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In this video, the first of the course, Rabbi Fohrman asks a few fundamental questions about the holiday of Passover that lay the foundation for the rest of the course.
Imagine you were one of the Angels who was called upon to counsel God; you were on the nomination committee for naming of this holiday and you have to come up with some really good names. So you say, “what’s this holiday about?” It’s commemorating the Jews going out of Egypt. “So wouldn’t it be great to call it Independence Day or you can call it Freedom Day or something like that?”
But then imagine some Angels in the back of the room raises their hand and said “no. I have a great idea. Let’s call it Passover. Passover is a really terrific name.” So you say “ that’s a strange name for the holiday. Why should we call it Passover?” Then you say “see you don’t really get it because see, God made all these plagues to let the Jews go and then there was this tenth plague and in the tenth plague, all of the firstborn children of the Egyptians got killed. But the Jews got to go free and God sort of ‘passover’ their firstborn and didn’t kill them. You get it? So He ‘passover’ their first born; so let’s call it passover. You get it? It’s kind of like a pun.” A mean, none of the other angels would be impressed, right? But God decides “yes! Let’s call it Passover!” This actually wins the day .We do call the holiday Passover. Why? Passover just focuses on one little detail of the holiday. In all of the ten plagues, why are we focusing on this one little detail?
Okay. Now, stick with me here. Here is Question 2. Question 2 kinds of follows from Question 1. We talked about Passover - this name for the holiday and Passover focusing our attention on the tenth plague. So let’s take a moment to actually look at the tenth plague and to notice kind of how strange it is in many respects. The strange part of the plague really is that if you think about all of the other plagues that happened before the tenth plague, the Jews had sort of automatic diplomatic immunity, you know, they had United Nations licences plate. The Jews got to park anywhere also without fear of getting tickets, they were not subject to darkness when it was dark in Egypt; they were not subject to having their water turn into blood, it sort of automatically worked out well for them, they didn’t have to worry about all these things. But that all changes in the tenth plague.
In the tenth plague, all of a sudden, the Jews have to actually do something . They had to slaughter this goat and put the blood on their door otherwise they are subject to the effects of the tenth plague just like the Egyptians. Why is that? You know, why couldn’t God dispatched the Angel of Death,you know, with a GPS to tell where the Jewish homes were as opposed the Egyptians home. How come they were sort of granted automatic diplomatic immunity from the tenth plague all of a sudden?
Now, another interesting aspect of this plague is actually sort of the justice behind the plague. There seems to be a kind of tit-for-tat which is happening in this tenth plague. And you see that right over here in this text in God’s warning to Pharaoh through Moses that such a plague might eventually come to pass. This is what God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh v’amarta el-paro, say to Pharaoh, koh amar Hashem beni vichori Yisrael, my first born son is Israel. Vaomar eleicha, and tell him shalach et-beni, send forth my son Israel, v’yaadevni, and let him serve me, vatmaen leshalchu, and if you refuse to set him free hineh anochi horeg et-binecha bechorecha, I will kill your first born. Now, you see the tit-for-tat over here? It’s that God is saying “well, if you keep my first born enslaved, I am going to get rid of your first born.”
But this whole notion that the Jews are like the first born of God just seems like a really strange thing to say. Why would he call the Jews the first born? They weren’t the first born nation of God. What does that even mean? It’s just a strange kind of thing.
There is something odd about this plague that focuses like a laser beam on Pharaoh’s firstborn children as if that’s somehow justified because he is enslaving the Jews. A mean, millions of people are dying because God is taking this comparison very seriously. It’s not just Biblical poetry “oh, the children of Israel are like my firstborn child”, it seems to be literally true in God’s eyes. So why is that?
And that question brings us to sort of the third question, and that is the question about what I call the ‘little black boxes’. So that little black box is of course, a mean the filings that we put under our our arms and the head, and now, these little black boxes, again, if we were playing God you imagine, okay, you’re coming up with our own religion with this great idea. We’re going to have these little black boxes, we’re going to take these representative parts of the Torah and we are going to make people wear these black boxes; seems so wonderful, so spiritual. And now, we Angles, you know, we’re on the Nominating Committee, we’ve now switched to the Black Box Committee. We’ve got to figure out what are we going to put in these black boxes? We can take any little sections of the Bible we want. We want to sort of focus on something that’s really very important; you know, the basics of Judaism. So what should we put in the black boxes?
Well, you might say we want the basic creed our Jewish faith so we put the shema in the black boxes- “hear oh Israel the Lord our God is one” - is a great idea. Maybe we’ll put the next paragraph that we should “ love the Lord with all our hearts and with all our soul, v’ahavta et Hashem Elokecha. All that is really wonderful and sounds really spiritual. But imagine some Angel in the back of the room says “oh, I have this really great idea , let’s put this law of the broken neck donkey in there.” Everyone turns around and says “What? The law of the broken neck donkey?” And you say “yes! Take a look over here, over here in Exodus, v’hayah ki-yeviacha Hashem el-eretz hakenaani, and when God brings you into the land of the Canaanites, v’haavarta chol-peter-rachem leHashem, the first born child of all of your animals should go to God, v’chol-peter-sheger behemah asher yiheyeh lecha hacharim laHashem, all the first born male children and animal should go to God, should be offerings. And, if you actually have an animal that is not fit to be an offering, like a donkey, you actually have to redeem it with an animal which you could offer. But if you don’t redeem it v’arafto, then you have to break the donkey’s neck. V’chol bechor adam bevaneicha tifdeh, you also have to redeem the firstborn of the children and you have to do this for all generations. Why don’t we put that in the little black boxes?” And then everyone one turns around and looks at the Angel like he’s crazy “why would we put that little detailed law in the black boxes?”
But the fascinating thing is that this wins the day; the law of the broken neck donkey does make it in the black boxes. It’s one of the things besides shema, besides love your God with all your heart ; you have this story having to do, again, with the idea of the bechor of first born. This notion of firstborn that just keeps on popping up and somehow essential to whole idea of what it is to be a Jew, what it is to remember the exodus from Egypt. But again , it seems to be just a detail in the tenth plague , the very name for the holiday comes back to it - Passover . It’s all getting to this idea of the harness, the day when we were passed over, almost like the day we became first born; it’s just like a very strange thing.
It really all get down to this, the idea of ‘firstborn-ness’, somehow seems very essential to Judaism as a whole and the Exodus in particular. Why is that?