Friday, January 11, 2008

Invasion of the Mind Snatcher

Everyone knows the story. Even if you haven’t read the book, you probably saw the movie. Devastating plagues, death of the first born, Jews are rushed out, etc. However, there is one question about the Exodus that few dare to ask. Did the Jews really deserve to be saved?

The Midrash is not afraid to raise this uncomfortable question and its conclusion is… no. The Jews did not deserve freedom. (Or, at least, they did not deserve the miracles necessary to get them out.) In as much as God wanted to punish their oppressors, the Jews were stuck in Egypt until they earned the right to an Exodus. In other words, the Jews were in desperate need of a few good mitzvot.

R. Masyah ben Charash said, “The verse states, ‘I (God) passed over you, and I saw you, and behold, your time was a time of loving’ (Yechezkel 16:8). The time has come for the [fulfillment of the] oath I made to Avraham to redeem his children, but they have no mitzvot to perform to be [worthy] of being redeemed! This is the meaning of the verse, ‘…and you were naked and bare’ (ibid 16:7). [You were] naked of mitzvot. [God] therefore gave them two mitzvot: the blood of the Paschal lamb (Shemot 12:7) and the blood of circumcision (Shemot 12:48)…
Mechilta Bo 5; Rashi 12:6

The Midrash is saying that the Jews got the mitzvot of the Paschal lamb and Brit Milah before they left Egypt because they needed these mitzvot in order to get out. The concept is a compelling one, but it raises two questions. First of all, what’s the deal with all the blood? And second, what is it about these mitzvot that makes the Jews worthy of freedom?

It would take a great Kabbalist to divine the full answer to our questions, but personally, I am satisfied with a very simple observation. These two mitzvot are hard. Bloody hard.

The difficulty of circumcision is self-evident, but the Paschal lamb was no picnic either. Lambs were sacred to the Egyptians. To kill one and eat it was to commit a sacrilege – and no one knew this better than Moshe himself.

After plague number four, when Egypt was attacked by hordes of wild animals, Pharaoh summoned Moshe and Aaron to the palace.

“Go!” he said. “[You have permission] to sacrifice to your God here in [our] land.”
“That would not be proper,” replied Moshe. “What we will sacrifice to God our Lord is sacred to the Egyptians. Could we sacrifice the sacred animal of the Egyptians before their very eyes and not have them stone us? What we must do is make a three day journey into the desert…”

Moshe rejected the possibility of slaughtering sheep in Egypt; it was just too dangerous. But God commands the Jews to do just that!

Circumcision and slaughtering a lamb are two things that the Jews would never think of doing on their own – and that is why they are the perfect mitzvot for earning freedom. By choosing to do these mitzvot, the Jewish ex-slaves flexed their spiritual muscles, exercised their free will, and demonstrated their ability to rise above self-interest. It was this self-sacrifice for mitzvot, this allegorical blood, which made the Jews worthy of the Exodus and primed them for the covenant at Sinai.

In contrast with the heroic Jews, we have Pharaoh. Once the powerful king of the Egyptian Empire, the Pharaoh of Bo is a pathetic figure. In our parsha, we actually watch the man fade away into nothingness. Due to a series of unnatural disasters, his country is ruined and his approval rating hits rock bottom. But the situation is more frightening than that. Not only has Pharaoh lost control of his country, he has also lost control of his mind.

God said to Moshe, “Go to Pharaoh. I have made his heart stubborn…”


Pharaoh may have wanted to let the Jews free, but God forced him to say no. God invaded Pharaoh’s mind and seized control of his decision making process. In effect, Pharaoh is dead. What remains is nothing more than a puppet of God.

The Egyptians fared no better. Right before the Exodus, God told the Jews to “borrow” valuables from the Egyptians.

God said to Moshe, “Please speak in the ears of the people: Let each man request from his fellow and each woman from her fellow gold and silver articles…

It’s fine to ask, but why would any Egyptian in their right mind give stuff to the escaping slaves? The answer is that they were not in their right minds.

God made the Egyptians like the [Jewish] people, and they granted their request. [The Jews] thus drained Egypt [of its wealth].

The Mind Snatcher strikes again! Just like He did to Pharaoh, God invades the minds of the Egyptians and makes them do something they really, really don’t want to do.

What is going on here? Is this God’s idea of a practical joke? Actually, right from the start, the parsha promised us an entertaining show.

God said to Moshe, “Go to Pharaoh. I have made him and his advisors stubborn… so you can tell your children and your grandchildren how I made a laughingstock out of Egypt…”

God’s mind control games may be funny (in a slapstick kind of way), but God is quite serious here. The extraordinary power and wealth of ancient Egypt corrupted Pharaoh and his people. They allowed self-interest - the drive for cheap labor and a strong economy - to overrun basic morality. They abused their power and trampled on the human rights of the Jews. They became evil.

The Egyptians had their fun for a time, but one day, the God of Justice arrives. He devastates Egypt with ten plagues, and relieves the Egyptians of their slaves and their valuables. And then God takes away the most valuable thing of all – free will.

God is telling us something here. Our decision making process, our innate moral compass, our unique ability to choose, in short, our bloody humanness, is a divine gift. Treasure it, nurture it, exercise it and strengthen it with mitzvot. Because if you don’t, you may very well lose it.


  1. Actually, G-d gave Pharaoh the ability to have free will. Pharaoh hardened his heart through his own free will for the first five plagues. It was only for the latter five plagues that free will was removed from Pharoah and his heart was hardened by G-d. G-d has patience, but after a time that he judges is sufficient, he acts.

    The ultimate Exodus was related in advance to the forefathers, without the details. However, I suspect that many of the details had to occur to convince the Hebrew people that there was a G-d that was greater than the g-ds of the Egyptians. However, even though this G-d leading the redemption was powerful, the Hebrew people still did not trust that this g-d would always act favorably toward them.

  2. Al-
    Our parsha begins with plague #8.

  3. chaim yankel1/12/2008 8:09 PM

    If the jews needed self-sacrifice why did the men have to have 2 kinds of blood (circumcision & lamb) while the women only needed one?

  4. Your question is a good one, independant of my post. Who knows? Maybe men need more help.

  5. Maybe it's because the women already demonstrated self-sacrifice in the events leading up to yetziat Mitzrayim - the women who continued to reproduce in the face of oppression, the midwives who dared defy Pharaoh's demand to kill the babies on the birthstool, Yocheved who conceived a child despite the decree to drown all male babies in the Nile, Miriam who guarded Moses as he floated down the river, and Pharaoh's daughter who drew him out and raised him. The gemara tells us, “As the reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation, the Israelites were delivered from Egypt.”