Thursday, 26 Jan 2023

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt

In the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis teach: ‘If sufferings come upon someone, [or] if illness came upon someone, or if someone buries their children, do not say to them in the way that Job’s friends said to Job, “Is not your piety your confidence, your integrity your hope? Think, now, what innocent man ever perished?” (Job 4:6-7)’ (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b) In other words, we should not say to someone whose world is collapsing around them that they should examine their behaviour to see where they may have caused their own suffering. This might be surprising, since that is a theology that the rabbis of the Talmud evince. It is a theological approach that modern progressives find difficult, and many of us today would reject, but the rabbis did believe that death and suffering were to be understood as a punishment for human actions. On the other hand, they also argue that saying so to those who are in the midst of grief and suffering was probably not the most sensible or sensitive way in which to approach the situation.

The scenario that links this rabbinic statement with the parashah is that of the person who buries their child, since this week we read about the final plague in the story of the exodus from Egypt:

‘In the middle of the night the Eternal struck down all the first-born in the Land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians – because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead’ (Exodus 12:29-30).

Simply put, every parent in Egypt must bury their child. The suffering seems to be justified, at least according to the internal logic of the biblical text. But, at the same time, according to the rabbis, those who suffer should not be reminded of what they might have done to cause it. This sense of empathy for those who have undergone such unimaginable trauma is reflected in our Pesach seder. When we remove wine from our cups each time a plague is mentioned, we are diminishing the joy of our festival in recognition of the sufferings of others that made our liberation possible. In a midrash on next week’s parashah, we are told that, at the parting of the Red Sea, the angelic host want to sing with joy at the liberation of the Israelites. To which, God responds with anger: ‘My creations are drowning in the sea, and you sing a song before me!?’ (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39b).

This is one of the many times in our Jewish lives that we act out of empathy for others, reminded constantly as we are not to oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in Egypt. Our experience of oppression sensitises us to those which others experience – whether that was 3,000 years ago or today.

There is only one person to whom this empathy is not extended: that of Pharaoh. Indeed, the Medieval French commentator Rashi points out that Pharaoh himself was a first-born, but that he alone of the first-born was spared – in order that he would witness what happened; in order that he would not be spared the trauma of having to bury his child. And this is not the first time that Pharaoh is spared in order that he can witness the power of God. In last week’s parashah, following the plague of boils, God says that Pharaoh and the Egyptians are being spared from total destruction in order that they can witness the plagues and understand both the depth of God’s anger and the extent of God’s might (Exodus 9:16).

The whole story of the Israelite’s liberation from Egypt is very heavily stage-managed by God, who constantly hardens Pharaoh’s heart, making it impossible for him to relent and let the Israelite people go until the very last minute. By the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, we usually understand that his conscience was limited and his free will impeded, so that, even had he wanted to let Moses and the people go, he was unable to do so (at least until the moment that God allowed it). We cannot know how Pharaoh would have acted if this limitation had not been imposed upon him. And so we are left with the question: is God just in this moment? Is it ok that Pharaoh was treated in this way? Should we even pity Pharaoh that he was denied the ability to do good in this situation, even if he had wanted to?

Pharaoh was made into the figure of ultimate evil, and kept alive specifically so that he could witness suffering. The Medieval commentator and philosopher, Maimonides, argues that this is in fact the ultimate punishment, reserved only for Pharaoh and his followers. He argues that the ability to repent (to do teshuvah as we might say at Yom Kippur) is taken away as a punishment. For had Pharaoh and the Egyptians immediately let the people go then God would have had to forgive them, and not forced them through such terrible suffering.  Maimonides tells us that the crime for which this punishment is meted out is the Egyptians’ original enslavement and oppression of the Israelites, which they did entirely of their own free will, and without any coercion or constraint. The passage in his Eight Chapters is a bit obtuse, but my reading is that Maimonides is arguing that because Pharaoh used his free will for such great evil in the first place, God’s punishment was to take away that free will and therefore the ability to turn.

The ability to do teshuvah is, perhaps, the greatest gift that we have as human beings – the ability to change, grow, and learn from our mistakes. And so we return to the rabbinic teaching with which we began. We should not suggest to those who are suffering that they should examine their conduct and see where they went wrong. But at the same time, some of the worst suffering can happen to us when we are (for whatever reason) unable to reflect on our lives and unable to effect the change that is needed.


Rabbi Elliott Karstadt Alyth Synagogue

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.