Bo was my Bar Mitzvah parashah. But at the time, I didn’t realise what a great parashah it is. I remember giving a short d’var Torah on the Friday night where I talked about why God said ‘come to Pharaoh’, rather than ‘go to Pharaoh.’ Rashi’s idea, if I recall correctly, is that God is telling Moshe to comewith himto Pharaoh. The idea is that God will be with him in his difficult quest. So too, we should know that God will be with us in times of difficulty, so long as we do the right thing. Very nice.
But this is the parashah where we finally get to leave Egypt! It’s the one with all the signs and wonders! It’s got the last three plagues including the harrowing death of the first-born! Why was I not encouraged to think more about all these fireworks during my bar mitzvah?
Perhaps the answer lies in the confusing and disturbing nature of this story. What are all these signs and wonders meant to accomplish? Was it really necessary to kill all of the first born children? Is this story just a crazed revenge fantasy?
What on earth are we meant to learn from this fantastical story that seems to be talking about a completely different universe?
I think there are three characteristics of this story that are typical of biblical stories. We can learn important lessons from all of these characteristics.
First, we are invited to imagine a world in which Karma is mathematically precise. That means, every time someone does something bad, they are made to suffer in direct proportion to their wrongdoing. But similarly, every time someone does something good, they are rewarded in the same precise way.
There is something ideal about this world. It seems to me that a world where everybody gets what they deserve is something that we should aspire to. But it is also a very scary prospect. When we think about how privileged we are to live in a free, progressive, and relatively wealthy society; that we are part of a warm, loving, community; and that we have been gifted with a Jewish identity to enrich our lives, our responsibility to share our gifts with those more needy but equally deserving, can seem overwhelming.
Nevertheless, the Torah invites us to imagine this drastically different world: a world that requires open miracles in order to function. And it tries to inspire us to aspire to this ideal.
Secondly, the Torah often imagines a world of full collective responsibility. That means that every member of a society or community is morally responsible for the behaviour of all its members.
We know that a society has a huge impact on the behaviour of its citizens. Nevertheless our legal system holds individuals to account for their behaviour. This is with good reason. One of the implicit premises of our legal system is that individuals have free will. And free will is a central tenet of Jewish thought. However the idea of free will exists in a profound tension with the idea of collective responsibility.
What would it be like to feel a genuine sense of responsibility when someone in our society committed a theft, or even a murder? At some level, society has failed this person. At some level, they were not given the education or the love that we are privileged with, that means that we wouldn’t consider, even for a second, committing a murder.
A legal system is totally unworkable on this basis. For a start there could be no coherent sense of deterrence. But the Torah is not interested in the workability of this idea. The Torah is asking us to take seriously our collective responsibility to our family, our community and our society.
This is all well and good, but how does any of this account for the plague of the death of the first-born? Surely the children don’t deserve to die! And surely children can’t be held responsible as part of a collective!
Well, I quite agree! This is where the third characteristic of this story comes into play. The Torah often imagines a world in which the sins of the parents are visited upon the children. This is perhaps the most challenging of these three imaginations. It is especially challenging if it is understood to mean that the moral responsibility of the sins of the parents is visited upon the children. How can a child be held responsible, for instance, for something that happened before she was even born?
Read more broadly, this idea can be understood as the consequences of our actions are felt deeply by future generations. Therefore, if we create a culture of chaos and destruction, that culture will inevitably permeate through future generations. But if we create a culture of light and creativity, that too will have consequences that transcend far beyond our life times. So perhaps when children suffer as a result oftheir parents sins, the Torah is encouraging us to take seriously our responsibility to future generations.
All three of these characteristics are extreme. All of them are fantastical. Yet all of them are ideal. And they embolden us to create a world that is just, caring, and one where we take seriously our responsibility to everyone, even those who are not yet born.
Matthew Anisfeld is a former Marom Young Adults Worker.