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The Three Great Lies of the Exodus
Video 4 of 6
To get an understanding of this lie let's look deeper at this idea of leprosy, this ghostly white state that flesh sometimes can assume. How does the Torah itself view a leprous state of being for flesh? It turns out that there's one person only in the entire Five Books of Moses that we ever find actually afflicted by leprosy, and it was Miriam. It happens much later on in the Torah, in the Book of Numbers. When it happens, look what Aaron her brother says about her. He says these words; Al nah tehi kameit asher b'tzeitzo merechem imo v'ye'achel chatzi besaro - let her not be like someone who is dead. So if we stop right there, the first thing we see is that the Torah identifies the state of Tzara'at - of being afflicted with leprosy - with death. It kind of makes sense, when is it that flesh turns ghostly white, when someone dies and blood drains from the flesh.
But if you go to that passage in the Book of Numbers and you keep on reading, you'll find that the Torah offers a more narrow characterization of exactly what Tzara'at is like. Al nah tehi kameit - let her not be like a dead person; Asher b'tzeitzo merechem imo v'ye'achel chatzi besaro - if it came out of its mother's womb without its flesh intact, that it died in the womb. Aaron's identifying state of Tzara'at is being like a stillborn, like someone who died in their mother's womb.
Let's go back to the second sign now and add it all up. A hand that turns leprous once you put it into your coat, next to your breast. But it's really a lie, it's fake leprosy because really it's a healthy hand. What is leprosy? It's death. What kind of death? Being a stillborn. What was the second great lie? It was the illusion of being a stillborn. Vayomer melech mitzrayim lamiyaldot ha'ivri'ot - and the king of Egypt said to the midwives who were Hebrews. He said to them; Beyaldechen et ha'ivri'ot - when you facilitate the birth of the Hebrew women; Ure'iten al ha'avnayim - and you see the children on the birthstones. Im ben hu v'hamiten oto - if it's a male child, kill it.
As commentators like the Ibn Ezra explain, it means kill it secretly, which means what? If you were the midwife after you had done the deed, you'd say, oh my goodness, I don't know if this baby is breathing. Then you just hand the baby to the mother and she would take the baby to her bosom, to see if she could get it to nurse. The baby wouldn't nurse. Then the mother would have to recognize that the baby is dead, it must have been a stillborn. It was a second great lie. The truth is, the baby wasn't a stillborn, it was alive, but it was crushed on the rocks, on the birthstones.
Now let's come back to that snake theme we were talking about before, the way the Egyptians were viewing Israel. What was it that Genesis says about the hatred between human and the snake again? Hu yishufcha rosh - humans will seek to kill it by crushing its head. The Egyptians were treating us like snakes indeed.
Yet the Torah tells us, that Pharaoh didn't get too far with this second like, presumably some but not many children were killed this way, because the Hebrew midwives, they came back to Pharaoh and lied to him with a very clever lie. Pharaoh said, what are you doing, how come you are allowing these children to live? They said to Pharaoh; Ki lo kenashim hamitzriyot ha'ivri'ot - you don't understand Pharaoh, the Hebrew women they're not like Egyptian women; Ki chayot heinah - they're just like animals; Beterem tavoi eleihen hamiyaledet vayaladu - they just take care of it on their own, they give birth before we can even get there, they don't need us. It's impossible to do what you're asking of us. It was the cleverest lie of all. They played right into the Egyptian psychology about the Hebrews being fake snakes. The Egyptians treated the Hebrews as if they weren't human as if they were animals, along come the midwives and says, you know, they're like animals. It's a lie that saves.
So then what happened in Egypt after the midwives successfully defended their countrymen against this threat? Egypt was not deterred, it just moved it to the next level of mobilization against Israel. Thwarted in his early, unsophisticated attempt at genocide, the king retreats to a method of killing likely to have greater success. That leads to the third and final lie, the one we started talking about when we first began to look at these three signs. The lie of the Nile. How do you kill a snake? If you take a snake that's an animal that only lives on the ground and you throw it on the water, it will drown. Better to deal with snakes that way, at an arm's length. Better to retreat to one final lie, the lie of the shimmering Nile that covers all sins. So now it's like, don't know anything about it. Someone entered your home at night and took your child, how awful. See if you can find witnesses. See if you can prove it.
So the three signs taken together seem to indicate a kind of understanding, an empathetic understanding, of a terrible evil - three terrible evils - that happened to Israel in the path of enslavement. It wasn't just what happened to us, it was the lies being told about us. The sort of split reality between the real world and the pain that we were experiencing. The happy-go-lucky Egyptian covering up of that pain through the water, through the hands-off nature of the killing, G-d shows us that He knew about that, He knew about all of it, and it's what helps the people believe. He knew about the blood with the water, that's the most obvious sign, as G-d says, when the signs are actually given they'll really get that sign. But once they get that one, they'll get the others too. Yes, the white hand, the stillborns, that's what they did to us. Didn't it all begin with the snakes, with the dehumanizing of who we really were? They took tribes and they cast us down. The symbolic nature of the signs retell G-d's knowledge of what really happened to us, and there's something empathetic about that knowledge.
The people respond to that empathy with belief; Vaya'amein ha'am ki pakad Hashem et amo vechi ro'eh et anyam - the people believed. What did they believe? They believed that G-d had remembered His people and that G-d had seen their suffering, He knows what we've been through. That makes all the difference in the world.
So maybe that's it. Maybe we can all go home. Maybe we've deciphered the signs, they're there to speak about G-d's knowledge of what happened. Except the signs seem to have another element too - at least the last one does. The one about the blood on the water, it didn't just have expression in the past, did it? It also had expression in the future. Yes, the cup of water from the Nile turning into blood when it hits the ground, remember, we saw a plague like that? The first plague is when that sign happens in grand and terrible ways, when the entire Nile turns into blood, when G-d says, I know the lie, and now I'm going to uncover the truth. The whole Nile is blood. The aggressor cannot escape their crime anymore. It's the beginning of justice. Could it be that the rest of the signs continue that path? That they too don't just have expressions in the past, but they foretell things in the future? Moments, key moments in the path of redemption. It wasn't just about the first of the plagues, it was about other moments too. Maybe G-d wasn't just seeing the great lies, but G-d was beginning to redeem those lies too. As we chart the course of redemption through the future, do we again hear echoes of the signs?
Let's continue in our next video with that very question.
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