This Dvar Torah was given by Rabbi Silverman on 1/3/14.
In my more vulnerable, least rational, often half-asleep moments, I have an unhealthy habit of creating plans for ‘just in case’ moments. I know the various places in my house I would hide if burglars broke in. I know which lamp to grab and take with me before investigating scary sounds downstairs. And I have a vague plan for where I’d escape to, on the off chance the Nazis show up in Brookline looking for me.
Under ordinary circumstances, one might think I’m crazy…..but I married a man who has a plan for the Zombie Apocalypse – so clearly, we’re just a family that prefers to be prepared.
Even when I’m being wholly rational, I like to know what to expect so I can properly prepare for it. You didn’t find us at the grocery store yesterday, scrambling for milk and eggs…because I had already sent Josh the day before. He checked things off the grocery list while I catalogued all the candles and flashlights in the house, made and stored enough soup to feed an army, and corralled our extra batteries into one place.
And so, it is with a sense of understanding and empathy that I read what happened in Egypt between the 9th and 10th plagues.
When we read the plagues at the Passover seder, we dip our fingers in the wine and take a droplet for each plague – moving swiftly from Hoshech, the plague of darkness, to Makat B’chorot, the plague killing Egyptian first borns. Our rapid-fire finger dips give no indication of the Torah’s interlude that takes place in chapter 11 and the first half of chapter 12 of Exodus.
After the 9th plague, when a darkness “so thick you could touch it” descended on Egypt for three days, Pharaoh lost his temper with Moses. The ruler screamed at Moses to get out and never come back, lest Moses die. And, for the first time since the plagues began, Moses loses his cool and snaps at Pharaoh. The action is rising to the crescendo that we all know to expect.
But rather than move on to the final plague, the Torah veers off into two simultaneous digressions: details about preparations that the Israelites are to make that night, and descriptions of how they will mark this occasion in the years to come.
As a reader, I am bored by this section. I know what’s coming and this part is just slowing down the story. I’m waiting for the climax of the plagues, where, in grand fashion, the Lord strikes down all the first-borns in the land of Egypt – from Pharaoh to captives in dungeons, no Egyptian family is spared. I’m waiting for the moment in the story where a grief-stricken Pharaoh finally relents, summoning Moses and Aaron to him in the middle of the night, and insisting that the Israelites vacate the land of Egypt.
But the text doesn’t care that I’m itching to move on to the more exciting part. The Torah dwells in the preparations, delaying the story a bit. I already came clean to you about my need to be prepared; since we are commanded to see ourselves as if we personally left slavery in Egypt, I see chapter 11 and the first half of chapter 12 as a lifeline.
Leading up to a nerve-wracking, possibly life-changing event, I need three things:
* I need to know – as much as possible – what is going to happen;
* I need to feel properly prepared – meaning, I have all the required necessities to get through;
* And I need to have something to do, in the meantime, to keep my mind from playing a loop of worst-case scenarios.
In the moments leading up to the Exodus from Egypt, the Torah takes care of all three of these needs for me. Chapter 11 is God describing, in specific detail, not only what will happen to Egypt, but how Pharaoh will respond.
The Israelites are told to borrow gold and silver from their neighbors; some say this is thievery, others call it reparations, but I say it is an important time-filler. As an Israelite slave, I might not have been able to change the situation on a larger scale, but this task would occupy my hands and my mind while I waited for the inevitable.
Chapter 12 begins by taking a broader view. The Israelites are given instructions to slaughter a lamb, roast it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs – to eat it all and not leave any for morning. They are also told to paint their doorposts with the blood of the lamb.
Not only are B’nei Yisrael given something to do, but they are reassured as God makes the current situation a model for future years:
וְהָיָה הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן, וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג לַיהוָה: לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, חֻקַּת עוֹלָם תְּחָגֻּהוּ.
“This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lordthroughout the ages; YOU shall celebrate it as an institution for all time.
Verse 14 sees God telling Moses – and thus the Israelites that they will get through this – they will survive. If I’m an Israelite experiencing this miraculous, frightening, unexpected escape from all that I’ve ever known, this is exactly what I need to hear: we’re going to survive to remember this moment for years to come.
Verse 24 of chapter 12 says:
“You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants. And when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children ask you, “what do you mean by this rite?” you shall say ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses’.
This is such a reassuring image – not only will we survive, but the next generation will see slavery as such a foreign concept that we will need to explain it to them. It should come as no surprise that upon hearing this, the Israelites bowed low in homage and then went and did just as the Lord had commanded. With the People’s needs filled and preparations complete, the story can continue to the part that is exciting for the reader, but must have been nerve-wracking to the people living it.
There are many cases of the Torah being more attuned than its reader to the needs of the characters, but few are more glaring than this. When all we want is to reach the climactic moment, we are asked to pause and consider – for just a few moments – the emotions and needs of our ancestors for whom this was more than just a story.
Often in life, we rush through the preparations to get to what’s next – we long to skip through the planning and preparation to get to the big event, be it a graduation, a wedding, a new home, or our children growing up. How often do you hear the phrase, “I can’t wait for…”?
It is precisely the moments between the peaks that we should savor, dwelling in the present, because it is those moments that properly prepare us for the climaxes.
On this snowy Shabbat, a lull that is post-storm and pre-returning to school/work, let us savor the quiet moments and prepare for whatever is to come.