The last of the Ten Plagues, the Slaying of the Firstborn, has smitten Egypt. Pharaoh and his nation have been devastated by the previous Plagues, but this is the one which finally breaks Pharaoh.
“It happened at midnight: Hashem smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon… And Pharaoh got up by night – he and all his servants and all Egypt – and there was huge shriek in Egypt, because there was no house without someone dead” (Exodus 12:30).
At this point, Pharaoh finally broke. He could withstand all the other Plagues – but not this one.
“He called to Moshe and Aaron by night, saying: Get up, get out from among my nation, you and all the Children of Israel! Go and worship Hashem as you said!” (v. 31).
In one final act of defiance, Moshe refused to leave immediately. He responded to Pharaoh, somewhat sarcastically: “Are we then thieves, that we should slink out by night?! We will only leave with a high hand, in the sight of all Egypt” (Midrash Tanchuma, Bo 7).
Or, as another Midrash expresses it, “Moshe and Aaron said to him: We have been admonished to leave only in a blaze of publicity, as it was said, ‘And not one of you will leave the entrance of his house until morning’ (Exodus 12:22)” (Midrash Lekach Tov).
Moshe and Aaron had to make it unmistakeably clear to Pharaoh that the entire nation was leaving on their own terms, not Pharaoh’s. They were leaving according to G-d’s schedule, not Pharaoh’s.
Earlier, when Moshe and Aaron had warned Pharaoh of the impending Plague of Locusts (the eighth Plague), Pharaoh had teetered on the edge of capitulating, and asked: “Who is it that will be going?” (Exodus 10:8).
Moshe’s response was unequivocal and uncompromising: “We will go with our young ones and our old ones, with our sons and our daughters, we will go with our flocks and our herds” (v. 9).
Brave and defiant words – but the reality was far grimmer.
The Torah gives just the tiniest hint, next week in Parashat Beshallach, recording that “the Children of Israel came up armed out of the land of Egypt” (13:18).
The word “armed”, חֲמֻשִׁים, is defective: it should be spelled חֲמֻשִּׁים, with a dagesh (a dot) in the shin. But this dagesh is missing, so the word חֲמֻשִׁים connotes “a fifth”.
Hence the Midrashic exegesis that “only one out of חָמֵשׁ (five) went up; some say, one out of חֲמִשִּׁים (fifty); and some say, one out of five hundred. Rabbi Nehorai says: By G-d! Not even one in five hundred went up, as it says ‘I have made you as abundant as the vegetation of the field’ (Ezekiel 16:7)…[implying that there had been far more than 500 times as many as the 600,000 adult males who left Egypt]” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Pis’cha 12 and Tanchuma, Beshallach 1).
Who were these Jews who died in Egypt?
– They fell into two categories. The first were the assimilationists, the Reform and secularists of the day, the Jews who had Egyptian patrons, and who saw themselves as thoroughly Egyptians. They so much yearned to be Egyptian, to be accepted by Egyptian society, that they were willing to give their very lives to remain in Egypt instead of joining the Redemption and coming to Israel.
The second category were the frummest (most religious) of Jews, those with the blackest of hats and longest of peyot (sidelocks). The Jews who were convinced that the time of Redemption hadn’t come yet, and that it was forbidden to bring Redemption ahead of G-d’s schedule.
They argued – apparently cogently – that G-d had long-since told our father Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved and oppressed in a foreign country for 400 years (Genesis 15:13), and we had only been in Egypt for 210 years. Therefore – they rationalized – the time for redemption hadn’t yet come, we are forbidden to hasten the redemption ahead of G-d’s schedule, so we had to remain in Egypt.
Those were the Neturei Kharta of the generation.
Together, those anti-Zionist groups were the 80% of Jews who died in the ninth Plague, the Plague of Darkness, and whom the surviving Jews buried so that the Egyptians wouldn’t see how many Jews died and gloat over it.
Only the Zionists of the generation, those who had sufficient faith in Moshe to want to leave exile and come home to Israel, survived.
When Pharaoh finally capitulated and expelled the Jews from his kingdom, his words to Moshe and Aaron were: “Get up, get out from among my nation, you and all the Children of Israel!”.
The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the phrase קוּמוּ צְּאוּ (Get up, get out) appears only twice in the Tanach. The other place was 401 years earlier, when Lot had urged his sons-in-law: “קוּמוּ צְּאוּ, Get up, get out of this place, because Hashem is destroying the city” (Genesis 19:14).
The Ba’al ha-Turim derives two different lessons from this:
In his commentary to Genesis 19:14, he writes: “This teaches that Israel were divided into different groups, some of which didn’t want to leave Egypt – and they died in the three days of darkness”.
In his commentary to Exodus 12:31, he writes: “Just as [in Sodom] the angels dragged them out against their will, as it is written ‘He hesitated until the men grabbed him by his hand…and pulled him out’ (Genesis 19:16), so too the Egyptians forced them out against their will”.
I note a closer connexion than just the two wordsקוּמוּ צְּאוּ being repeated:
In both cases the phraseקוּמוּ צְּאוּ is preceded by the word וַיֹּאמֶר (“he said”); both times there is a dagesh (a dot) in the צ, even though there is no grammatical reason for this dagesh, the only two cases in the entire Torah where a צ has an unwarranted dagesh; and in both cases, the cantillation-marks are identical for the entire phrase.
I suggest that these cantillation-marks carry a very subtle message:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ ק֤וּמוּ צְּאוּ֙ מִן־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה in Genesis 19:14, and וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ ק֤וּמוּ צְּאוּ֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ עַמִּ֔י in Exodus 12:31.
These cantillation-marks are:
פַּשְׁטָא֙ מַהְפַּ֤ךְ פַּשְׁטָא֙ מֻנַּ֣ח זָקֵף-קָטֹ֔ן
This connotes: The overturning spread forth, the respite of the small upright one spread forth.
In the case of Lot and his sons-in-law, the מַהְפַּ֤ךְ, the overturning spread forth over the vast conurbation of Sodom and Gomorrah, referred to as מַהְפֵּכַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה, “the overturning of Sodom and Gomorrah (Deuteronomy 29:22, Jeremiah 49:18). The small upright family – Lot and his two surviving daughters – fled to the hills where they found their respite.
And 401 years later, the מַהְפַּ֤ךְ, the overturning spread forth over the whole of Egypt, and the remnants of Israel – one-fifth, or one-fiftieth, or one-five-hundredth of the original nation, the few who identified uncompromisingly with the Jewish nation and not with the Egyptian oppressors – and the few, the happy few survivors of the Plague of Darkness, the band of brothers – left upright to find in the wilderness their respite from slavery.
The dagesh doubles or emphasizes a letter – in both these verses the צ, the tzaddik, the righteous one:
“קוּמוּ צְּאוּ – Get up, get out”, emphasising the tzaddik, because it is only the tzaddik who will indeed arise and get out, out of Sodom and Gomorrah, out of Egypt.
It can indeed be difficult to leave the place you have called “home” for generations, even when “home” is בֵּית עֲבָדִים, the slave-house; how much more so when the place you have called “home” for generations is a land of wealth, freedom, equality, and opportunity!
Of course it is difficult to up and leave America, or Britain, or any other comfortable country of exile. Of course it is all too easy to find excuses, disguised as valid reasons, to remain in exile and to reject the Redemption.
But as then, so today.
The overturning is beginning to spread forth, too many Jews are determined to remain in exile – but the respite of the small upright one will too spread forth.
This is the call of Parashat Bo: בֹּא, come! The redemption has begun. Join it!
The Plague of Darkness of our generation has not yet struck. But if it does, then…can anyone who believes in the Book of Exodus say with confidence how much warning there will be before it does?
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, will yet defeat our enemies in the Land of Israel.
And though many have been killed fighting for Israel’s Redemption, and though more may yet be killed by those enemies who are determined to prevent Israel’s Redemption, the day will yet come that those Jews who will watch the Redemption from afar, living their comfortable lives in exile, shall be ashamed when those of us who fight for Redemption will speak of all we have done.
You know your places. G-d be with you all!