripped crops, dried up ponds, and made people sick. Moist winds from the Mediterranean left dew in the morning that helped keep plants alive during the summer.

So a ruach kadim could be someone’s bad attitude or a dangerous mood—which plagues any people nearby like a swarm of locusts. A ruach yam could represent someone’s pleasant and kindly spirit, which gives others comfort and relief.

Chariot winds

Pharaoh lets the Israelites leave Egypt after God’s final plague, the death of the firstborn.2 On the second day of their exodus from Egypt, just when they thought they were free, the God character makes Pharaoh change his mind. God tells Moses:

“I will strengthen Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after them. Then I will be honored by Pharaoh and by all his forces, and the Egyptians will know that I am God.” (Exodus 14:5)

The God character in this part of Exodus cannot resist staging one more dramatic miracle to drive the point home that the God of Israel is more powerful than any other.3

And the Egyptians chased after them and caught up with them [when they were] encamped on the yam, all of Pharaoh’s chariot horses and riders and his army … (Exodus 14:9)

The Israelites panic when they see charioteers approaching, but God halts the action for the night.  The supernatural pillar of cloud and fire that has led the Israelites to the shore of the Sea of Reeds circles around their camp and stands between them and the Egyptians, so they cannot get any closer.4

Then Moses held out his hand over the yam, and God made the yam go with a strong  ruach kadim all night, and [God] made the yam dry up, and the waters split. Then the Israelites came through the middle of the yam on dry ground (Exodus 14:21-22)

When a strong east wind blows into Egypt or Israel, the air is so dry that ponds can evaporate and shallow lakes can shrink in an afternoon. Blowing sand increases the effect. Was the biblical Yam Suf shallow enough so a strong east wind could expose part of its bed–enough for people and livestock to walk across on the mud?

Yes, if two or more of the lakes between the Sinai peninsula and Egypt proper were connected during Egypt’s Nineteenth Dynasty, as some scholars claim. No, if it was the Gulf of Suez on the Red Sea, as other scholars believe.

If Yam Suf refers to the Red Sea, the water would be too deep for an east wind to dry out a path across it. But the narrative gives two different accounts of the depth of the yam before God parted it. First it describes an east wind drying up the sea. Then the narrator says:

Then the Israelites came through the middle of the yam on dry ground, and the waters were a wall for them on their right and on their left. (Exodus 14:22)

Many of us picture walls of water rising almost vertically from the dry sea bed, as in this illustration:

The Waters Are Divided, by James J.J. Tissot, 1896-1902

An east wind drying up part of a shallow lake does not make walls of water. But after the Egyptian army has drowned, the Israelites on the other side rejoice by singing an ancient song or poem. (We know Exodus 15:1-18 dates to a much earlier time than the narrative because the Hebrew is older.) In this poem, the wind comes not from the east, but from God’s nose. And instead of exposed mud at the bottom of a shallow sea, the deep waters congeal or freeze solid.

And by a ruach from your nostrils the waters piled up;

            The watercourses stood up like a dam.

            The deeps congealed in the heart of the yam. (Exodus 15:8)

Nevertheless, whoever wrote the narrative that precedes this poem knew about harsh, dry east winds, and therefore could easily imagine walking across dry ground in the middle of a sea.

If the “Sea of Reeds” is a shallow salt lake, the miracle would lie in the inability of the Egyptians to follow the Israelites an hour or two later.

This week’s Torah portion says that the Egyptian charioteers followed the Israelites as far as the middle of the sea—on dry ground that was probably still muddy—and then were drowned by the sudden return of the water.

Then God made the wheels of their chariots fall off, and they moved laboriously. And the Egyptians said: “Let me flee from before Israel, because God is fighting for them against Egypt!” Then God said to Moses: “Hold out your hand over the yam, and the waters will come back over the Egyptians, over their chariots and over their riders!” And Moses held out his hand over the yam, and the yam came back to its normal position. And the Egyptians were fleeing from meeting it, but God shook the Egyptians off (their chariots) in the middle of the yam. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the riders and all Pharaoh’s soldiers coming in after them into the yam; not one of them remained. (Exodus 14:25-28)

The Egyptians Are Destroyed, by James J.J. Tissot, 1896-1902

The narrative does not say how God made the waters return to their normal level so quickly. But the poem that follows it says:

You blew with your ruach; the yam covered them;

            They sank like lead in the majestic waters. (Exodus 15:10)

The ancient poem tells us the wind from God’s nostrils opens a path through the sea and closes it again. The later narrative says God summons an east wind to expose the sea bed, and then makes the waters return through some unknown means.

Either way, the Yam Suf opens or closes according to God’s whim. And the word ruach can mean mood or spirit as well as wind. In the Torah portion Beshalach, the God character rescues the Israelites and drowns the Egyptians in a spirit of pride and determination to demonstrate superior power.

In the story of the plague of locusts, the God character dooms all the innocent people who stay in Egypt to a year of famine. In the story of crossing the Sea of Reeds, God dooms the army unit that pursues the Israelites to instant death.

But the God character’s objectives are achieved. The Israelites are free to march on to Canaan, and both the Egyptians and the Israelites know God is supreme.

And Israel saw the great power that God used against Egypt, and the people feared God and had faith in God and in [God’s] servant Moses. (Exodus 14:31)

Imagine you were an anthropological god and you wanted to rescue a downtrodden ethnic group from one country, motivate it to travel to another country, and make it the ruling class there. Could you formulate a proposal that killed fewer innocent people than the divine plan in Exodus?

  1. World Meteorological Organization, “Weather and Desert Locusts”, In the book of Exodus, the last four plagues take place in the early spring.
  2. Exodus 12:29-32.
  3. See my post: Va-eira: Pride and Ethics.
  4. See my post: Beshalach: Pillar of Cloud and Fire.

Bo: Eyes and Swarms

Ten “plagues”, or devastating miracles, destroy the land of Egypt bit by bit in the book of Exodus, until the pharaoh finally acknowledges the God character’s superior power and gives the Israelites unconditional permission to leave. Last week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35), ends with the seventh plague: hail. (See my post: Va-eira: Hail That Failed.)

Desert locust: Schistocera gregaria

The eighth plague, locusts,1 opens this week’s Torah portion, Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16). First Moses and Aaron tell Pharaoh:

“Thus says Y-H-V-H, the god of the Hebrews: How long do you refuse to humble yourself before me? Release my people so they will serve me! Because if you refuse to release my people, here I am, bringing arbeh in your territory tomorrow!” (Exodus/Shemot 10:3-4)

arbeh (אַרְבֶּה) = locust swarm(s); the desert locust Schistocera gregaria.

Then they deliver a practical threat and two frightening images. The practical threat is that the plague of locusts will devour every green thing in Egypt left after the hail, leaving the human population without food.2

Before and after the practical threat, Moses and Aaron transmit God’s frightening images.

Eyes, up and down

The first image conjures blindness, like the plague of darkness that will follow the locust plague.

“And it [the locust  swarm] will conceal the ayin of the land, and nobody will be able to see the land …” (Exodus 10:5)

ayin (עַיִן) = eye; view; spring or fountain.

After Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites leave, the locust plague does exactly that.

And it concealed the ayin of the whole land, and it darkened the land and ate up all the green plants of the land and all the produce of the trees that the hail had left. Then nothing remained, nothing green remained on the trees or in the plants of the field, in the whole land of Egypt. (Exodus 10:15)

What does the word ayin mean in this story? The Hebrew Bible frequently uses ayin (most often in its duplex form, eynayim, עֵינַיִם = pair of eyes) to mean “view” or “sight”. Therefore many classic commentators assumed the Torah meant that the view of the land was blocked by the hordes of locusts. After all, the first reference to “the ayin of the land” is immediately followed by “nobody will be able to see the land”. If the locust swarms blanket every surface when they land, it would be as impossible to see through them as it is to see through the total darkness the Egyptians experience in the ninth plague.

On the other hand, the phrase “the ayin of the land” occurs only three times in the Hebrew Bible: twice in this week’s Torah portion (see above), and once in Numbers 22:5 (see below). According to contemporary commentator Gary Rendsburg, the rarity of this phrase means it is probably an adaptation of a common Egyptian phrase, “the eye of Ra”, which referred to either the sun (since Ra was the sun god) or the land of Egypt (which belonged to Ra). He wrote that Onkelos, who translated the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic in the second century C.E., inserted the word for “sun” in both phrases: “… ‘the eye of the sun of the land’ in 10:5 and … ‘the eye of the sun of the whole land’ in 10:15.”  Rendsburg suggested that Israelite readers would understand that the plague of locusts caused “the worst possible chain of events for the Egyptian nation, the disappearance of their omnipresent sun-god Ra”.3

Then what about the phrase “it darkened the land” in the second reference to “the ayin of the land”? When a locust swarm is in the air, it would not only block anyone underneath it from seeing the sun above, but also cast a broad shadow. According to Chizkuni,4 the shade cast by the swarm darkens the earth below.

Locust swarm, photo by James Wainscoat

However, the context of the only other biblical appearance of the phrase “the ayin of the land” refers to a swarm or horde on the ground. In the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. Balak, the king of Moab, is alarmed because Moses has led a horde of Israelites north from Egypt, and they are encamped on the border of his country. This king says to his advisors:

“Now the throng will lick bare everything around us like an ox licks bare the grass of the field!” (Numbers 22:4)

This is the behavior of locusts on the ground eating up the vegetation, not of locusts on the wing blocking the sun. King Balak then sends a message to the prophet-sorcerer Bilam, saying:

“Here are people [who] left Egypt, and hey! They conceal the ayin of the land, and they are living next to me! So now please come and put a curse on this people, because they are too strong for me …” (Numbers 22:5-6)

In other words, Balak sees the Israelites covering the ground like a giant swarm of locusts; and like locusts they are powerful because of sheer numbers.

Swarms: inside and out

Plague of Locusts, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

After the practical warning that the coming locust swarms will consume Egypt’s entire food supply, Moses and Aaron transmit a second frightening image to Pharaoh—one that conjures an gruesomely intimate invasion.

“And they will fill your houses, and the houses of all your courtiers, and the houses of all Egyptians …” (Exodus 10:6) 

It is not the first such invasion in the contest between the God character and Pharaoh. Before the second plague, frogs, God orders Moses to tell Pharaoh:

“And the Nile will swarm with frogs, and they will go up and come into your palace and your bedroom and climb into your bed, and go up into your courtiers’ houses and your people’s, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls.” (Exodus 7:28)

The fourth plague is arov, עָרֹב = swarms of insects (traditional translation), mixed vermin (translation based on the fact that the root ערב means “mixture”). Again God says:

“… and the arov will fill the houses of the Egyptians, and even the ground they stand on.” (Exodus 8:17)

Swarms of unpleasant animals are bad enough outside. Being unable to escape them even inside your own personal space is a horrifying invasion.

The plague of locusts both signals the coming plague of darkness, and echoes the earlier plagues of frogs and swarms of vermin. It also completes the destruction of Egypt, by eliminating the last sources of food. After Moses and Aaron warn Pharaoh about the locust plague,

Pharaoh’s courtiers said to him: “How long will this one be a snare for us? Release the men so they will serve Y-H-V-H, their god! Don’t you know yet that Egypt is lost?” (Exodus 10:7)

Locusts feeding, photo by Compton Tucker, NASA

Pharaoh is so invested in his power struggle with God and Moses that he is past the point of caring whether his country is lost. But his courtiers have a different motivation. The first seven plagues have already ensured the economic downfall of Egypt; the loss of more crops will only mean that landowners lose more wealth as they feed their people during the coming famine. They have nothing to prove about who has more power. Some of Pharaoh’s courtiers have already acknowledged God’s power by bringing in their field slaves and livestock before the seventh plague, hail.5

So why do Pharaoh’s courtiers beg him to let the Israelites go? Probably because they cannot bear the thought of one more plague, especially a plague that will blot out their sight of the sun and the ground, and will once again invade even their bedrooms.

Over the past twenty years I have had problems I could deal with, and two persistent troubles that drove me crazy because I felt constantly under attack from well-meaning people who could not understand me and would not leave me alone. I was plagued by their incessant arguments and their refusals to accommodate me. These plagues darkened my life so I despaired of seeing sunlight. They invaded my home because I had to keep returning their phone calls. All I wanted was to be free of them.

I cut myself loose from one plague by resigning from my position. At the time, it seemed as hard for me to give up on that part of my life as it was for Pharaoh to give up and let the Israelites go. I waited out the other plague until my unwitting tormenter died. In that case, I was more like Pharaoh’s courtiers, whose power was limited.

Now that I am free, I hope that if I see another plague coming, I will be able to cut my losses right away. But I also pray that I will have empathy for others who suffer from unrelenting troubles. It is painfully hard to make a major change to improve your life, especially when you can see no illumination, and you have no safe place of refuge.

  1. When a wind brings multiple swarms of desert locusts into the same large region, it is still called a “plague” of locusts. (World Meteorological Organization, “Weather and Desert Locusts”,
  2. Exodus 10:5.
  3. Gary Rendsburg, “YHWH’s War Against the Egyptian Sun-God Ra”,
  4. Chizkuni is a compilation of Torah commentary and insights written by 13th-century Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah.
  5. Exodus 9:13-26. See my post: Va-eira: Hail That Failed.

Va-eira: Hail That Failed

Is it ethical to harm or even kill innocent people? The liberal answer is no. Someone with more traditional morality might answer: no … unless you need to do it for the sake of your own people, whose welfare comes first.

In terms of either answer, the God of Israel and the pharaoh of Egypt are unethical in this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35).

The God character wants the Israelites to walk out of Egypt and serve God as the new rulers of the land of Canaan. The pharaoh character wants the Israelites to stay in Egypt as forced labor making bricks and building cities for him. The God character also wants to be acknowledged as the most powerful force in the world, while the pharaoh wants to keep every iota of power he already has.1

Following God’s instructions, Moses repeatedly offers Pharaoh what sounds like a compromise: that Pharaoh give the Israelites a three-day vacation to hold a festival for their God in the wilderness.2 (Meanwhile Moses informs the Israelites that the real goal is a new life in a different country.) Pharaoh refuses, and the God character responds by devastating Egypt with a series of “plagues”: miraculous disasters. The plagues devastate the country and harm or kill human beings, including both the Israelite immigrants God has adopted, and Pharaoh’s native Egyptians.

The Ten Plagues, Erlangen Haggadah, by Judah Pinchas, 1747

Before the seventh plague, hail, God tells Moses to pass on this information to Pharaoh:

“For by now shalachti my hand, and you, you and your people, would be wiped off the earth by bubonic plague. However, on account of this I have let you stand: to show you my power, so that my name will be made known over all the earth.” (Exodus 9:15-16)

shalachti (שָׁלַחְתִּי) = I could have sent forth, I could have released. (A kal form of the verb shalach, שָׁלַח = sent, let go. Throughout this week’s Torah portion, forms of the verb shalach are used both when God releases a plague, and when Moses and Pharaoh talk about releasing, or not releasing, the Israelites.)

In other words, God is refraining from simply killing every native Egyptian. The purpose of sending one plague after another is to spread the word about God’s awesome power, and to eventually make Pharaoh so terrified that he gives in and lets the Israelites go out into the wilderness.

Pharaoh’s strategy is to keep refusing to give the Israelites permission to go. He assumes they would never leave Egypt without his permission, probably because then his army would kill them.3

Plague of Death of the Firstborn, Erlangen Haggadah, by Judah Pinchas, 1747

So much is at stake that neither of the God character nor the pharaoh is willing to stop them. Only after the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, does Pharaoh concede defeat.

Yet these entrenched enemies soften their positions briefly in this week’s Torah portion, in the story of the seventh plague: hail.

Ethics of a god

The first three plagues in the book of Exodus/Shemot afflict everyone in Egypt indiscriminately. When God turns the Nile into blood, the Israelites as well as the native Egyptians are affected by the shortage of both drinking water and fish.4 The second plague, frogs, and the third, lice, also affect everyone in Egypt without exception.

Then the God-character seems to notice that his demonstrations of power are causing suffering to the people he plans to rescue. Before the fourth plague, swarms of mixed vermin, God declares that all the Egyptians will be affected, but the region occupied by Israelites, Goshen, will be vermin-free.5

The Israelites also get a divine exemption from the fifth plague, cattle disease; the ninth plague, darkness; and the tenth, death of the firstborn. (Through the oversight of either the narrator or the God character, no exception is mentioned for the sixth plague, boils, nor for the eighth plague, locusts.)

The seventh plague, hail, is a unique case. No hail falls on Goshen, where the Israelites live. But this time God gives some of the Egyptians a chance to reduce their losses ahead of time. God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh and his court:

“Here I will be, about this time tomorrow, raining down a very heavy hail, the like of which has never been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. So now, shelach your livestock and everything in the field that is yours! Every human and beast that is found in the field and has not been gathered into [its] house, the hail will descend upon them and they will die.” (Exodus 9:18-19)

shelach (שְׁלַח) = Send! Send in! (Another kal form of shalach.)

Perhaps God is testing Pharaoh to see whether he rejects everything God says, not just the demand to give the Israelites a three-day leave of absence. Pharaoh is stubborn and does not issue any orders about his own livestock or field slaves.

Plague of Hail, Erlangen Haggadah, by Judah Pinchas, 1747

But everyone in the audience hall hears God’s advice regarding the coming hailstorm, and some of Pharaoh’s courtiers act on it.

Whoever feared the word of God among the servants of Pharaoh had his slaves and his beasts flee into the houses. But whoever did not pay attention to the word of God left his slaves and his beasts in the field. (Exodus 9:20-21)

The hail still destroys the barley and flax crops and shatters trees throughout all of Egypt—except Goshen, where the Israelites live.6 This means a loss for even the God-fearing landowners, since all Egyptians now face a future shortage of food (barley and fruit) and clothing (linen from flax). The hail also kills or injures the slaves of the Egyptian landowners who ignored God’s warning and left them out in their fields along with the livestock.

The God character must notice that some of Pharaoh’s courtiers now believe in the power of the God of Israel. This is progress on God’s agenda of becoming known as the supreme deity. An ethical and intelligent deity would now devise a way to exempt every Egyptian who fears the God of Israel from the suffering and death that will be caused by the last three plagues.

But God’s lenience preceding the seventh plague does not last. The three plagues in next week’s Torah portion, Bo, affect all Egyptians without exception. The tenth and final plague kills the firstborn son of everyone in Egypt who does not paint blood on the doorframe of their house—and God does not tell anyone but the Israelites about this sign.

And it was the middle of the night, and God struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, to all the first-born of the livestock. (Exodus 12:29)

For the plague of hail, God experimented with mitigating the damage to Egyptians who feared God. But the final and most horrible plague punishes all Egyptians, even those who are eager to let the Israelites leave.

Ethics of a king

During the first six plagues, Pharaoh makes two false promises to let the Israelites go, but breaks them as soon as the plagues are removed.7 He does not express any guilt over the devastation to his country and its people.

But he appears to have a change of heart during the seventh plague, hail.

Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said to them: “I am guilty this time. God is the righteous one and I and my people are the wicked ones. Plead to God that there will be no more of God’s thunder and hail, va-ashalchah you, and you will not continue to stay.” (Exodus 9:27-28)

va-ashalchah (וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה) = and I will send away, let go, set free. (A piel form of the verb shalach.)

Plague of Hail, Golden Haggadah, Spanish, ca. 1320

Only here and during the eighth plague, locusts, does Pharaoh say he is guilty. When the hail is pummeling the land, he qualifies his confession in two telling ways. He classifies his people as well as himself as “wicked” even though so far, only Pharaoh and his taskmasters have harmed the Israelites. And he says he is guilty “this time”, ignoring the previous six times he refused to release the Israelites.

Does Pharaoh really believe he acted unethically? Or is he just saying so in the hope that a little groveling will help to get the plague of hail removed?

After all, Moses has not been frank with Pharaoh. So far he has kept repeating God’s request that the pharaoh give the Israelites three days off to worship their God in the wilderness. Pharaoh, by adding “and you will not continue to stay”, hints for the first time that he suspects the truth: if the Israelites got a three-day head start, they would not return to Egypt. Both Moses and Pharaoh hide their true agendas.

This week’s Torah portion ends:

And Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ended. Then he added to his guilt, and his heart was unmoved,8 his and his courtiers’. And Pharaoh’s heart hardened, and he did not shilach the Israelites, as Hashem had spoken through Moses. (Exodus 9:34-35)

shilach (שִׁלַּח) = let loose, let go, sent away. (Another piel form of the verb shalach.)

It is the narrator who says Pharaoh “added to his guilt” by being hard-hearted and refusing to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh himself is no longer talking about guilt. He has returned to his stubborn refusal to recognize that he cannot win against God. And Pharaoh’s courtiers stand with him this time.

By now Pharaoh knows that every time he refuses to release the Israelites another plague strikes Egypt. Perhaps during the hail he realizes that he, too, bears some responsibility and guilt for the damage the plagues have done. But then he returns to making  his own status as Egypt’s absolute ruler his top priority. He does not free the Israelites until the plague of the firstborn kills his own son and heir.

Both God and Pharaoh soften briefly during the story of the plague of hail. The God character enables the Egyptian landowners who take God seriously to protect some of their property. Pharaoh entertains the idea that he is wrong to prioritize his pride and his free labor over the health and safety of his own Egyptian citizens. Yet this softening quickly vanishes without leading to a moral improvement in either character.

It is easy to keep on angling to get what you want, regardless of the consequences for anyone else. I have acted that way myself, until I realized the damage I was doing and repented.

But some individuals are too narcissistic to feel compassion and repent. Occasionally a narcissist says or does something that appears to be kind and compassionate but, as I know from personal experience, this temporary kindness may be only a ploy to win favor. When push comes to shove, narcissists will harden again, because nothing is more important than their own agendas.

The book of Exodus paints the characters of both God and Pharaoh as narcissistic. Nevertheless, people still enjoy a story about a battle between two superpowers, regardless of the collateral damage in human lives.

But in our own lives, may we remember to look and see whether we are harming others as we pursue our own agendas. And may we protect ourselves, and others, from narcissists who cannot see the harm they do.

And may we not confuse God with the narcissistic God character in the book of Exodus.

  1. See my post Bo: Pride and Ethics.
  2. Exodus 5:1-3, 7:16, 8:21-24, 10:9-11, 10:24-26.
  3. Pharaoh and his charioteers do pursue the Israelites in Exodus 14:6-10 after Pharaoh changes his mind about letting them go.
  4. Exodus 7:20-24.
  5. Exodus 8:17-8:18.
  6. Exodus 9:16, 9:25, 9:31.
  7. Pharaoh promises to let the Israelites go during the plague of frogs in Exodus 8:4 and backs out in Exodus 8:11. He promises during the plague of vermin in Exodus 8:21 and 8:24 and backs out in Exodus 8:28.
  8. The Hebrew reads: vayakhebeid libo (וַיַּכְבֵּד לִבּוֹ) = and his heart was heavy. In English, the idiom “heavy heart” means sadness. But in Biblical Hebrew, a “heavy heart” is unmoved or immovable.

Pesach, Metzora, & Chukat: Blood and Oregano

Jews will gather around tables all over the world this Friday evening for the Passover seder, a ritual and story about God liberating the Israelites from Egypt. One highlight is when we chant the names of the ten plagues God inflicted on Egypt. After the name of each plague, we use one finger to remove a drop from the second of our four ceremonial cups of wine.1

Death of the Firstborn, Spanish Haggadah c. 1490

The tenth and final plague is makat bechorot, death of the firstborn; God takes the life of every firstborn in every family in Egypt—except for the Israelites who mark their doors so that God skips, or passes over, them.

Before the final plague, God tells Moses that each Israelite family must slaughter a lamb or goat kid on the fourteenth day of the month.

“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they will eat it. And they shall eat the meat that night, roasted in fire, and unleavened flatbread; on bitter herbs they shall eat it.” (Exodus/Shemot 12:7-8)

After describing how the Israelites should eat standing up with their loins girded, ready to leave, God says:“… It is a Pesach for God.” (Exodus 12:11)

Pesach (פֶּסַח) = the sacrifice mandated in Exodus 12; the annual spring pilgrimage festival in the Torah; the annual observance of Passover. (From the root verb pasach, פָּסַח = limp, skip.)

“And the blood will be a sign on the houses where you are, and I will see the blood ufasachti over you, and you will not be afflicted with destruction when I strike in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)

ufasachti (וּפָסַחְתִּי) = and I will skip over you. (A form of the verb pasach.)

The animal blood both signals an escape from death and brings the recipient close to God—in these instructions and in two other rituals in the Torah in which the blood of  slaughtered animal is applied with branches of oregano.

1) Bo in Exodus (Pesach)

Moses adds oregano when he transmits God’s instructions to the Israelites.

Preparing for the Plague of the Firstborn, History Bible, Paris, c. 1390

“Then you shall take a bundle of eizov and you shall dip it into the blood that is in the basin, and touch some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. And you must not let anyone go out from the door of his house until morning. Upasach, God, to strike dead the Egyptians, and [God] will see the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, upasach, God, the door and not let the destruction enter your houses to strike dead [your firstborn].  (Exodus 12:21-23)

eizov (אֵזֺב) = Syrian oregano, an aromatic perennial herb. (Traditionally translated as “hyssop”, although true hyssop does not grow in the Middle East.) Eizov grows in stony ground to a height of 3-4 feet; its stems are the longest in the oregano branch of the mint family.

upasach (וּפָסַח) = and he will pass over, skip over. (Another form of the verb pasach.)

In the above passage, the first upasach means that God will pass over Egypt, and the second upasach means that God will skip over the houses whose doorframes are painted with blood.

An omniscient god would already know which houses to skip. Either the God-character in this story is not omniscient, or God includes the blood painting for its emotional impact.

Up to this point in the book of Exodus, the Israelite slaves find it hard to believe that God is on their side. But when they discover that God has killed every firstborn in every house except theirs, they are (temporarily) reassured that God is indeed rescuing them, and they march out of Egypt into freedom “with a high hand”.2

Why does Moses specify that the Israelites should use a bunch of eizov to paint the blood? The only herbs God mentioned to him were generic bitter herbs, to be eaten with the roast lamb or goat. Oregano is savory, but not bitter. Perhaps Moses is afraid that the Israelites will find it eerie to paint with blood, and he hopes to comfort them with the good smell of oregano.

2) Metzora in Leviticus

Last week’s Torah portion, Metzora, describes four steps of purification for someone who has recovered from the skin disease tzara-at. Although this disease does not seem to be contagious, the white and scaly patches of skin are a reminder of death. If the tzara-at clears up, ritual purification is necessary so that the healed person can return to the community and to God’s sanctuary. (See my post Metzora: Time to Learn, Part 2.)

Two Birds, by Simon Fokke, 18th century

The first step is a ritual requiring two wild birds.

And the priest shall slaughter one bird in an earthenware vessel [held] over living water. The live bird he shall take, along with the cedar wood and the crimson dye and the eizov, and he shall dip them and the live bird into the blood of the bird [that was] slaughtered over living water. Then he shall sprinkle it on the one being purified from tzara-at seven times and purify him. And he shall send the live bird out over the open field. (Leviticus 14:5-6)

The ancient Israelites identified blood with the life-force (nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ) in a person or animal.3 Here the priest kills one bird and catches its lifeblood in a bowl held over fresh water, which is called “living water” in the bible. The priest dips the other bird into the blood of life and sets it free. The healed person who is watching knows deep down that God has rescued them and given them new life.

The cedar and crimson dye (made from shield-louse eggs) have no apparent purpose except to emphasize the red color of the blood.

The eizov is used to sprinkle blood on the person being purified. A bunch of branches covered with soft leaves can be used to paint blood on something, and also be shaken to sprinkle blood on someone. And shaking a bunch of eizov branches would release the good smell of oregano, a reminder that life will be savory again.

3) Chukat in Numbers

A purification ritual in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar uses blood and eizov to make a transition for someone who has been exposed to a human death, so that the person can return to the right state for worshiping God with the community.

First a perfect, unblemished red cow that has never carried a yoke is slaughtered outside the camp as a chatat (חַטָּאת), an offering to compensate for an inadvertent sin or lapse. Usually someone offers a chatat after realizing they have made an error in observance that separates them from God. The chatat in this Torah portion is unique because the offering is slaughtered and burned ahead of time, so that future people who find they have become separated from the divine through exposure to human death can make a virtual chatat.

Then Elazar the high priest shall take some of her [the cow’s] blood with his finger, and he shall flick some of the blood seven times in the direction of the front of the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers/Bemidbar 19:4)

This connects the cow’s life with God’s holy place. Next, Elazar watches while someone burns the entire cow, even its blood and dung.

And the priest shall take cedar wood and eizov and crimson dye, and throw them into the middle of the burning cow. (Numbers 19:6)

The ashes of the red cow in Chukat are gathered and stored in a ritually pure place, to be used to purify the following:

1) Anyone who is inside a tent where a human dies, and anyone who enters the tent for the next seven days (Numbers 19:14).

2) Anyone who touches a human corpse (even on a battlefield), or who touches a human bone, or who touches a grave (Numbers 19:16).

Eizov (Syrian oregano)

Then some of the ashes of the burning of the chatat will be taken and mixed with living water in a vessel. Then a ritually pure man shall take eizov and dip it in the water, and he shall sprinkle it over the tent and on all the vessels and on the souls who were there; or on the one who touched the bones, or the killed person, or the person who died [of natural causes], or the grave. And the ritually pure one shall sprinkle it on the third day and on the seventh day. Vechito on the seventh day. And he shall clean his clothes and he shall wash in water, and he will be ritually pure in the evening. (Numbers 19:17-19)

vechito (וְחִטּאוֹ) = and he will become free of his lapse. (From the same root as chatat.)

Anyone exposed to death who does not go through this process is excluded or “cut off” from the community. If they were not excluded, “the holy place of God would become impure”. (Numbers 19: 20)


Today we have no ritual to free us from the feeling of alienation that accompanies contact with death; there has been no ash from a pure red cow for two thousand years. Neither do we have a ritual to reintegrate with the community when we recover from a disfiguring condition that isolates us as tzara-at once did.

And today very few Jews in the world observe Passover by slaughtering a lamb and painting its blood on their doorframes with bunches of giant oregano—even during the current plague of Covid. The long ritual seder developed over the past millennium and a half focuses on freedom from slavery, not on fear that God will kill us.

Nevertheless, this Passover I am going to put a sprig of oregano on my seder plate, next to the bitter herbs. Even during times when we are crushed by the bitterness of physical or psychological slavery, life has savory moments.

  1. The custom of removing drops of wine is first mentioned in a Pesach sermon written by Rabbi Eleazer of Worms (1176–1238). The idea that we do it in sympathy for the Egyptians is based on Proverbs 24:17 and first appeared in commentary by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Löw (1812-1874).
  2. Numbers 33:3.
  3. Leviticus 17:14, Deuteronomy 12:23.

Bo: Pride and Ethics

Haggadah by Judah Pinḥas, Germany, 1747

Pharaoh wants the Israelites to stay in Egypt and serve him as corvée laborers making bricks and building cities. God wants the Israelites to walk out of Egypt, take over Canaan, and serve “him”.  In an effort to terrorize Pharaoh into letting the Israelites go, God afflicts Egypt with ten “plagues” or miraculous disasters: blood, frogs, lice, mixed vermin, cattle pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, utter darkness, and death of the firtborn.

The God-character reveals another divine agenda in last week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, just before the plague of hail.

Shalach my people so they can serve me! Because this time I myself sholeiach all my scourges into your heart and against your courtiers and against your people, so that you will see that there is none like me on all the earth. Indeed, by now shalachti my hand and struck you and your people with the pestilence, and you would have been effaced from the earth. However, for the sake of this I have let you stand: so that I can show you my power and make my name known throughout the earth.” (Exodus 9:14-16)

shalach (שַׁלַּח) = Send! Send forth! Send out! Let go! Release!

sholeiach (שֺׁלֵחַ) = am sending, am sending forth, am sending out, am letting go, am releasing.

shalachti (שָׁלַחְתִּי) = I sent, I could have sent, I could have stretched out, I could have released.

(Throughout the story of the ten plagues, forms of the verb shalach are used both when God releases a plague, and when anyone talks about Pharaoh releasing the Israelites.)

Before sending the hail, the God-character reveals that “his” other goal is to prove to the whole world that “he” is the most powerful god. Being recognized as the most powerful seems more important to the God depicted in the book of Exodus than any moral considerations.1

The ethical problem with the God-character’s actions is that the plagues afflict not only Pharaoh, but also the native Egyptians. Why should ordinary Egyptians suffer? Pharaoh is the one who keeps refusing to let the Israelites go; his people have no say in the matter.

Some commentators have claimed that all the Egyptian people are on Pharaoh’s side, so they deserve to be punished. But there is nothing in the text of the Torah to indicate this. Pharaoh issues a general order for “all his people” to throw male Israelite infants into the Nile in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot.2 But the Torah never reports an Egyptian actually doing so. The only Egyptians who act against Israelites in the book of Exodus are:

  • Pharaoh, who issues commands calling for their oppression and death.
  • Egyptian taskmasters supervising the corvée labor, who oppress and beat the Israelites.3
  • Pharaoh’s armed regiment of charioteers, who pursue them after they leave Egypt.4

Yet the other native Egyptians also suffer from God’s ten plagues. Is their suffering unavoidable collateral damage in the war between Pharaoh and God? Or does God choose miracles that harm the most people on purpose, in order to make a more dramatic display of power?


Plague of the Firstborn, Spanish haggadah c. 1490

The tenth and final plague, described in this week’s Torah portion, Bo, is death of the firstborn.

And it was the middle of the night, and God struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, to all the first-born of the livestock. (Exodus 12:29)

Only the Israelites receive God’s instructions to paint blood on their door frames and stay inside overnight to avoid the death of any of their first-born.5

Is this extreme unethical measure necessary in order to make Pharaoh submit? Or does the God-character kill every first-born in every Egyptian family merely in order to make a more dramatic display of power?

A necessary evil

The mass murder does appear to achieve the liberation of hundreds of thousands of oppressed Israelites.

And Pharaoh got up in the night, he and all his courtiers and all the Egyptians. And there was a great wailing outcry in Egypt, because there was no house without someone dead. And he summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and he said: “Arise, go out from among my people, you and also the Israelites, and go serve God, as you spoke! Take even your flocks and your herds, as you spoke, and go! And may you also bless me.” (Exodus 12:30-32)

Only after the death of the first-born does Pharaoh capitulate and tell the Israelites to go with everything Moses asked for. He even lowers himself by asking for a blessing, acknowledging that he cannot prosper again without God’s help.

Pharaoh loses his own first-born son, a blow that would shatter the hardest heart. But the wailing all over his capital city would reinforce his new despair. He may suspect that if he does not let the Israelites go now, the Egyptian people will revolt against him. The authority conferred upon him by the gods of Egypt no longer holds when the God of Israel is obviously more powerful.

A dramatic display

On the other hand, after three of the plagues (boils, locusts, and darkness) the Torah says that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.6 What does this mean?

Pharaoh hardens his own heart after the plague of frogs, and continues to harden it four more times.7 He is in the habit of hardening his heart, and once we get into a habit, it can seem as if an outside force makes us keep doing it again and again. But in the text of Exodus, there is an outside force, and it is God. Before the plagues begin, the God-character tells Moses:

“And I myself will harden the heart of Pharaoh, and I will multiply my signs and my omens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 7:3)

The God-character follows up on this promise by deliberately hardening Pharaoh’s heart three times when Pharaoh is softening and might give in. The God-character does not want Pharaoh to let the Israelites go before “he” is ready. And the God-character is only ready after “he” has a chance to commit the tenth and most emotionally devastating plague: the death of the firstborn.

Apparently the God-character is so fixated on the goal of demonstrating power that the full ten-step dramatic display, from blood to death, is worth postponing the liberation of the Israelites. Demonstrating power is also far more important to this God-character than minimizing the suffering of innocent Egyptians.


Red Sea in Golden Haggadah, c. 1320, Spain

After the final plague, the Israelites march into the wilderness, but Pharaoh changes his mind about letting them go. The God-character hardens Pharaoh’s heart one last time in next week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, and Pharaoh commands his charioteers to pursue the Israelites. This gives the God-character a chance to create another memorable miracle: the splitting of the Reed Sea, and the return of the waters in time to drown the Egyptian chariot regiment.8

And Israel saw the great power that God wielded against Egypt, and the people were awed by God, and they had faith in God and in [God’s] servant Moses. (Exodus 14:31)

This miracle impresses both the Egyptians and the Israelites with God’s power. The fact that it also avoids killing any innocent bystanders is probably incidental in the book of Exodus.

Although Exodus is based on older oral traditions, modern scholars estimate that it was written down in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E. About a thousand years later, the rabbis of the Talmud imagined a different sort of God responding to the death of the Egyptian soldiers.

At that time the ministering angels wanted to recite a song before the Holy One, Blessed be He. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 39b and Megillah 10b)

As the ethics of the Israelites advanced, so did the ethics of their God.

  1. See Jerome M. Segal’s treatment of this theme in his book Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible, Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, New York, 2007.
  2. Exodus 1:22.
  3. Exodus 1:13-14 reports unspecified ruthless oppression by the taskmasters; Exodus 2:11 and 5:15-16 report beatings.
  4. Pharaoh and his charioteers pursue the Israelites after Pharaoh changes his mind about letting them go in Exodus 14:6-10. The disciplined Egyptian charioteers advance at the Reed Sea in order to kill some Israelites and capture the rest, but God intervenes with a miracle.
  5. Exodus 12:6-7, 12:21-23.
  6. Exodus 9:12, 10:20, 10:27.
  7. Exodus 8:11, 8:15, 8:28, 9:7, 9:34.
  8. Exodus 14:5-30.

Dark Night

The penultimate plague in Egypt, just before the Death of the Firstborn results in the liberation of the Israelite slaves, is darkness.

For three days there is complete, impenetrable darkness, darkness so thick that it can be felt.  “No one could see his brother, and no one could get up from under it, for three days.”  (Exodus 10:23)

This is not only a physical darkness, but a psychological one.  Click here to read my blog post on the subject: Bo: Impenetrable Darkness.

The Egyptians in this week’s Torah portion, Bo, are immobilized by darkness–by their inability to recognize other human beings as their brothers.

Today I have been writing about Jacob’s wrestling match in the dark night before he sees his brother Esau face to face for the first time in 20 years.  Jacob wronged Esau by making him swap his firstborn rights for a bowl of lentil stew, and by tricking their father into giving him Esau’s blessing.  Like other characters in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob gave the wrong answer to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s protector?”

Guilt drives Jacob’s behavior for 20 years.  Now he is about to return home to Canaan, and he wants to make amends.  But how can he face Esau?

What will it take for Jacob to forgive himself?  Will he ever emerge from his inner darkness?

By the time I finish writing my book on moral psychology in Genesis, I will have some answers.

Bo: To Serve Somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.  (Bob Dylan)

The pharaoh of Egypt is an absolute ruler in the book of Exodus/Shemot.  His word is law, and everyone in the country must serve him almost as if he were a god.  There is no conflict between serving the pharaoh and serving Egyptian gods.  But the God of Israel is a “jealous” god, who requires exclusive service.1  One cannot serve both God and Pharaoh.

When Moses and Aaron first speak to the pharaoh, they only request a leave of absence for the Israelites so they can make a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer animal sacrifices to God, Y-H-V-H.2  The implication is that then they will return to the corvée labor the pharaoh has imposed on them.  But the ruler of Egypt refuses, sensing that there is a deeper issue.

And Pharaoh said: “Who is Y-H-V-H that I should listen to his voice [saying] to send out Israel?  I do not know Y-H-V-H, and neither will I send out Israel.”  (Exodus/Shemot 5:2)

He increases the workload of the Israelites instead.  A demonstration miracle turning a staff into a snake does not change his mind.3  Following God’s order, Moses now warns the pharaoh about the first “plague” or miraculous disaster, which will turn the Nile into blood, and tells him that God said:

“Send out my people so yavduni in the wilderness!”  (Exodus 6:16)4

yavduni (יַבְדֻנִי) = they will serve me.  (A form of the root verb avad, עָבַד = work for someone, serve as a slave, employee, or attendant.)

Plague of Frogs, Golden Hagaddah,  1320-1330 CE

The pharaoh does not change his mind.  After the second plague, frogs, the pharaoh says he will let the Israelites go, then hardens his heart and refuses as soon as God has ended the disaster.  After the fourth plague, mixed vermin, the pharaoh offers to let the Israelites sacrifice to their god inside the land of Egypt, but Moses insists on the three-day journey into the wilderness.5  Again, the pharaoh agrees at first, but then refuses as soon as God removes the vermin.

During the seventh plague, hail, the pharaoh actually admits to Moses and Aaron that he is morally inferior to their god, Y-H-W-H:

“I am guilty this time.  Y-H-W-H is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones.  Pray to Y-H-W-H and enough from being thunder and hail, and I will send you out, and you will not continue to stand [against me].”  (Exodus 9:28)

Moses agrees to do so, though he adds:

“But you and your avadim, I know that you still do not fear Y-H-V-H, God.”  (Exodus 9:30)

avadim (עַבָדִים) = servants, courtiers, slaves.  (Plural of the noun eved, עֶבֶד, from the root verb avad.)

Moses is right; once the hail and thunder have ceased, the pharaoh hardens his heart again and refuses to let the Israelites go.

This week’s Torah portion, Bo (“Come!”) begins when Moses announces the eighth plague, locusts.

And Moses came, and Aaron, to the pharaoh, and they said to him: “Thus says Y-H-V-H, the god of the Hebrews: How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?  Send out my people, so yavduni!”

In effect, Moses and Aaron admit that the contest is about who is superior, God or the pharaoh.

And the avadim of the pharaoh said to him: “How long will this be a stumbling block for us?  Send out the people and ya-avdu Y-H-V-H, their god!  Don’t you know yet that Egypt is destroyed?”  (Exodus 10:7)

ya-avdu (יַעַבדוּ) = they will serve.  (Another form of the verb avad.)

The pharaoh calls back Moses and Aaron and says:

“Go, ivdu Y-H-V-H, your god!  Who and who are going?”

ivdu (עִבְדוּ) = serve!  (An imperative of the verb avad.)

Plague of Darkness, Spanish, 1490 CE

Moses says all the people will go, including the children and even the flocks and herds.  The pharaoh replies that only the men may go.  So the plague proceeds.  After every green plant in Egypt has been consumed by the locust swarms, the pharaoh admits his guilt.  Yet his heart is unmoved when Moses describes the ninth plague, darkness, in which blindness strikes everyone in Egypt except the Israelites.

After three days of darkness the pharaoh offers to let even the children go, as long as the Israelites leave their livestock behind.  Moses refuses, saying they need their flocks and herds to serve God.

“Because we will take from them la-avod Y-H-V-H, our god, and we will not know with what na-avod Y-H-V-H until we arrive there.”  (Exodus 10:26)

la-avod (לַעֲבֹד) = to serve.

na-avod (נַעֲבֹד) = we will serve.

Moses knows that God intends to take the Israelites out of Egypt and give them a new land.  Is he making up an excuse so that when the people leave for good they can take their animals with them?  Does the pharaoh ask them to leave their livestock behind because that it just what he suspects?  The pharaoh threatens to kill Moses if he ever sees his face again.

Then Moses gets angry, and tells the pharaoh about the tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn.5  When it comes, the pharaoh and all the Egyptians practically push the Israelites out of the country.  But the pharaoh, accustomed to hardening his heart, changes his mind after they have left.  He sends an army to capture them.

Plague of the Firstborn, Spanish, 1490 CE

In next week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, the Israelites believe they are trapped between the Egyptian army and the Reed Sea.

And they said to Moses: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you take us to die in the wilderness?  What is this you have done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?  Isn’t this the thing that we spoke to you [about] in Egypt, saying: Leave us, vena-avdah the Egyptians, because it is better for us avod the Egyptians than dying in the wilderness!”  (Exodus 14:11-12)

vena-avdah (וְנַעֲבְדָה) = and we will serve.

avod (עֲבֹד) = serving.

The Israelites would rather serve the reality they know, however grim, than serve the invisible source of the ten miraculous disasters.  God is an intangible idea that they are unable to trust.


I do not blame them.  Human beings are naturally suspicious of change and skeptical about new ideas.  We might experiment in small ways, but laying one’s life on the line is heroic and unusual—unless the boss orders it and everyone else is doing it, as in a war.  Given a choice between certain slavery and risking death, many of us would choose slavery and hope that things would improve in the future even if we take no action.

Yet when we read a story like the one in the book of Exodus, most of us root for the Israelites to stop serving the pharaoh and throw in their lot with God.  After all, serving God does not usually mean dying.  Only once in a while.

You’re gonna have to serve somebody.  What if the choice is between going along with an immoral status quo or rebelling against it?  What do you choose?

  1. This jealousy appears even in the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:2-6.
  2. See my post Beshallach & Shemot: Knowing the Name on the sacred four-letter name of God, which I transliterate here as Y-H-V-H.
  3. Exodus 7:8-13.
  4. See my post Va-eira & Shemot: Request for Wilderness.
  5. Exodus 8:21-28.
  6. Exodus chapter 11.

Pesach: Changing Four Sons

The wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one who does not know how to ask.

These are the “Four Sons” in the haggadah (הַגָּדָה = The Telling), the guide to the Passover/Pesach seder.  Even haggadot that leave out many traditional sections still include the Four Sons (or in modern versions, Four Children) and label them that way.  If you go to a Pesach seder this Friday evening, you will encounter them.

pesach (פֶּסַח) =  the animal sacrifice for Passover, the festival of Passover.  Plural: pesachim (פְּסָחִים).

Neither the  four types of children, nor what we should tell them, come from the story of the exodus from Egypt in the Torah–even though telling that story is what Pesach is all about.

The Torah does prescribe what a father should say to a son on Pesach four times.  Three of these instructions are preceded by a hypothetical question from a child. But the answers in the Haggadah are different from the answers in the Torah.  By about 200 CE the Jewish community in Babylon had labeled the sons in the four passages and changed the answers to be given by their fathers.

“The Four Sons” Pesach tradition is first reported in the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael.1  Who knows, maybe even Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha was the one who invented this section in the second century CE, and it became popular after his students recorded it.  The passage begins:

Four Sons in French haggadah, 1880’s

There are four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and one who does not know how to ask.  (Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, 13:14)2

A parental answer follows for each type of son.

Is it possible to combine the four explanations to children in the Torah with the Four Sons found in the Mekhilta and all traditional haggadot?  Here is my attempt.

The “Wise” One

The question of the first child comes from the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim:

If your son asks you in the future, saying: “What are the terms and the decrees and the regulations that God, our God, has commanded you?”  Then you shall say to your son: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand …  And then God commanded us to do all these decrees, to be in awe of God, our God, for our own good always, to keep us alive as on this day.”  (Deuteronomy 6:20-21, 6:24)

For about 1,800 years the haggadah has applied the child’s question to the rules of the Pesach seder:

Breaking off the afikoman

What does the wise son say?  “What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that God, our God, commanded us?”  You, likewise, open to him with the Pesach rule: “Nothing should be eaten after the Pesach afikoman.”2

Later haggadot say the parent should tell the child all the rules of Pesach, including the one that nothing must be eaten after the afikoman.  Although in the Torah this child says “commanded you”, the Mekhilta rewrites his question as “commanded usin order to make the boy look better.

Answering the child’s question in the context of Deuteronomy 6:20-25 would be a bootless enterprise.  If you responded with every rule in the Torah and how it is applied, both you and the child would fall asleep long before you could finish the task.  You could limit your list to the rules of the Pesach seder, including the afikoman; but why not bring up each rule when you actually apply it during the evening?

I recommend saying: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand.  So if we are wise we obey God’s rules, in awe and gratitude, and for our own good.  Because here we are, alive today!”  (Deuteronomy 6:21-24)

The “Wicked” One

The question of the second child comes from the book of Exodus/Shemot:

Take for yourselves an animal from the flock for your families and slaughter the pasach.  And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and daub it on the lintel and the two doorposts …  And God will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and God will pasach over the entrance …  And when your children say to you: “What is this service to you?”  Then you shall say: “It is a pasach slaughter for God, who pasach the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when [God] struck the Egyptians, but preserved our households.”  (Exodus/Shemot 12:21-23, 12:26-27)

pasach (פָּסַח) = (verb) limped, skipped; (noun) an alternate spelling of pesach (פֶּסַח).

In context, the children are asking about the service of daubing blood on the outside frame of the front door, to commemorate the action in the book of Exodus.  (Although pesach animals were slaughtered annually at the temple in Jerusalem until the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE, there is no evidence to date other than this passage in Exodus that the daubing of blood around doors was ever re-enacted.)

But the Mekhilta completely changes the meaning of the children’s question:

What does the wicked son say?  “What is this service to you?”—to you, and not to him.  Because he disassociated himself from the congregation and denied the foundation, you, likewise, blunt his teeth and tell him: “Because of this [that] God did for me when I went out of Egypt.”  For me and not for you.  Had you been there, you would not have been redeemed.

The father’s reply here sounds to me as if the questioner is not “the wicked son”, but “the son whose father hates him”.

The father makes the “wicked son” look bad by correctly quoting “What is this service to you?” and leaping to the conclusion that “to you” means the boy is disassociating himself from his parents and from other Jews.

This is a prejudiced assumption.  Perhaps the child is merely expressing curiosity about a particular Pesach service and its meaning to an adult.  The service in question is what the Israelites did in Egypt the night before they were freed: slaughtering a sheep or goat and daubing its blood on the lintel and doorposts of the front door.

I recommend answering: “Thanks to that service, God “skipped over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when [God] struck the Egyptians, but preserved our houses.  (Exodus 12:27)   And that is why we call this week Passover; the Hebrew name, Pesach, means skipped over.”


The “Simple” One

The third child’s question appears in Exodus after the instructions to sacrifice every firstborn male animal in the herd and flock to God, in commemoration of the tenth and final plague in Egypt.  A firstborn donkey is redeemed with a sheep sacrificed in its place.  The firstborn son of each human mother is also dedicated to God.

Death of the Firstborn, haggadah by Judah Pinḥas, Germany, 1747

But every firstborn human among your sons you shall redeem.  And when your son asks you in the future, saying: “What is this?”  Then you shall say to him: “By strength of hand God brought us out from Egypt, from the house of slavery.  And when Pharaoh hardened against sending us out, then God killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of humans to the firstborn of livestock.  Therefore I am slaughtering for God every male womb-opener, but every firstborn of my sons I must redeem.”  (Exodus 13:14-15)

The Mekhilta takes the question out of context and shortens the answer:

What does the simple son say?  “What is this?”  And you shall tell him: “With a mighty hand did God take us out of Egypt from the house of bondage.”

The best answer depends on what the simple child cannot find the words to describe.  If “this” is the Pesach seder, it suffices to answer: “This is the way we tell the story of how God rescued us from slavery in Egypt.”

But what if the child has qualms about God’s tenth plague in Egypt, the death of the firstborn?  I recommend reassuring your child (or your inner child) by explaining: “That was a miracle in the story.  Moses told our ancestors to commemorate it by sacrificing the firstborn of each cow, sheep, or goat at the altar, but to redeem every firstborn son by giving something different to God instead.  (Exodus 13:15)  Today we give money in honor of the firstborn.”

The Speechless One

Exodus tells the father what to say to his son about the festival of matzah without including any prompting question.

Seven days you shall eat matzah, and on the seventh day will be a festival for God.  Matzah shall be eaten for seven days, and nothing leavened shall be seen with you, and no sourdough shall be seen with you, throughout all your territory.  And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: “For the sake of what God did for me in taking me out from Egypt.”  (Exodus 13:6-8)

Modern biblical scholars suspect that there was already a festival of matzah in the spring, before the first grain harvest, and the Torah absorbed the pre-existing festival into the Pesach observance.4

Nevertheless, the Torah instructs us to explain the presence of matzah and the absence of leavened food during the week of Pesach in terms of the exodus.  And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: “For the sake of what God did for me in taking me out from Egypt.”  So does the Mekhilta:

And he who does not know how to ask, you open for him, as it is written: “And you shall tell your son on that day, etc.”

Like the answers for the “wicked” child and the “simple” child, the invented “son who does not know how to ask” gets an answer that ignores the point of the corresponding passage in the Torah—in this case instructions for the festival of matzah.

I recommend telling the speechless child: “For seven days we eat matzah, and avoid any baked goods with leavening.  Why do we do this?  For the sake of what God did for me in taking me out from Egypt.  (Exodus 13:6-8)  That’s what it says in the Torah, but what do you think it means?”  In this way you may encourage your child to ask questions and generate possible answers.


Pesach is when we must tell the story of the exodus from Egypt in a way that engages our children and the “children” inside us.  In order to do that, we can combine the traditions with our own creativity.  The Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim gives examples of spur-of-the moment alternatives to traditional sections.5  But if you would like to plan some alternatives in advance, you are welcome to use this blog post as a starting point.

  1. The Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael collection of commentary on the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy written during the first through fourth centuries CE and by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, his students, and subsequent commentators and redactors. The rules and customs of Passover in the Mekhilta were probably written in the early third century CE, about the same time as Rabbi Yehudah Ha Nasi collected the mishnah of the Talmud.  The fours sons in the Mekhilta are alluded to in the Jerusalem Talmud, but not in the Babylonian Talmud.
  2. This quote and all subsequent quotes from the Mekhilta use the translation in’Rabbi_Yishmael. They are all from 13:14.
  3. The afikomen is the final course or dessert of the Passover meal, consisting of half a piece of matzah separated and hidden early in the ritual.
  4. The only reason given in Exodus for observing the festival of matzah during Pesach is the sentence: “And they baked the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, flat rounds of matzah, because it had not leavened, because they were driven out from Egypt and they could not delay. They did not even make provisions for themselves.”  (Exodus 12:39)  But the Israelites have two week’s notice, and their only leaven is sourdough starter, which never runs out as long as a little is saved from each batch of bread.
  5. For example, Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 115b: “Abaye was sitting before Rabba when he was still a child. He saw that they were removing the table before him, and he said to those removing it: “We have not yet eaten, and you are taking the table away from us?”  Rabba said to him: “You have exempted us from reciting the questions of ‘Why is this night different’, as you have already asked what is special about the seder night.”  (Translation from www.sefaria.or/Pesachim 115b.)

Bo: Minglers or Riffraff?

Exodus from Egypt,
19th century print

After the tenth plague, the Pharaoh lets the Israelites go into the wilderness, just as God predicted to Moses.1  What God did not predict is that many non-Israelites leave Egypt with them.  Near the end of this week’s Torah portion, Bo (“Come”), we read:

And the children of Israel pulled out from Ramses toward Sukkot, about 600,000 adult men on foot, aside from non-marchers.  And also an eirev rav went up with them, and flocks and herds of very impressive property.  (Exodus/Shemot 12:37-38)

eirev rav (עֵרֶב רַב) = “mixed multitude” (King James version), motley crowd.  From the words eirev (עֵרֶב) = mixed or mingled (used for people or thread in fabric) + rav (רַב) = numerous, abundant, great.

Words from the same root as eirev include:

  • erev (עֶרֶב) = evening, sunset (when day and night mix); a weaving term, possibly for the woof.
  • arav (עֲרַב) =Arabs, Bedouins.
  • the hitpael form of the verb arav (עָרַב) = associate with, mingle with.

A negative view of the Eirev Rav

The noun eirev in reference to people (rather than to weaving) occurs only rarely in the Hebrew Bible.  In Jeremiah ha-erev (הָעֶרֶב = the eirev) refers to people of mixed race who are living in other lands, not to those living with Israelites.2  But in Nehemiah, eirev refers to  people from Ammonite or Moabite stock who live in Judah:

Ezra Reads the Law, by Gustave Dore, 1866

On that day they read to the people from the book of Moses, and they found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite could enter the congregation of God, ever … And they heard the teaching, and they separated all the eirev from Israel.  (Nehemiah 13:1, 3)

In the books of Nehemiah and Ezra, the men who returned to Judah from exile divorce the wives they took from the local population.3  Their leaders sign a written oath “that we will not give our daughters [in marriage] to the people of the land, and their daughters we will not take for our sons.” (Nehemiah 10:31)

Another indication that eirev rav in this week’s Torah portion may be a pejorative is the duplicative rev-rav sound, like “riffraff” and “ragtag” in English, or asafsuf later in the Torah:

And the asafsuf who were in their midst craved a craving, and they sat down, and even the Israelites wept, and they said: “Who will feed us meat?”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4)

asafsuf (אֲסַפְסֻף) = riffraff, rabble.  Literally, “gather-gathered”, from the verb asaf (אָסַף) = gather.

This is the only occurrence of asafsuf in the Bible, and there is no indication here whether the riffraff are of Israelite or foreign descent.  Yet 12th-century rabbi Ibn Ezra assumed that the asafsuf in Numbers were the eirev rav in Exodus, and that the foreign riffraff gathered in order to make trouble.4  Kli Yakar agreed, explaining: “But the mixed multitude, who had originated in the licentious Egypt, did not learn their lesson, and continued to sin, uttering outwardly whatever thoughts arose within them.”5


A lack of discretion and self-control is only one of the failings that commentators have attributed to the eirev rav.  The Talmud quotes Rabbi Natan bar Abba as saying that the wealthy Jews of Babylon “… came from the eirev rav … Anyone who has compassion for God’s creatures, it is known that he is of the descendants of Abraham, our father, and anyone who does not have compassion for God’s creatures, it is known that he is not of the descendants of Abraham, our father.  Since these wealthy Babylonians do not have compassion on people, clearly they are not descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”6

In other words, the descendants of the eirev rav who converted to Judaism in Exodus are not compassionate like people with a pure Jewish bloodline.  This is ironic, since judging people by their bloodline is anything but compassionate; that kind of thinking led to the Nazi genocide, with Jews as the victims.

One of the earliest biblical commentators, Philo of Alexandria, wrote that there were two kinds of people in the eirev rav: fellow slaves looking for a better life, and those who wanted to change their allegiance to the God of Israel after witnessing the plagues and recognizing God’s power.8

Pharaoh’s sorcerers also change staffs into serpents; Foster Bible Pictures

But the Zohar, the 13th-century C.E. kabbalistic opus, claimed: “In fact, however, the mixed multitude consisted entirely of … all the sorcerers of Egypt and all its magicians … for they wanted to oppose the wonderful works of the Holy One, blessed be He.  When they beheld the signs and the wonders which Moses wrought in Egypt they came to Moses to be converted.  Said the Holy One to Moses, “Do not receive them!” Moses, however, replied, “Sovereign of the universe, now that they have seen Thy power they desire to accept our Faith, let them see Thy power every day and they will learn that there is no God like unto Thee.” And Moses accepted them.9

According to the Zohar, the new converts let Moses down by instigating rebellions during the journey through the wilderness—and their souls are still being reincarnated in people who make trouble for the Jews.10

In Modern Hebrew eirev rav still means “motley crowd”, and in some circles eirev rav is a pejorative referring to the “wicked that scheme and plot against us”10 and “individuals who do not show their loyalty to the Jewish people.”11

A positive view of the Eirev Rav

In short, much commentary has painted the eirev rav as impulsive and selfish troublemakers who may even be deliberately trying to bring down the Israelites of old and the Jews of today.

Yet the bible only says: “And also an eirev rav went up with them”.  That particular phrase is not used again.  And although the rest of the journey from Egypt to the Jordan River features many complainers, whiners, and panickers, the Torah itself does not identify any of these troublemakers with the eirev rav.

In fact, the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy take pains to distinguish resident aliens who choose to live in Israel or Judah from the foreigners in other nations.  The bible dictates fair and compassionate treatment for resident aliens 52 times.  This week’s Torah portion says that resident aliens may participate in Passover rites as long as the men are circumcised, because:

There will be one teaching for the native and for the geir residing with you.  (Exodus 12:48)

geir (גֵּר) = resident alien; convert.  Plural: geirim (גֵּריִים).

Later in Exodus, God gives the order that:

You must not wrong a geir, and you must not oppress him, because you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Exodus 22:20)

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra goes so far as to say:

Ruth and Boaz, Eduard C.F. Holbein, 1830

The geir residing with you shall be like a native for you, and you shall love him like yourself, because you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Leviticus 19:34)

Although passages in Ezra and Nehemiah oppose intermarriage, in the book of Ruth a virtuous Moabite woman converts and becomes the great-grandmother of King David.  His great-grandfather, Boaz, is descended from the union of Jacob’s son Judah with Tamar, an Adulamite.12

After northern Israel secede, its kings come from the tribe of Efrayim, who is one of the sons of Jacob’s son Joseph and Asenat, the daughter of an Egyptian priest.13


How did the single remark in this week’s Torah portion that an eirev rav went up with them” lead to so much vilification of those who joined the Israelites on their exodus from Egypt?  Perhaps it is human nature to seize any excuse to shun people who seem foreign, any apparent “proof” that outsiders are bad people and bad people are outsiders.

Yet some of us learn to overcome our primitive fears, recognize the humanity in strangers, and treat them fairly.  This is what the Hebrew Bible urges when it tells us not to oppress a geir residing among us, and even to love the geir without prejudice.

I converted to Judaism several decades ago, when I was 32.  I have experienced both prejudice and welcome from people who were born Jewish.  I did not have the same childhood experiences as those born Jewish, but I am a Jew as well as a stubborn member of the eirev rav.

May everyone treat converts to their own in-groups with fairness, respect, and a little love.  And may everyone treat outsiders as human beings who deserve the benefit of the doubt.  There is no virtue in prejudice.

  1. During the era of the New Kingdom in Egypt, when the exodus story is set, the Egyptian Empire included not only the area around the Nile, but also the Sinai Peninsula and Canaan. Moses did not ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of the Egyptian Empire, but only to go “a three-day march into the wilderness” (Exodus 5:3), which would get them to the Sinai Peninsula, an area with only scattered Egyptian outposts.
  2. Jeremiah 25:20, 50:37.
  3. Ezra 9:10-14, 10:2-12; Nehemiah 10:31, 13:1-3.
  4. Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, in Michael Carasik, editor and translator, The Commentators’ Bible; The Rubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Exodus, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2005, p. 89.
  5. Shlomo Ephraim of Luntshitz (1550-1619), Kli Yakar, translated in Brachi Elitzur, “You were Rebellious or The Kindness of Your Youth: Parashat Beshalach”,
  6. Talmud Bavli, Beitzah 32b, The William Davidson Talmud,
  7. Philo of Alexandria (circa 30 B.C.E.-50 C.E.), De Vita Mosis, cited in Munk, pp. 147-148.
  8. Zohar, Exodus, Section 2, 191a-b, Soncino translation, quoted in Gerald Aranoff, “The Mixed Multitude According to the Zohar”, Jewish Bible Quarterly,
  9. Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah, translated by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1994, p. 148.
  10. Professor Gerald Aranoff, “Who Were the Mixed Multitude?”, 2015, Arutz Sheva,
  11. Rabbi Kenneth Cohen, “What Is Erev Rav”, 2016,
  12. Genesis 38.
  13. Genesis 41:25, 41:50-52, 48:8-21.

Bo & Va-eira: A Hard Habit

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320

Blood, frogs, lice or gnats, swarms of vermin, livestock disease, skin disease, hail, locusts, impenetrable darkness, death of the firstborn.  Why does it take ten miraculous plagues in the Torah portions Va-eira and Bo before Pharaoh lets the Israelite slaves go?1

When Moses first returns to Egypt, he and his brother Aaron simply ask the new pharaoh to give the Israelite slaves three days off to make animal sacrifices to their God in the wilderness.2  Pharaoh replies that he does not know this god.  Then he increases the workload of the Israelites, so they will not even think about taking a vacation.  Ruling through oppression is the model his father used, the only model he knows.

Moses and Aaron return to perform a small demonstration miracle: Aaron throws down a staff that turns into a crocodile.3  Pharaoh summons his wonder-workers, who perform a similar trick.  Even though Aaron’s magic crocodile eats the Egyptians’ magic crocodiles, Pharaoh refuses to be impressed.

Vayechezak, the leiv of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as God had spoken.  And God said to Moses: “Kaveid is the leiv of Pharaoh; he refuses to let the people go”.  (Exodus 7:13-14)

vayechezak (וַיֶּחֶזַק) = and it hardened, became stronger, became unyielding.  (From the same root as chazak, חָזָק = strong, firm, resolute.)

leiv (לֵב) = heart; conscious mind, conscious thoughts and feelings.

kaveid (כָּבֵד) = heavy, dull and slow, immobilized; oppressive, impressive.

Pharaoh’s mind is already so heavy that it “hardens” itself; he dismisses questions before they arise, and continues to behave as he always has.

We are what we learn

Moses and the current pharaoh both grew up in the Egyptian court.  But Moses was the son of Israelite slaves before he was adopted by an Egyptian princess, and he never forgot his origins.  As a young man, he left Egypt and joined a Midianite clan east of Sinai.  Thus he learned how to adapt to novel situations with curiosity and an open mind.  When he saw the bush that burned but was not consumed he approached it, and when he heard God’s voice he believed it.

Nevertheless, Moses argued with God.  At the burning bush he tried five times to get out of returning to Egypt as God’s prophet before he finally accepted his mission and changed his life again.4

Pharaoh Ramses III followed by his son

The old pharaoh’s firstborn son, on the other hand, grew up knowing he would someday succeed his father as the god-like ruler of Egypt.  All he had to do was learn his predefined role.  He had no reason to question anything, no new situations to master.

After the staff-crocodile demonstration the miraculous plagues begin: seven in last week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, and three this week in Bo.  Several times Pharaoh promises Moses and Aaron that if they get God to end the current plague, he will let the Israelites go for three days.5  But as soon as the plague stops, Pharaoh goes back on his promise.  After each plague, Pharaoh’s leiv returns to being either chazak or kaveid.  He acts as if he can continue to depend on the labor of his Israelite slaves, and their God will not afflict the country with another miracle.

Pharaoh’s mind hardens on its own after six of the plagues. But after the plagues of skin disease, locusts, and darkness, God–or at least the character of God as portrayed in the book of Exodus–hardens Pharaoh’s heart.

Plague of Boils, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747

After the sixth plague, a skin rash with boils,

Vayechazeik, God, the leiv of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as God had spoken to Moses.  (Exodus 9:12)

Vayechazeik (וַיְחַזֵּק) = and [God] hardened, strengthened, made rigid.  (Another verb form from the same root as chazak.)

Why does God intervene?  One possibility is that Pharaoh is finally wavering, wondering whether his refusal to listen to Moses is taking too a high toll on his country—or on his own body.  Is his “heart” softening, his mind becoming a little more flexible?  If so, God apparently wants to prevent Pharaoh from changing his mind too soon, before God has finished the whole demonstration.

Plague of Locusts, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747

During the plagues of locusts and darkness in this week’s Torah portion, Pharaoh switches from empty promises to genuine offers—with conditions.  While the locusts are devouring all the remaining crops, he offers to let the Israelite men go, as long as their children remain hostage in Egypt.  Moses refuses the condition.

Vayechazeik, God, the leiv of Pharaoh, and he did not let the Israelites go.  (Exodus 10:20)

During the plague of impenetrable darkness, Pharaoh offers to let all the Israelites go for three days, as long as they leave their flocks and herds behind.  Again Moses refuses.

Vayechazeik, God, the leiv of Pharaoh, so he was not willing to let them go.  (Exodus 10:27)

Pharaoh remains attached to being the all-powerful ruler of an economy based on slavery.  Is the God character or Pharaoh responsible for the king’s inability to imagine a new world order?

Free will

If God is deliberately hardening Pharaoh’s mind, then the king of Egypt has no free will.  God is depriving Pharaoh of the ability to make choices.

The idea that God can remove a human being’s free will has disturbed commentators through the ages.  The ability to make our own choices is part of being human, according to the book of Genesis; God gave Adam and Eve the ability to decide whether to eat from the Tree of Knowledge or not.  And we all prefer to believe that we are not automatons, that it is possible for us to choose and change.

Other commentators have argued that God hardens Pharaoh’s mind not by making him more stubborn, but by giving him the courage to bear the suffering caused by his bad choices.  God does not want Pharaoh to make a reasonable decision because he realizes that his country is collapsing into poverty and disease.  Instead, God wants Pharaoh to believe in the power of God and repent.  So instead of making Pharaoh more stubborn, God gives Pharaoh the courage to bear the suffering of Egypt.6

Yet the Torah describes God as making Pharaoh’s heart chazak and kaveid, the same two words it uses for what Pharaoh does to himself.  It does not use an alternate word or phrase to indicate strengthening by instilling courage.7

Another possible reading of God’s intervention is that Pharaoh’s mind is already so inflexible that God does not need to make it any more rigid.  He has developed an ingrained habit of hardening his heart the moment a disaster ends.

Some commentators have written that the book of Exodus gives God credit for the power of habit.  God made humans so that the longer someone persists in doing evil, the harder it becomes to switch to doing good.8

Modern neuroscience shows that the human brain cannot make an unaccustomed choice in the heat of the moment.  The choice happens and our words or actions are triggered before we become consciously aware of what we have already decided.  In order to make a free choice, we have to train ourselves to pause as soon as we become aware of our reaction, then give ourselves time to make a conscious decision.

One last time

Death of Firstborn, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747

When Moses announces the tenth plague, death of the firstborn, he storms out before Pharaoh can react.  Why should he listen to another empty promise, another unacceptable bargain?

In the middle of the night, death strikes the oldest son of everyone in Egypt, from the Pharaoh to the lowest slave—except for the Israelites who are safe inside the houses they have marked with lamb’s blood for that night.9  Only after his own son is killed does Pharaoh come to Moses and insist that all the Israelites must leave, without conditions.  In the morning, the exodus from Egypt begins.

Yet in next week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, Pharaoh reconsiders one more time.  The damage has been done, so why should he lose so many slaves whose labor could help rebuild Egypt?  He sends an army to pursue his ex-slaves across the wilderness.  Pharaoh has not truly broken his habit.


Some of us are like Pharaoh, and cannot break our bad habits for more than a day, even after life has hammered at us from every side.  Yet many of us are like Moses; although we may refuse to accept our calling five times, we then find the courage to change and do what really needs to be done.  What a blessing to know that Moses’ response is also possible!

May every mind that has become hard and heavy finally open, and receive the blessing of change.

  1. Psalm 78 lists seven plagues, and Psalm 105 lists eight. See my post Va-eira & Bo: Psalm 78 & Psalm 105: Responding to Miracles.
  2. Exodus 5:1.
  3. When God rehearses this demonstration with Moses in Exodus 4:1-5, Moses’ staff becomes a nachash (נָחָשׁ) = snake. Most modern scholars attribute this version of the demonstration miracle to a story from the northern kingdom of Israel, the “E” source. In the demonstration in 7:10, Aaron throws down the staff and it becomes a tannin (תַנִּין) = crocodile, cobra, or other large reptile.  This version  is considered a later addition from the “P” source, written by priests sometime after the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem was built.
  4. See my post last week, Ve-eira and Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.
  5. Frogs (Exodus 8:4), swarms of vermin (Exodus 8:21-24), and hail (Exodus 9:27-28).
  6. Nehama Leibowitz cites 15th-century rabbi Joseph Albo and 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno in New Studies in Shemot (Exodus), Part 1, translated by Aryeh Newman, Zion Ezra Production, Maor Wallach Press, Jerusalem, 1996, pp. 152-153.
  7. For example, Deuteronomy 2:30 uses the phrase imeitz et levavo (אִמֵּץ אֶת־לְבַבוֹ) to say that God had made King Sihon’s heart braver.
  8. Rambam (12th-century rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides), Mishneh Torah, chapter 5, cited in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (Exodus), Part 1, pp. 155-156.
  9. Exodus 12:21-23.