Date: January 18th 2018



The Jews spent 210 years in Egypt, suffering intensely during the last 80 years. That awful phase ended when the Ten Plagues began. During the day of the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nissan, the Jews sacrificed the Korban Pesach (Paschal Lamb). They ate it that night, and on the following morning they left Egypt. Since then, the Jews begin celebrating Pesach (Passover) with the Seder in the evening when 15th of Nissan begins, corresponding to when the Jews ate the first Korban Pesach. The daytime that follows celebrates their actual departure from Egypt.

Parshat Bo (12, 21) relates that, acting upon Hashem’s (G-d’s) Command, Moshe (Moses) instructed the Jews to publicly set aside the lamb for the Korban Pesach four days before it was due to be sacrificed on the 14th. By fulfilling this commandment, the Jews were, in effect, continuously proclaiming to their former masters that in four days hence, these lambs would be slaughtered and sacrificed to the G-d of Israel.

Why did Hashem give the Jews this four day commandment?

The Midrash Rabbah (16:4) explains: A torment the Jews were subjected to for 80 years was the Egyptian practice of bringing the Jewish slaves to a desert where they would be commanded to capture animals and prepare them for consumption. The Egyptians would then feast on the succulent food. The Jews, however, were forbidden to partake but were nonetheless forced to watch the eating. As a punishment for this cruelty, Hashem commanded the Jews to set aside the Korban Pesach four days before it was due to be brought as an offering while the Egyptians looked on but could do nothing.

The (unabridged) commentary of Yefe Toar on the Midrash explains the topic more fully. Speaking generally, the events of the Exodus are an eternal testament to Hashem’s Greatness and His Dominion over the world and its laws of nature. Sheep were regarded by the Egyptians as a god. Hence, it was necessary to also humiliate the idolatry the Egyptians believed in. This was accomplished when, to fulfill the commandment of Korban Pesach, the Jews killed, and then sacrificed, and then ate the very lambs the Egyptians worshipped. This delegitimized the Egyptian god, even without the mandated four day waiting period.

The requirement of the four day period served a very different purpose. It created a time during which the Egyptians realized what would ensue but were unable to prevent what would soon befall their god. This was a true midah kineged midah (measure for measure). They tortured the Jews by forcing them to watch helplessly and hungrily as they ate. So too, the Egyptians, who according to the Midrash then ruled all of the known world, were repaid by being rendered unable to thwart the announced plan of the Jews. They were made to suffer by looking on helplessly for four days as their former slaves first set aside, then killed and then literally ate what the Egyptians regarded as a deity.

What the Egyptians did to the Jews must have made them suffer terribly. No doubt, their tortured bodies cried out for the adequate and tasty sustenance they had just captured and prepared that was being cruelly withheld. For 80 years of this sadistic behavior, the Egyptians were being punished. How? By being made to watch powerlessly for four days while the lambs they worshipped were set aside for the eventual Korban Pesach.

One might ask, is this midah kineged midah? Is this a repayment for that? Can it be said that justice was done? Seemingly, the Egyptian suffering during those four days alone did not even remotely equal the pain they inflicted upon the Jews for 80 full years.

Evidently, showing the foolishness of a person’s deeply held belief and then mocking it is a devastating body-blow to the human spirit. Although it is not physical suffering, in a sense, it is altogether worse. Though physical depravation and pain can cause terrible suffering, they leave a person’s inner sense of being and worthiness intact. However, mocking and exposing the utter folly of a person’s deeply held beliefs totally invalidates his very being. The Midrash is therefore saying that the Egyptians were indeed being repaid in kind for what they had done to the Jews. Though the Jews suffered physically for so long due to the Egyptian cruelty, the psychic agony the Egyptians were made to endure during those four days was an equal or even greater pain. The sustained ridicule of their mistaken beliefs inflicted terrible human suffering upon them.

People are sometimes saddled with the responsibility to influence others to abandon foolish values and beliefs and to instead gravitate to something more worthwhile. In particular, teachers, parents, psychotherapists and rabbis are often faced with this challenge. Advice is often appropriate – especially when offered appropriately. There are also times when outright reproof is called for. However, this text indicates that sarcasm and mockery, even when directed at what is erroneous, is almost never a good idea. This text equates it to physical abuse.

A more subtle but extremely prevalent form of mockery occurs when people make remarks to others that are mildly sarcastic and biting. Very often, those making the comments consider them humorous and good natured – offensive only to the excessively sensitive. Yet, the object of the “good natured humor” may consider it more cruel than funny, especially when the comment contains grains of truth. The Midrash in Parshat Bo indicates that if the recipient of the “ joke” does feel pained, the experience may in fact be deeply and profoundly hurtful - altogether more so than anyone might have imagined.

An indication of how a Torah observant Jew should instead speak can be observed from the opening lines of the famed Igerret HaRamban, the ethical letter of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (1194-1270) written to his son. He wrote, “Accustom yourself to speak gently to all people at all times.”

This is an edited version of the JHI Dvar Torah previously emailed January 26th 2012.

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