Bo5774-An installment in the series
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
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By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood
And Moshe said [to Pharaoh] “HaShem said as follows: ‘About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt; and every firstborn in Egypt will die …’ “
The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are staying; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you and there won’t be any lethal plague in your midst when I strike the land of Egypt.
G-d will then move across to afflict Egypt. When He sees the blood over the door and on the two doorposts G-d will pass over that door and not allow the force of destruction to enter your homes to strike.
There was a pronounced difference between the Jews and the Egyptians during all the plagues prior to “the striking of the firstborn”. The Jews were invulnerable to the destructive effects of the plagues. During the first plague, if a Jew and an Egyptian would drink from the same vessel, the Jew would swallow sweet fresh water while the Egyptian would gag on blood. The ninth plague caused a palpable; immobilizing darkness to lie upon the land but the children of Israel had abundant light in all of their dwellings. The same applied to plagues two through eight. Moreover, it was G-d Himself who produced these disparities. No heroic measures were required on the part of the Jews.
These differences were so pronounced, foretold and deliberate that the Izhbitzer School interprets them to be part of the exodus process itself. HaShem sought to take one nation out of the midst / “the innards” of another nation. Debunking the alleged equality between Israel and Egypt was part and parcel of the process. Yetzias Mitzrayim-the exodus from Egypt, was about more than liberating a group of Egyptian slaves; it was the birth of a nation and the creation of a new man. Thus understood, the sequence of the plagues was not just a war of attrition to break the will of the Egyptians. The disparities that existed between the Jews and the Egyptians during the plagues gradually advanced the nation of Israel “through the birth canal” as it were, towards the ultimate goal of a new, distinct identity and absolute individuation.
In light of this Rav Tazdok, the Lubliner Kohen, asks several pointed questions:
1. The Egyptians had “earned” the striking of the firstborn as the wages of the sin of their continued refusal to release the children of Israel. But the Jews had done nothing to delay their own release. So why did they warrant the striking of the firstborn?
2. During the final plague, why were the protective measures of daubing the blood of the Passover sacrifice on the lintel and the doorposts and not leaving their homes all night necessary when no such measures had been needed during the first nine plagues?
3. As HaShem moved across Egypt to strike the firstborn Himself the rule of “once the destroying angel is given a license to act he does not distinguish between the wicked and the righteous”(Bava Kama 60A) should not apply. Then what did the Jews have to fear?
4. How, in fact, did HaShem dispense kivyachol-as it were, with the services of the destroying angel when our theology teaches that “no evil (i.e. punishment or suffering) emanates out of the mouth of the Most High” (Eichah 3:38)
Before presenting his answer the Lubliner Kohen introduces a novel understanding of a particular type of death.
Imagine a simple, standard-issue garden hose being attached to a fire hydrant to extinguish a fire. After just a few moments the hose would crack and burst. Garden hoses are not engineered to withstand that level of water pressure per square inch. This serves as an allegory for the human soul’s interface with G-d’s Infinite Light. An overload of Divine Light accrues to “the breaking of the vessels.” This is the meaning of the pasuk “And He said: ‘You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.’ “(Shemos 33:20) to which Chazal appended this significant addendum: “But at the moment of death, man shall see [HaShem]” (Sifri B’Ha’aloschah 103).
The Tenach and the Talmud are replete with examples of those who reached for medregos– levels that exceeded the grasp of their own actual madregah and who perished from an inability to endure the intensity of the Divine Light:
Four great Tannaim entered the Parde”s. One of them, ben Azai, tragically “glimpsed and died” shattered by the intensity of the G-d knowledge he’d grasped there. (Chagigah 14B). This was the cause of death of Ahron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, as well. Those baalei teshuvah-masters of repentance, who fast-track their teshuvah-turning and reacquire perfection proverbially בשעתא חדא וברגעא חדא -“in one hour–one moment” also part with their souls in this manner. This was the cause of death for the exemplary baal teshuvah “Rabi” Elazar ben Durdai. (Avodah Zarah 17A).
This was precisely the dynamic at work during the final plague; the striking of the firstborn. HaShem Himself, (or as our sages put it בכבודו ובעצמו) kivyachol “emerged” and “moved across” Egypt. This was an unprecedented gilui Shechinah-Divine revelation. The Egyptians, engrossed as they were in idolatry and licentiousness lacked the necessary “vessels” to contain this tsunami of light. In fact, the grossness of rank-and-file Egyptians’ impurity actually left them with no capacity to sense the light of holiness at all.
But before Matan Torah– the giving of the Torah, sacrifices were offered by firstborns. The firstborn of every nation possessed some modicum of sensitivity to holiness. Still, their capacity for absorbing holiness was minimal and constrained. The gilui Shechinah at midnight of the exodus came into the souls of the non-Jewish firstborn with all of the force of fire hydrant-pressurized water entering a garden hose. Unsurprisingly, they were instantly shattered. Their deaths were not punishments in the conventional sense. On the contrary, nothing became their depraved and debauched lives so much as leaving it through this one glorious moment of G-d-perception. No evil had emanated from the Most High.
As for the Jews; eventually they would develop “vessels” broad and sturdy enough to absorb the light of gilui Shechinah. The Torah, when describing the revelation at Sinai, attests to this after the fact: “has any nation ever heard the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have, and lived?” (Devarim 4:33) Yet, at midnight of the exodus this potential was underdeveloped. For the Jews to have ventured outdoors then would have been a reckless exercise in “reach” that exceeded “grasp”. As was the case with Rabi Elazar ben Durdai, such a meteoric ascent, in which lofty madregos are gained “in one hour–one moment” would have cost them their lives.
Paradoxically, it is the Jewish capacity for mesirus nefesh-giving up their lives for HaShems sake, which transforms their souls into vessels broad and sturdy enough to absorb the light of gilui Shechinah. This was manifested just prior to Matan Torah, when they agreed to take the Torah, no questions asked. All the other nations lacked this capacity. When the other nations were offered the Torah they would ask “what is written within the Torah?” and when they discovered something in the Torah that rubbed against their grains; that disagreed with their constitutions, they rejected the Torah and its Author.
The blood of the Passover sacrifices that the Jews daubed on their doorposts served as a sign of the Jewish potential for mesirus nefesh. On the night of the exodus the Jews were passing and skipping over the gradual, slow-and-steady approach to attaining madregos. Even so, behind these doors signed with mesirus nefesh they were protected from the shattering and soul-taking effects of HaShem’s awe-inspiring, devastating Infinite Light. As they could not stand the light they stayed out of the vision.