When I was a child, this parsha, Bo, really freaked me out. Granted, I was sort of a weird kid with an overactive imagination, but every year around Pesach, I would begin to get horrible nightmares. I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep at night. I would be terrified all day long.
And this parsha, this story, is largely the reason why.
You see, I’m the first born, and my parents, never, not once, put lamb’s blood on the door post of our house. So every night during Pesach, I was convinced that the Angel of Death would swoop down in the form of this murky gray fog like in the Charlton Heston movie, and kill me, in my sleep.
In a way, this terror makes sense. We’re commanded to re-live the Exodus, to really sojourn out of Egypt. And wasn’t the slaying of the first born a rather large part of the departure? Certainly, it was the catalyst that finally pushed the Jews out of Egypt.
And there’s something truly horrifying about this particular section of the story. Looking at it now, I don’t think that it’s just the element of death which is so frightening, for our culture – both Jewish and American – is filled with stories of death and violence. What I think is so upsetting about this aspect of the parsha, is that you have totally innocent children being killed as punishment for their parents’ actions. This seems to me – and I’m sure to everyone here – incredibly wrong. And yet our religion is shamefully ambivalent about this topic. The Torah, for example, offers statements both for and against the punishing of innocent children for the mistakes of their parents.
In Exodus 20:5 and then again in Deuteronomy 5:9 we are told that "I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me."
We are also told, in Exodus 34:6, that God “will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations."
But then we have counter arguments. In Deuteronomy 24:16 we are told, quite explicitly, just the opposite: "Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers."
And finally, we are also told in Ezekiel 18:20 that "The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity."
Frustratingly, the Torah offers neither explanation nor comfort for why children have to suffer for their parents’ actions or inactions. Rather, the Torah only provides a series of harsh contradictions that we must struggle with, and that only lead to more questions: How can God, in an act of mercy and redemption, kill innocent children? How can the Torah not respond with outrage? Why must our redemption come at the price of so many deaths? As a way of understanding these questions, we can examine a few different interpretations of the plagues in the hopes that one of these explanations offers some sort of answer, or solace.
Rashi asks an interesting question about this parsha – why did the Jews have to put the lamb’s blood on their doorposts at all? Couldn’t God, who is all knowing, distinguish between the Jewish people and the Egyptians?
Rashi’s answer is that although God knows who the Israelites are, he needs an act to demonstrate their commitment. The blood on the doorpost is simply a demonstration, a show of faith more than anything tangible. Because what real protection could lamb’s blood offer?
God asks the people to put blood on their doorposts as a sign of loyalty; God is doing something very big, and God wants to know that the Jewish people are fully committed.
In a way, this is just another kind of covenant, like a bris. Our relationship with God is demonstrated through the blood put on the door.
The act is a chok, a divine decree, a mitzvah done without an obvious reason. It’s just part of the package. It’s like receiving a free all expenses paid trip to some exotic island but having to sit through a timeshare presentation for one afternoon. Putting blood on a doorpost is a small price to pay for an infinite vacation from slavery.
But, if that’s the case, then would a forgetful Jew have been spared? If it was only a test of loyalty, or a sign of commitment, and not a real “protective amulet” or talisman, would those who forgot, or who for whatever reasons could not perform the mitzvah, but who nonetheless had the right kavannah still had been spared? Conversely, would an Egyptian household that had put blood on their door post been spared?
How could God be so unrelenting, so harsh and cruel as to punish innocent children? The people of Sodom and Gomorrah were at least wicked, what did the Egyptian children ever do?
In his book, Nothing Sacred, Douglas Rushkoff posits that the ten plagues were intended as different slights on various Egyptian Gods. This offers us another layer to the lamb’s blood ritual.
He writes “The plagues so painstakingly detailed in the Torah and again each Passover in the Haggadah were understood not as physical attacks on the Egyptian people, but, rather, as symbolic desecrations of their many gods. Blood desecrates the Nile, which was worshiped as a god. Locusts desecrate the corn god, and so on."
Rushkoff states that the ram was the most sacred animal to the Egyptians, and that to kill a ram in ancient Egypt was an offense punishable by death.
The ram was especially important to Ancient Egyptians because there were multiple gods with ram headed forms, most notably Khnum, who was considered another form of Ra, and because the Egyptian word for ram, ba, also meant 'soul.' Because of these reasons, killing a ram was both impractical, as well as an extraordinary taboo. Furthermore, the killing of a ram was a huge insult against all Egyptians, because destroying the soul is tantamount to destroying the essence of an individual.
This changes things a bit. The significance of putting up sheep’s blood on one’s door looks a little more serious now, knowing that it was a capital offense. Perhaps, in this light, it was also a final act of defiance against the Egyptians, a sign that the Jews really were committed. Because after an act of such rebellion there would be no going back.
A different explanation of the plagues offers another interesting perspective on the slaughter of the first born.
Greta Hort, an early twentieth century professor of religion from Denmark, claimed that all ten plagues can be explained rationally and scientifically.
Hort says that the first plague, the blood, was caused by red algae, as well as a large quantity of red mud that washed into the Nile due to excessive rains. The algae poisoned the fish, causing an influx of anthrax, which infected the frogs, which forced them to flee the water for the land. The third plague was mosquitoes, which hatched in the unsanitary floodwaters, and the fourth plague was caused by flies breeding in the decaying plants that had been ruined by the flood. The frogs spread the anthrax from the water, which infected the cattle, causing the fifth plague. And the boils of the sixth plague was skin anthrax caused by infected insect bites. The seventh plague, hail and thunder was caused by a convenient weather anomaly which then caused the locusts, of the next plague, to come out in mass hordes. The darkness of the penultimate plaque was caused by a desert sandstorm. And the tenth plague, Hort states, was actually the destruction of the first fruits of the harvest, not of the firstborn children.
Although this theory of the tenth plague is more comforting, I think it’s a copout on her part, an attempt to find a possible explanation for an event that can not be explained. I could believe all the other claims she makes about the other nine plagues, even the explanations that rely heavily on coincidence, but where she loses me is in trying to rationally explain the final plaque. For there is no rational explanation for something as selectively horrific as a mass killing of firstborn children.
And that makes it all the more terrifying.
In the end, all of these attempts to understand the tenth plague fall short, and I’m still left with the power and heartbreak of the children who suffered unjustly because of the actions of their parents. And I’m left with anger at a God, who not only let it happen, but was directly responsible for it. How could a God of such love, of creation, of happiness and joy, let children be slaughtered for the mistakes of their parents?
And, even today, we still have children punished for the mistakes of their parents. We can find modern day corollaries in war, where children are born into strife; in situations of poverty, where children who are born to less privileged families don’t have the same opportunities and education as those who are more fortunate; we see it reflected in certain medical horrors – like fetal alcohol syndrome, or HIV.
We cannot do anything about the poor children of ancient Egypt who had to die for us to be redeemed. However, we can do something to help children who may yet become victims of such trauma. I urge us all to get involved with such efforts and charities that are working hard to aid children around the world.
Oh, and if you have young children, please, remember to put lamb’s blood on your doorpost next pesach.