By Israel Drazin
We have been offering some unusual and controversial Bible interpretations that the Jewish iconoclast Arnold B. Ehrlich (1848-1919) placed in his book Mikra Ki-Pheshuto (The Bible According to its Literal Meaning) with the hope that whether readers agree with them or not they will provoke thought. We added some ideas by the Orthodox Jewish thinker Baruch Epstein (1860-1919) from his biblical commentary Torah Temimah (The Perfect Torah). He raises penetrating questions and rational solutions that are generally traditional. We included some interpretations by the famed Bible commentator Rashi (1040-1105) who unlike the other two fills his commentary with derash, homiletical interpretations that others are unable to see in the plain meaning of the biblical text. The parenthetical statements are mine, making the presentation a quartet of different sounds. The following are some comments on the biblical portion Bo (Exodus 10:1 to 13:16).
- (I pointed out in my writings that many biblical terms meant something different than the meaning the words have today. This week’s portion begins with the word bo, which in modern Hebrew means “come,” but it is used in the Bible to also mean the opposite, “go.” Similarly, Scripture uses “I will go out within Egypt” in 11:4 when in means “I will enter.” This fact that biblical words do not have the same sense they have today sometimes has theological significance. For example, although the term nefesh appears in the Torah, it does not refer to a “soul,” today’s meaning, but a person, as in Leviticus 2:1 where a nefesh offers a sacrifice. The concept of a soul is not in the Five Books of Moses.)
- Many of the ten plagues that God inflicted on the Egyptians are described in this week’s portion. Some rabbis in various Midrashim said that each plague contained additional unstated afflictions. The Passover Haggadah contains some of these opinions. We have no idea why these rabbis wanted to think that the Egyptians suffered so much. Perhaps they felt that the Egyptians deserved a larger punishment for the decades of pain they afflicted upon the Israelites. Thus they understood that the plagues were not only signs that there is a God who wanted the Egyptians to release the Israelites from slavery, but they were also a punishment.
- (Why were all the Egyptians inflicted with the plagues? Where they all guilty? This seems unreasonable; we know that every culture has people who disagree with the leadership. The answer becomes clear by answering another question. Where the plagues natural events caused by the conditions in Egypt, perhaps conditions produced by a country that enslaves people because acts have consequences? Rabbi J. H. Hertz, late Chief Rabbi of England, wrote in his famed book Pentateuch and Haftorahs that the miracles were natural events. If we accept his view and also remember that the Bible frequently uses hyperbole for the sake of emphasis, then we can understand that even though Scripture states that the entire land and all the Egyptians suffered, this is hyperbole and what is meant is that the plagues were wide-spread.)
- Several Midrashim, such as Midrash Gadol, explain that each plague was sent to punish the Egyptian for a different way they inflicted the Israelites. For example, the plague of locust destroyed agriculture because the Egyptians forced the Israelites to labor in the fields and the plague destroyed all the work they did so that the Egyptians gained nothing from the enslavement. Epstein suggests that the Egyptians made the Israelites farm fields so that they would not be home to propagate children. (Neither the field work or the reason for it is explicit in the Torah.)
- The Midrash Mekhilta comments on 10:21 veyameish choshekh, which the Jewish Publication Society translates that the plague of darkness was “even darkness which may be felt”: “if an Egyptian was standing, he was unable to sit; if he was sitting, he couldn’t stand; because he would feel the darkness.” Epstein was bothered by this. He felt that God had promised during the days of Noah and the flood that he would not change nature. He suggests that day was not made into night, but the plague affected the Egyptians’ eyes: they couldn’t see. Ehrlich offers: the Hebrew words mean that it was so dark that the Egyptians had to feel their way in the darkness.
- The biblical word na is translated by some as “now,” as by Targum Onkelos, and “please,” by Midrashim and Rashi. Commenting on 11:2, the later write that God beseeched Moses to beg the Israelites to borrow silver and gold from Egyptians so that God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:14 would be fulfilled. God told Abraham after being enslaved by the Egyptians “they will come out with great substance.” Epstein suggests that Moses had to beg the Israelites to borrow the goods because the Israelites wanted to leave slavery immediately and didn’t want to stay longer to acquire silver and gold. (Apparently the silver and gold was considered payment for the work done during the years of slavery.)
- 12:1 states that God spoke to Moses and Aaron and gave them both the first biblical command that the month of Nisan should be considered the first month. Midrashim, Rashi, Epstein, and others explain that the Torah was revealed to Moses alone. Aaron’s name is mentioned, even though he received the information from Moses and only indirectly from God, to give him honor since he aided Moses in bringing the exodus.
- Why were the Israelites told to roast the Pascal lamb in 12:5? Ehrlich suggests that the ancients did not know the art of boiling meat. Homer’s Iliad shows this. Thus, to honor the Pascal lamb, the Israelites wanted to eat it as their ancestors ate it, roasted, not boiled. This is similar to Moses’ wife circumcising their son in 4:25 the old way, with a flint rather than a bronze knife. (It is more likely that the meat was eaten roasted because roasted meat tastes better than boiled meat.)
- In 12:25 and other places, the Israelites are told to remember the exodus. As a result, the exodus is mentioned in the daily prayers and many customs, such as the Shabbat Kiddush, the prayer said at the Shabbat meal over wine. It is in one of the two versions of the Decalogue as one of the reasons for the Shabbat. Yosef Yerushalmi, in his book Zakhor, distinguishes between history and memory. History is a scholarly discipline dedicated to disclosing and interpreting past events. Most people fail to see the relevance of history in their lives. Memory, on the other hand, is warm and personal and it frequently affects behavior. The Passover is part of Jewish history, but Jews experience it as a memory. The Passover Haggadah states that in every generation Jews must consider as if they themselves left Egypt and must understand the relevance of this memory in their own lives and culture.