Parashat Bo

וּבְמורָא גָּדול - זו גִּלּוּי שְׁכִינָה. כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, או הֲנִסָּה אֱלהִים לָבא לָקַחַת לו גּוי מִקֶּרֶב גּוי בְּמַסּות בְּאתת וּבְמופְתִים וּבְמִלְחָמָה וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרועַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמורָאִים גְּדולִים כְּכל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לָכֶם ה' אֱלהֵיכֶם בְּמִצְרַיִם לְעֵינֶיךָ:. 

And With Great Awe - This is the revelation of the Divine Presence, as it says “Or has a god ever deigned to come to take for himself a people from amidst a people with tests, with signs, with wonders, and with war, and with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great awe-filled events, as all that has been done for you by Hashem your Gd in Egypt before your eyes. — Haggada

Cinematographers have a problem with the Exodus from Egypt. After showing off eight plagues of special effects, the last two of darkness and of people dying in darkness do not appear to provide much a filmable spectacle. They mostly rush through this climax of the Egypt story to a seemingly more fitting end with the Splitting of the Sea or of the Revelation at Mount Sinai. These events seem like a more natural and exciting climax.

Compounding their problem is that the Torah itself gives almost no help in describing the effects of these two plagues. Darkness is summed up in two sentences, simply saying that it was so dark that no Egyptian could see each other for three days, yet Israel had light in all its dwellings. The Plague of the Firstborn is even worse. We are told nothing about it, except that Gd smote all the firstborn, and there were dead everywhere. Obviously the plague had an immediate effect, as Pharaoh was completely broken by it. But we have no knowledge of the moment itself. It is no wonder people have no idea about the events of the plagues and tell to skip them in retellings.

This would be a mistake, as the Torah is very clear that this plague is the climax of the Exodus. if the Torah is light on details about the plagues as they happen, it spends a lot of time announcing their coming. There are no less than five presagings about the Plague of Firstborn, three to Moshe, and one each to Israel and Pharaoh. Moshe is told before he even goes down to Egypt that there will come a time, after Pharaoh has experienced all Gd’s wonders and still not freed Israel, that he will send Pharaoh one final message. Israel is Gd’s firstborn. As Pharaoh has not let Gd’s firstborn out of bondage, Gd will smite Pharaoh’s firstborn. Apparently, it was necessary for Moshe to know this from the outset. Then, before it happens, Moshe and Israel are warned again, and told to commemorate the occasion forever.

So it is done today, where the tenth plague is now the centerpiece of the Seder. But even though, the importance is paramount, here too, it is described mysteriously and indirectly. An example of this is the quote above, where we are told that there was a revelation of the Divine Presence, but we aren’t told what that means, when it occurred, and what the purpose was. The prooftext doesn’t help much either, and we don’t find any direct mention of the Divine Presence during the Ten Plagues. Therefore, Ibn Ezra is forced to see that the verse actually means the Splitting of the Sea, where we are explicitly told Israel saw the hand of Gd.

But I don’t think the Ibn Ezra is in agreement with the Haggada. It is talking about the plagues, not the Splitting of the Sea. It’s clear that the main focus of the Haggada here is Exodus from Egypt and the Plagues leading up to it. It wouldn’t skip to the Splitting of the Sea and back without comment. So in that case, what is this Divine revelation? Why do we talk about the plagues so much if there are no details about their appearance. How can there be so much surrounding an event and nothing in the event itself?

It seems to me the answer is in the prooftext. Now the text as we have it “Or has a god ever deigned…” is one of the longest verses in the Bible, and there is no indication as to what part of it links “great awe-filled events” with “revelation of the Divine Presence.” Most assume it is the very end of the verse, where it says everything happened in “Egypt before your eyes.” But that is exactly what raises the question of what happened before our eyes? What were we supposed to see?

I would like to suggest it is actually the beginning of the verse "Or has a god ever deigned to come to take for himself a people from amidst a people.” These two plagues were special, precisely because they showed nothing else but Gd’s particular interest and providence over the Jewish people as a nation, even beyond the previous plagues. In Darkness, the Israelites are spared the plague, as they are previous ones, but in this one the distinguishing factor is not geographical, like previously when Goshen was spared. Here the distinguishing factor was the individual homes. Israelites had light, and Egyptians had darkness. This was compounded in the following plague when Israelites were given the opportunity to distinguish their own homes.

How exactly the plagues happened, exactly what they looked like, mattered less than that they could occur. It was possible in the mix of Egypt for some of the houses to be in darkness and some to be in light, simply based on nationality of individual households. It was possible for households and individuals to grab onto their Israelite heritage, and they could join together to earn their protection. Suddenly, being Israelite was more than living in Goshen or having a vague connection with their ancestral patriarchs. It was a national identity centered on the home.

I think this is why Ritva actually says that the Divine Presence was revealed twice across all of Egypt. The second time was during the Plague of Firstborn. But he says it was also revealed on Rosh Hodesh Nissan, before the last two plagues occurred. On the first, Gd came down in the midst of the impurity of Egypt and proclaimed the existence of His nation, which would have its own laws and customs. Midnight of the fifteenth, He came down again and forced everyone to acknowledge it. Israel is Gd’s firstborn, and it forever will be.