Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha



Please click on the link above to view the Hebrew and the Commentary



CH 11…

v.5   and every firstborn of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on the throne to the firstborn of the slave-girl, and all the firstborn of the cattle

RASHI…Thus everyone lower than Pharaoh and higher [in status] than the slave-girl was included in the tenth plague.  But why were the sons of slave-girls hit?  Because they themselves had enslaved the Israelites and rejoiced in their distress.  But why the cattle?  Because the Egyptians worshipped them, and when the Holy One punished the nation,

He punished their gods.

v.6-7           And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt…But not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites…in order that you may know that the Lord

makes a distinction between Israel and Egypt.

ETZ HAYIM…The Hebrew “tza-akah” is the very same term used to describe Israel’s misery under Egyptian enslavement.  The anguished cry of the oppressed is now supplanted by the cry of their oppressors.

R’ H. KUSHNER…Non-Israelite slaves certainly did not have power in that society, so why would they be punished?  Because they did not make common cause with the Israelites saying: “let us join hands and rise up together…” 

Bad as their lives were, they took perverse satisfaction in knowing that others were even worse off.

CH 12…

v.22                 And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood…striking the lintel, and the two doorposts…

R’ Yechezkiel of KAZIMIR…This is to teach you that even if you are as lowly as the hyssop which grows low to the ground, so long as you are a bunch—bound together as a united front—ready to give of your life-blood, you will reach the lintel’s height

V.23                For when the Lord sees the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, then Adonai will pass over the door…

Sh’MOT RABBAH…When the Children of Israel were roasting their lambs, the Holy One slew the firstborn of Egypt,  When they sprinkled the blood on their doors, God’s great Name stood there as protector.  When they were making the Pesach Offering and singing praises, God divided between the firstborn of Israel and the firstborn of Egypt, so that the blood of the unclean could atone for the blood of the clean.[17:5]

MUNK“The Lord will see…”  The blood was a sign at the entrance of each Jewish home—a public profession of faith. The MIDRASH tells us that the doorpost was the letter Heh,  the insignia of God’s Name, written with the blood of the Pesach lamb mixed with the blood of circumcision…

ANTONELLI…The tenth and final plague contained within it a sub-plague: killing male lambs—rams…The ram was sacred to the sun god Amon…For some, the ram was Amon himself….As well, the ram symbolized Pharaoh himself, the “gods’” firstborn.  The ram cult represented the emphasis on Pharaoh’s divine heritage…the myth of the self-engendered male, who was not only created without a female but was able to create a whole universe without a female…The Jews were instructed to kill this patriarchal ram god…The blood was painted on their doorways in the shape of a HEH, the design of the Holy Name,  with the hyssop, used in herbal medicine as an agent that promotes menstrual flow. The blood on the doorposts of each Jewish house in Egypt has been said to likewise represent the blood of circumcision—having been done en masse by gentile male servants and Jewish men as a requirement for attendance at the first seder…

v.29                 In the middle of the night the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt…

Sh’MOT RABBAH…The firstborn of any other nation in Egypt were killed…Egyptian firstborn in the care of Israelites died, but Jewish firstborn in the care of Egyptians did not die.  Pregnant Egyptian women about to bear

their first miscarried…The Holy One punished the firstborn of Egypt for “Israel is God’s firstborn.”

 v.30-31           Pharoah arose at midnight…He summoned Moses and Aaron that night and said: Up, get out from among my people, both you & the Children of Israel!!

SARNA…The king himself has to rise during the night, thereby compounding his humiliation at having to surrender unconditionally to Moses’ demands.  By summoning Moses & Aaron, he must retract the arrogant threat made at their last meeting [10:28] …And when they meet, Pharaoh now uses for the first time the name “Bnai Yisrael,” thereby

granting recognition at last to a national entity.  The story of oppression which opened with this term [Ex1:1]

now closes with it.


v. 43-44  This is the law of the Pesach offering…No uncircumcised male shall eat thereof…In one house shall you share

GRISHAVER…The blood on the inside of their doorposts, symbolic or real, was the blood of the Covenant

they had just cut—their cutting themselves off from Egypt, marking themselves as Servants of Adonai

In matching this commitment, in sanctifying life, in rejoining Abraham, God redeems us as well.





Parashat Bo describes a number of rituals surrounding the Exodus that allows us to see a connection between blood, sacrifice, and family ties. Sacrificial blood in 12:1-13 is protective, separating the Egyptians who are about to die from the Israelites who soon will hurriedly flee the “house of bondage.” As an expression of the life force, the blood is also symbolic of the fertility of the family that offers it as a sacrifice and then applies it to the doorposts and the lintel of their house.

In addition, the blood symbolizes the connection between past and living generations. The living and the deceased should not be seen as mutually exclusive, but instead can be considered as part of a chain of human existence connecting ancestors and their descendants. Thus for readers of the story, the Passover sacrifice acts as a link to generations past, a way to recognize the plight of those who first left Egypt and to offer gratitude to God for their liberation. The Passover sacrifice also connects the past to the future, as one generation teaches the next the lessons of the Exodus: “And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to God, who passed over the houses of the Israelites…’” [12:26-27].

Furthermore, the consumption of the communal Passover meal provides a map of the social structure of the family network. Eating the roasted lamb (or kid) with unleavened bread and bitter herbs determines the boundaries of the people who share in the event, indicating who is inside and outside the group. With all family groups eating their paschal lamb on the same evening (vv. 6-9), the act of eating becomes symbolic of continuity and unity. However, the separate groups consume their own sacrifices, “a lamb to a household” (12:3), with no foreigners allowed to eat of it (12:43-45). Thus, the rite also symbolizes discontinuity and differentiation . In these various ways, the Passover sacrificial ritual is about identity and how we solidify family ties through this ancient rite.




Prof Michael WYSCHOGRAD…

[Chair of Philosophy at Baruch, City College of NY, pioneer in Jewish-Christian Dialogue; best know for Body of Faith—Judaism as Corporeal Election]

…While there are individual sacrifices that are obligatory for the individual, the central sacrifices as well as the system as a whole is a national rather than an individual one. Above all, sacrifice is not idea but an act. Prayer and repentance are ideas. They are contemplative actions, of the heart rather than the body. For this reason, rationalists of all times have been delighted by the termination of the sacrifices. For them, the “service of the heart” is self-evidently more appropriate for communication between rational men and their rational God than the bloodbaths of a Temple-slaughterhouse, whose atmosphere must have been quite different from that of the seminar room, or the “house of study” of rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic, non- Temple Judaism was therefore, however unintentionally, an early form of rationalized Judaism.  And yet, the darkness of the sacrificial order must not be ignored. In sacrifice, man alleviates the darkness of his situation. A dumb animal is to be slaughtered. Does it understand the fate that awaits it? Does it realize that at this spot thousands upon thousands like him have perished? The priestly slaughterer approaches the animal with the lethally sharp knife in his hand, yet the animal does not emit a sound of terror because it does not understand the significance of the instrument. It is then swiftly cut, the blood gushes forth, the bruiting begins as the struggle with death begins, as the animal’s eyes lose their living sheen. ,The blood is sprinkled on the altar, the animal dismembered, portions of it burned, and portions eaten by the priests who minister before God in the holiness of the Temple. This horror is brought into the house of God. What is the bridge that leads from this slaughter to the holy? …Sacrificial Judaism brings the truth of human existence into the Temple. It does not leave it outside its portals. It does not reserve sacred ground only for silent worship. Instead, the bruiting, bleeding, dying animal is brought and shown to God. This is what our fate is. It is not so much, as it is usually said, that we deserved the fate of the dying animal and that we have been permitted to escape this fate by transferring it to the animal. It is rather that our fate and the animals are the same because its end awaits us, since our eyes, too, will soon gaze as blindly as his and be fixated in deathly attention on what only the dead seem to see and never the living. In the Temple, therefore, it is man who stands before God, not man as he would like to be or as he hopes he will be, but as he truly is now, in the realization that he is the object that is his body and that his blood will soon enough flow from his body as well. The subject thus sees himself as dying object. Enlightened religion recoils with horror from the thought of sacrifice, preferring a spotless house of worship filled with organ music and exquisitely polite behavior. The price paid for such decorum is that the worshiper must leave the most problematic part of his self outside the temple, to reclaim it when the service is over and to live with it unencumbered by sanctification. Religion ought not to demand such a dismemberment of man.


In light of the centrality of sacrifice in classical Judaism, the route taken by rabbinic Judaism requires clarification. Why was the sacramental ignored and the word chosen to replace it? We have referred to the prophetic critique of sacrifice and the temptation to interpret the rabbinic attitude as a carrying out of the prophetic thrust by taking advantage of the destruction of the Temple to bring to an end a mode of worship that the religious sensibility of the day had already outgrown. …

In the context of the messianic future, the prophets speak of a circumcision of the heart that will complete the circumcision of the flesh, which seems to have left the heart insufficiently transformed. Israel has remained hardhearted; the word of God has not entered into its spirit but only its flesh, and this does not please God. It is difficult not to connect this with the prophetic attitude to sacrifice.  There, too, we are dealing with a service of flesh, which the prophets seem not overly impressed with. They point to the inner man and his actions toward his fellow man as the primary focus of God’s interest. Circumcision is, after all, the vestigial remains of human sacrifice in Judaism. The knife that cuts into the flesh of the animal in sacrifice cuts into the flesh of man in circumcision. And the prophets have little good to say about either….And yet, circumcision has remained holy to the Jewish people. And the rabbis structured the prayer service around the sacrifices, so that it took the Reform Judaism of the nineteenth century to cleanse the prayer book of its supplications for the return of sacrifices. As heirs of the prophets, the rabbis share some of the prophets’ ambivalence to sacrifice…..Still, there seems to be some connection between animal sacrifice and circumcision and the prohibition against sacrifice outside of Jerusalem. We must remember that it is this prohibition that largely explains the noncontinuation in any form of the sacrificial service after the destruction of the Temple.

…The original sacrifice to which all subsequent sacrifice points is the sacrifice of man before God. More specifically, it is the sacrifice of Isaac, who is Abraham’s promised son of his old age, the son through whom his seed will become a great nation. At this point of the origin of God’s love for Abraham, the love from which all later love for the Jewish people is derived, the principle is laid down that to be loved by God requires the willingness to accept death at the hand of God. The choice of Abraham to carry out this deed roots it in Israel’s deepest experience of fatherhood. The hand of the father stretched out to take the life of the son is thus deeply engraved in Israel’s consciousness. There are those who maintain that the significant feature of the Isaac sacrifice narrative is God’s intervention, which made the carrying out of the sacrifices unnecessary and thus abolished human sacrifice for all time. But this is a rationalistic misunderstanding of the worst kind. The essence of the story consists of the praise that is heaped on Abraham for his willingness to carry out the divine command. The divine intervention that saves Isaac is presented as an undeserved act of divine grace neither Abraham nor Isaac had any right to expect and from which it can dearly not be inferred that God in any way lacked the right to demand the sacrifice he did. Jewish consciousness did not infer from this episode that the ethical in some way rules independently and therefore serves to check God’s arbitrary demands, but rather it deduced a model of human behavior definable as obedience. But it is a very special kind of obedience that is here to be found. Both Abraham and Isaac are obedient, one to the command of God and the other to that of his earthly father. Just as Abraham obeys God, so does Isaac obey his father. And both trust him whom they obey. The obedience is not based on terror but on love. It is as if both knew that they are loved by him who demands and that therefore nothing bad can come of it…. But Abraham is caught in a double bind. He, too, trusts God, as Isaac trusts him. But he is also trusted by another, and it is against ׳this trust that he is commanded to act. It seems that the trust required to inflict harm is greater than that required to permit harm to be inflicted on oneself. That is why Abraham’s merit is the greater.  And so Abraham is the one who hears God’s call.

…Judaism is a carnal election.  God did not formulate a teaching around which he rallied humanity. God declared a particular people the people of God. He could have brought into being another kind of people of God, membership in which would have been a function of the individual’s faith and/or virtue. This is how the Church came to understand its election. As the new Israel, it saw itself as the people of God that had replaced the old Israel. Whereas membership in the old Israel was bestowed by birth, membership in the new Israel was open to anyone who embraced the message of the Church.

But this is not the nature of Israel’s election. This election is that of the seed of Abraham. A descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a Jew irrespective of what he believes or how virtuous he is. Being a Jew is therefore not something earned. This reflects the fact that the initial election of Abraham himself was not earned. It is true that in rabbinic literature Abraham is depicted as having “discovered” the one God when it occurred to him that a complex world could not have come into being by chance. But none of this is mentioned in the Bible. We are simply told that God commanded Abraham to leave his place of birth and to go to a land that God would show him. He is also promised that his descendants will become a numerous people. But nowhere does the Bible tell us why Abraham rather than someone else was chosen. The implication is that God chooses whom he wishes and that he owes no accounting to anyone for his choices.  Israel’s election is therefore a carnal election that is transmitted through the body. And to many, this is a scandal. Is it the body that makes someone dear to God or the spirit? Shouldn’t we evaluate a person on the basis of his character and ideas rather than his physical descent? These are difficult questions to answer but we cannot evade coping with them.

We must first understand that we cannot sit in judgment over God. It is not incumbent on him to justify his actions to man. It is not for us to teach God what is fair but for him to teach us. If it was his decision to make Abraham his beloved servant and the descendants of Abraham his beloved people, then it is for man to accept God’s will with obedience.  Having said this—and it is this that remains the fundamental answer—we can also go just a little further. Why do we recoil at a carnal election? Because we have been taught to respect the spirit and to have contempt for the body. The roots of this lie in Greek philosophy, which sought the unchanging and eternal. It contrasted this with the material that was subject to change and therefore not altogether real…Judaism rejects this bifurcation of spirit and matter. Both were created by God and both are good. In the Bible it is not at all clear that the image of God in which man was created refers only to his spirit and not to his body. Man is a unity of spirit and body and it is for this reason that death is real. If the essence of man were his soul and the body only an outer and unessential garment, then the shedding of this garment in death would be no calamity. In fact, it would be a welcome liberation of the soul from the shackles of the body, which is precisely Socrates’ interpretation of death.  Because the body is not an extraneous outer garment, Judaism views death as a calamity. If we are not convinced of this, we need only compare the calm and detached death of Socrates with the agony of Jesus’ very Jewish death…

The carnal election of Israel is not unconnected with Judaism’s view of the body. God chose to embrace a people in the fullness of its humanity. But this had to include the bodyness of this people alongside its national soul. God therefore loves the spirit and body of the people of Israel and it is for this reason that both are holy. The enemies of God who strive to destroy God by destroying his people cannot rest content with the destruction of the Jewish “religion” or Jewish “culture” but must also, or perhaps primarily, destroy the body of Israel.

Had God chosen a people on the basis of purely spiritual criteria, such a people could have abandoned its election by rejecting the teachings that were the basis of its spiritual election. But God chose a carnal people, whose physical being in the world is a sign of the existence of God. This people is in the service of God no matter what ideas it embraces or rejects. It cannot escape the service of God because its face is known in the family of man as that of the people of God.

                                                                                                      [ The Body of Faith, Wyschograd, pgs 20-24; 175-177]







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