The Egyptians have endured seven plagues, and when threat of an eighth (locusts) reaches them, many of the leading advisers begin to despair of Pharaoh’s unfortunate resolve. They ask him with frustration, “Do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?!” (Exodus 10:7)
So Pharaoh sits down to negotiate with Moses and Aaron yet again. He is finally prepared to let the adults go worship their God in the wilderness, but the brothers play hardball – “We will go with our young and with our old; with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds we will go, for we must hold a feast for God.” (Exodus 10:9)
Worship is no partial affair. No part of the community must be sacrificed for another part. The head (adults) cannot pray when the feet (the children walking us to the future) are severed. Or, to interpret Heschel’s famous phrase when he marched in Selma, praying with one’s feet means not only actively making the world better for the next generation, but doing so in partnership with the next generation. Judaism has the sophistication and depth to be a discipline worthy of mature pursuit. A religion for adults. But, crucially, not only for adults.
Pharaoh disagrees. A teaching from the 11th century French commentator Rashi has Pharaoh argue with Moses and Aaron: “But that – sacrificing to God – is what you have been seeking up to this point! And it is not the custom for little children to offer sacrifice!” (Rashi on Exodus 10:11). Pharaoh assumes a shared understanding that children do not participate in religious ritual. And indeed, much of Jewish halakhah (sacred law) affirms that before children reach the age of thirteen, when we now hold celebrations of becoming B’nai Mitzvah (“children of commandment”), they are not held responsible for Jewish ways of doing things. But in Jewish tradition this is a developmental concern and part of a path of gradual growth into full responsibility.
Rashi reveals that Pharaoh is incapable of recognizing what it means to be inclusive of those who are not full-fledged members of the group. And this has been true of Pharaoh from the very beginning. When he came to power, he “did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). This Pharaoh does not recognize the outsider who nonetheless has contributed tremendously to Egypt’s success. Only two classes of people enter into Pharaoh’s awareness – those who are worthy insiders, and those who are not.
Pharaoh displays a limited ability to conceive of a diverse community. This time, the binary falls into adults who are worthy/competent/traditionally a part of worship on the one hand, and children who simply aren’t, on the other.
The Judaism we strive to live out today, based on this iconic moment of liberation, does not in the end revolve around yet another binary, yet another us-vs.-them of Israelites and Egyptians. Later in the Torah, God commands us not to get stuck in that binary: “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 23:8).
Rather, although the Israelites needed to be freed from slavery in Egypt, they were freed in order to build a society that truly worshiped the infinitely complex God, a society that comprises adults and children, diverse tribes of differing characteristics, backgrounds, philosophies, and dare I say faiths, and imbues the relationships among all people with respect, honor, dignity, peace, and love.
We are not there yet, but every Shabbat offers us a moment to reflect on how we can participate in the ongoing liberation from a narrow-visioned Egypt.