The elegance of the biblical narrative and the genius of the biblical writers and editors are displayed most clearly in the subtle anticipations and amplifications that link one text to another. Like psychotherapy, the art of deciphering the meaning of a biblical text demands the cultivation of an awareness of subliminal and nuanced associations that suggest connections between one event and another.
In this week’s Torah portion, we pick up the story of Moses in Egypt on his mission to secure the release of the Israelites. Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh to request a three-day leave for the Israelite slaves to go into the wilderness to worship. Suspecting a ruse by which the Israelites may well instead sprint for freedom, Pharaoh asks who will be going, to which Moses replies: “We will all go, young and old; we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds, for we must observe the Lord’s festival.” (Exodus 10:9) Pharaoh understandably makes a counteroffer of permission for only the men to go. The women and children must remain behind, presumably as hostages, in order to ensure the men’s return.
This episode recalls a similar narrative at the end of Genesis. There, Joseph requests of (a different) Pharaoh that Joseph and his entire clan be permitted to return Jacob’s body to the land of Canaan for burial in the family tomb at Machpela. Even with Joseph’s position as vice-regent of Egypt, there appears to be suspicion on the part of that Pharaoh that Joseph and his clan may not return — and thereby will deprive Egypt of his leadership as well as of whatever benefit the clan may confer on the Egyptian economy. One can also imagine an anxiety about creating a precedent whereby other groups may make similar requests, resulting in an ongoing series of Egyptian military deployments.
The Pharaoh in Genesis grants permission to Joseph, but with two caveats: His clan is to be accompanied by dignitaries, chariots, and horsemen, and the youngest members of the clan are to remain in Egypt. While the first caveat may suggest honor and respect, it is equally plausible that the accompaniment is sent along to make certain Joseph and his brothers return to Egypt. And while the second caveat may suggest concern and compassion for infants and toddlers ill-prepared for a long desert trek, the imagery of children being held as hostages is inescapable.
It is worth noting as well that the retention in Egypt of the youngest children is an echo of the retention by Joseph of the youngest brother, Benjamin, when he sent his other brothers back to Canaan and Jacob.
Against this background, we can better understand the meaning of the 10th plague, the killing of the Egyptian first-born, which is the precipitating factor in the final decision of Pharaoh to release the Israelites — men and women, adults and children, along with flocks and herds.
Many commentators have noted that as Pharaoh decreed the death of the Israelite children at the opening of the Book of Exodus, so the 10th plague is retribution in kind. And on the obvious level, this is clearly a part of the structure of the narrative.
But more subtly, the biblical writers have been preparing us for this chilling literary inversion: The ruler who dared to hold children hostage presides over the death of the Egyptian children, with even his own household not spared.
The narrative of the plagues is a difficult one to read, and the Passover custom of removing drops of juice or wine from a cup at the recitation of each plague is a reflex of the awkwardness we experience at the notion of a God who would visit death upon children as a form of collective punishment.
But reading the Torah was probably not intended to be an exercise in easy assurances. Instead, each year as we encounter the texts, we are left to struggle with often troubling implications of the imaginations of the biblical writers, and of the associations and connections they left for us to discover amidst the grand narrative we know as the Torah.