In this parshah, we have the eighth and ninth plague (locusts and darkness). The plagues are narrative signs of Yahweh’s power (in the story his “wonders” are a way to convince the Egyptians that the Israelite God is more powerful than their own Gods), so that the Israelites – living in amongst “idol-worshippers” will learn to trust Yahweh. They are also signs to the Egyptians that Yahweh is powerful and his people will win the day. This is the way most religious people understand the plagues. But Humanistic Jews do not take the plagues literally and do not take them as a sign of any God’s power. So what do they represent to us as literary symbols? They represent the worst of all possible horrors that could happen at that time to those people. They do represent the power of nature and its forces – even in the past few years we have been witness to terrifying and crushing natural disasters (some claim these are not so natural but brought on by climate change and therefore are human acts of devastation). It is hard to imagine freedom coming out of such horrors. And I think the plagues remind us that there are clear winners and losers in the Exodus story. Of course we celebrate that any slave might win their freedom, but it is useful to think here about the innocent Egyptians too. In any political rift there are good people who fall on the “wrong” side from the point of view of the victors and of history, and who are victims of their own leadership. It is important to feel compassion for their suffering as well.
In this week’s section Moses once again asks Pharoah to let the Israelites leave, and this time he replies that the men can go. Commentators suggest that Pharoah thinks that the men are not truly leaving, but are going to pray to their God outside of the city walls. But Moses makes clear that he is also going to bring the women and children too – a sign that prayer is not the objective. The Exodus is not about the ability to pray – something for which the women could (would) be excluded – but rather it is about the ability to be a people. Women become very important in this parshah for reasons which will be clear when we think about Rosh Chodesh (the new moon). God tells Moses that he is about to get the Jews out, but then there is a break in the narrative action and God tells Moses to tell the people to ask their neighbours for objects of silver and gold. There are many interesting reasons commentators offer for this. One is that these will serve as reparations for the years of slavery. Another is that by gathering the courage to ask their neighbours for gold (who may refuse, /may act violently, or may turn to violence to get the items back later), the Israelites are beginning to slough off their “slave mentality” and demand what is rightfully theirs. This is the first step in becoming a people capable of self-governance. These items will later be used to build both the Golden Calf and the Ark. Religious interpreters take this as a sign of human free will; our resources can be used for building something terrible or something beautiful. A Humanistic interpretation can draw on the same metaphor – we have the capacity to choose to be and do good or not; it is entirely in our hands.
We have an interesting mention in this parshah about how, prior to the slaying of the first born, no one would harm the Israelites and not even a dog would bark at them. Why the dogs? One reason is to suggest that the Jews were being completely protected at this time. Another interesting answer is that the writer(s) of this moment in the text were cognizant of devaluing Egyptian Gods, many of whom resembled animals, including a dog. If the dogs are on the side of the Israelites it serves as a symbol of the superiority of the Jewish God and the lack of potency of the “false” ones. This also becomes important in this parshah because it discusses Rosh Chodesh. The most powerful God in Egypt was the Sun God Ra. By emphasizing the importance of the moon, and by setting the Jewish calendar according to its rhythms, the text encourages the Israelites to move away from Egyptian sun-centred theology towards what is now Jewish theology.
This parshah contains the first biblical mention of Rosh Chodesh. God tells Moses, in the company of Aaron, that there should be a monthly celebration of the moon. Rashi notes that Aaron is present for this conversation as an honour for his help in creating the plagues. It is also important because it creates the first “Beit Din” – a model for rabbinical authority and judgments that have settled disputes Jewishly/Halachically until today. Rosh Chodesh becomes a women’s holiday for many reasons, including our associations with monthly cycles. Women in many cultures are associated with the moon. Sometimes this is about the menstrual cycle. Sometimes, less flatteringly, it is because the sun gets associated with logic and the moon with a “lunatic” element that is often applied to women. What is true is that when women lived closer to nature they would cycle with the moon. The time of the “red tent” (women had to be separated from the rest of the group during menstruation) would have followed the lunar cycle. As Anita Diamant makes clear in her famous novel, the red tent can be seen as a time for women’s rest, togetherness, and spiritual renewal. The mention of Rosh Chodesh here, just as the people are about to leave Egypt, also signifies renewal.
Just as the moon waxes and wanes, Jewish history is made up of the textures of exile and return, bondage and freedom. Rosh Chodesh continues to be a time to think of renewal. It is like a mini-Yom Kippur that happens each month, giving us the chance to focus on our goals, on who we want to become and what we want to accomplish in the month ahead. The Exodus story is a story of renewal and rebirth – fertility metaphors are therefore apt. The parshah ends with the terrifying tenth plague – the death of the first borns. The death of children is the ultimate signifier for destruction and death. But what follows in the story is the ultimate signifier for birth and life. Pharoah not only allows the Israelites to leave but actually casts them out. The Jews are born anew. It is the time for the rebirth and the renewal of the people.