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Shmot - Bo

The P word - skipping or shielding?

Is it too early to say the P word? It’s hard not to think about it in these weeks of reading the first half of the book of Shemot. In our sedra, Parshat Bo, the Pesach story seems so vivid that it’s impossible not to look ahead to beyond Tu B’Shvat and Purim to Pesach which suddenly doesn’t seem so far away.

And in fact, the P word comes up in this week’s sedra

וְעָבַר ה" לִנְגֹּף אֶת־מִצְרַיִם וְרָאָה אֶת־הַדָּם עַל־הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת וּפָסַח ה" עַל־הַפֶּתַח וְלֹא יִתֵּן הַמַּשְׁחִית לָבֹא אֶל־בָּתֵּיכֶם לִנְגֹּף

“For “ה, when going through to smite the Egyptians, will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and “ה will pass over (pasach) the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.”

There are a couple of uncomfortable things for me in this pasuk.

First, the very idea of God killing every firstborn Egyptian, from the slavegirl at the millstone (in Moshe’s own words) to Pharoah’s own son, is a troubling one. The Torah text and our commentators suggest that an extreme level of “humbling Egypt” was necessary for three reasons: first to shock Egypt enough to release their slaves, second for the Israelites themselves to have faith in God’s powers, and third, for the rest of the world to hear of God’s wonders, thus smoothing the Israelites’ path through the desert and into the promised land. Nevertheless, it’s deeply uncomfortable to imagine our God in this role.

My second question: who is this מַּשְׁחִ֔ית, this Destroyer, who God can’t allow to enter? We’ve all heard of the angel of death, but we’ve also read in the Hagadah:

"I will pass through the land of Egypt," I and not an angel; "And I will smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt," I and not a seraph; "And I will carry out judgments against all the gods of Egypt," I and not a messenger; "I the Lord," it is I, and none other.

I’d like to share a beautiful answer from Rav Yaakov Medan, who quotes the Mekhilta, a midrash which reads:

“The Holy One, protected the houses of God’s children in Egypt so that they not suffer harm, as it is stated: "And the Lord will pass over (pasach) the door."

(Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, petichta to Parashat Beshalach)

In other words, we can understand the word “pasach” to mean “hover over” rather than “skip over”. God did not skip over the houses of Israel and refrain from smiting them. On the contrary, God’s presence covered them protectively. God entrusted the mission of destruction to an agent – the מַּשְׁחִ֔ית destroyer, and it is that agent that smote the firstborns of Egypt.

I find this a comforting reading. I can accept that sometimes the evil in the world needs to be fought with toughness. But it is hard to see God in the role of meting out a violent punishment. This reading offers an alternative. When tough stuff needs to happen, we can envisage God releasing an agent to do the job, (read this, if you like, as one of the dark forces that exist in the world). But God is not in that violence. God can be the hovering, sheltering shield around the innocent. Cleaning and cooking aside, this reading makes the P word a considerable amount more bearable. Shabbat shalom


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