I wrote this midrash on the 5th of Sheva 5782 (January 8, 2022) as my Dvar Torah for Parashat Bo, and in particular chapters 11-12 of Exodus, which introduce and lead into and through the last of the ten plagues in Egypt. I was thinking about issues of collective accountability and responsibility, which are the ethical and spiritual dilemmas of the plague narrative. And I was thinking about how to tie this part of the Torah to everything going on right now, the pandemic and politics. This is what emerged. I could have written more and better, but was working on a deadline and also wanted to keep this particular version to less than 15 minutes (it's about 13m30s). It's a bit clunky in all kinds of ways, but it is certainly better than the expository Dvar Torah I had in mind. If anyone wants to take this and rework it, make it your own, you have my complete permission -- all I'd love is some reference to "from an idea by Rabbi Jon Spira-Savett."
Sabba and Savta are Hebrew/Aramaic for grandma and grandpa, which is a bit anachronistic. Rechavia is the name of one of Moshe's grandsons, reference once in the Torah as having many children. I had never known his name, much less thought about him, until I needed another character for this midrash.
Here's a video of me reading it (recorded not on Shabbat), and my text follows.
Rechavia was standing in the doorway of his grandfather Moshe’s home. It was night time in Goshen, and quiet -- more quiet than usual for a night with a moon that was almost full. Even in the worst of slavery, bright spring nights were when children wandered the alleys of Goshen with their littlest lambs and sang songs -- Peh Peh, Hashem Ayeh? Poh, Poh, Hayom Yavo. Rechavia was forty when he had to learn these songs for the first time for his grandchildren, starting a year ago when Sabba Moshe announced that the whole family was leaving Midyan and going to Goshen to rescue their people. Peh Peh, Hashem Ayeh -- it was a kids’ song about Yosef’s bones and the secret code that would lead back to them, on the day Hashem would come out of hiding and lead them out of Egypt -- Poh Poh Yavo Hayom; here, here, it’s coming today.
But no singing tonight. Going out was not safe, not a day before everyone would be slaughtering the sheep or goat they were keeping, and every home would be in danger, Egyptian and Israelite, from the plague of death that Sabba had announced two weeks before. Rechavia was full of thoughts, but his house was full of kids, twelve of them! So he snuck out to go see the one person who was always willing to talk with him. Or, brood with him.
Sabba? Rechavia called out again, quietly on this quiet night, but in his firm voice. For a few seconds Rechavia stood by himself in the entrance, a hand on each doorpost. His right hand could feel a spot that was smoother than the rest, it was about a third of the way down from the lintel. He knew his Sabba had smoothed it, probably stood there for an hour each day since the new moon, contemplating this spot where the blood would be tomorrow, which later they would all remember by putting a scroll of Torah in such a place in their desert tents and their eventual homes.
Savta Tzippora saw him standing there. Rechavia, what are you doing here?
I’m looking for Sabba. I wanted to ta.... I think he wants to talk.
You think he wants to talk? No, Sabba is all talked out. To me, to you, to Pharaoh. He just wants to be out of here. He’s hardly said a word the past week. That’s not true, I heard him the other day muttering -- keep the lamb from the tenth day until the fourteenth day and then slaughter it, why five days’ waiting inside? Wouldn’t two or three have been enough? Oh well, once a shepherd, always a shepherd, your Sabba. And me too, I’m named for the birds after all. And you Rechavia -- your name means wide open space. Look at you, standing in that cramped doorway of all places, what kind of a place for a man with such a name?
Rechavia tapped his hand. I like the doorway. I like to look in, and out. It’s important what we do in here, what we say inside. It’s all perfectly clear when we can talk ,and ask all our questions, and address all points of view. Everything makes sense. Everyone knows what they’re accountable for. If only that were good enough, to get it right in here. But we’re connected to what’s going on out there. The other families in Goshen, the homes in the rest of Egypt. I wish I could be in all of their conversations and not have to wonder what they’re thinking and planning.... When I’m out I need to come in and when I’m in I need to go out. So, I like standing in the doorway.
Rechavia closed his lips and bobbed his head, down once and back. End of speech. Then he tilted his head, gave a little shrug. Tzippora smiled at him.
Ah, this is why you are such a blessing to us, Rechavia, she said. Sometimes I think your Sabba is still trapped in that little box his mother saved him in, even when we was roaming the hills in Midian with my father’s sheep for all those years.
I can see you need to talk and so does your Sabba. Go out and find him. He also couldn’t stay inside tonight. I’d have gone out with him, but someone had to watch this lamb, Hashem forbid she escapes! How would it look if this was the one house without blood on our doorpost and lintel tomorrow. I saw him go out and head left, just after sunset. Stay safe, Rechavia. See you when we’re free.
Rechavia blew her a kiss, turned around, held his hand one more second on the smooth of the doorpost -- then out and to the left. It wasn’t hard to find Sabba Moshe, at the end of their alley on a small hill looking out toward the Nile.
Oh, Rechavia! You shouldn’t be out. I shouldn’t be out. Ha -- of course we all should be out! I can’t wait until we are out, tomorrow night finally.
But something tells me Sabba you’re not quite ready.
.... No, I’m ready. But I just keep asking myself: Does it have to be like this? Is this how we get our freedom -- someone in every one of their homes dies? Someone in Goshen forgets and maybe one of us dies too?
I know Sabba. I’ve been thinking about that too. I don’t know many Egyptians -- we’ve only been here the year. I know the taskmasters but it’s hard to believe that’s all they are.
Moshe gestured toward the Nile -- the shimmer of the moon over the wide waters. See Rechavia, right below the hill here, that’s where my Imma put me in the water, in a basket. And just over there is where Pharaoh’s daughter found me, and it wasn’t just her but the girls with her. You’ve heard the story. They decided together to save me. They knew it was right. They knew it together.
And Rechavia, so many hated us, or went along. I never knew until I turned thirteen. But from the start I always judged them one by one. You know this, I taught you about this when you were little.
That’s right Sabba. When you killed the Egyptian it was one man, threatening the life of another. You made me repeat it: No one shall die for the sins of his father, but only for his own sin.
Yes Rechavia. So why not that way tomorrow? Why can’t Hashem just punish the homes of the taskmasters, or the magicians advising Pharoah, and the king himself? I ask Hashem. I ask the one known to Avraham, and I get no answer.
Sabba, do you remember the day I turned thirteen? You said: Today you come out to the sheep with me, just like your father and uncle when they were your age. You said: I want you to watch carefully and understand. Sometimes a sheep runs away, and even if you can’t remember ever noticing a special streak of color in their wool, you know it is this one sheep, this particular sheep, whom you love and you do anything to bring it back. Then there are other times, when the sheep move together to water or pasture, it’s so miraculous-- how they change the shape of the flock to grip the hills so no one falls, protecting and nurturing each other, and in those moments there is no such thing as a single sheep, there is only a flock. In those moments no one sheep would ever consider running away. And a shepherd learns to know ahead of time the moment just before a flock becomes sheep or sheep become a flock again.
That is what you taught me Sabba. I think this is why Hashem chose you. You always knew long before the moment a flock turns into sheep and long before the moment sheep become a flock. All I ever wanted was to know this as you do.
But Rechavia, tonight I am having trouble with the difference. I know the Egyptians are like a flock of evil sheep -- they lose themselves as they oppress us, they are responsible together. They won’t save each other’s lives let alone ours. We gave them so many chances to run away and I, I myself would have taken any of them in, even if I couldn’t have recognized a single streak in them from before. None of them did. They are responsible, every one of them. So why am I still troubled? Why do I sit like a shepherd on a hill under the moon and look at them still?
The other night, Rechavia, I dreamed of a day I am even older, and we are far along out of this place, and our people are thirsty and I help them find water. And all of a sudden I am sitting right here looking down at this Nile and I am seeing the girls lifting a baby up out of a basket -- and then I hear their cries at the death of their firstborn. In the dream it is too much for me, and I shriek and lash out with this staff and then everything disappears.
Rechavia looked out toward the Nile for a long moment. Then he gestured with his head back, toward the houses, and said: Come on. I have something to show you. They stood up and Rechavia led them back to Moshe’s home.
Rechavia stood in the door frame, felt the smooth part of the post on his right, then moved inside and said: Sabba, stand here. Stand here, and feel this right here.
Moshe took his spot, and Rechavia held his hand and placed it so it touched the part that Moshe had made smooth.
I like the doorway, Rechavia said. What happens inside is important. We talk in here about all the things you asked outside. Who is responsible, for their own actions and for the actions of their nation or their friends, when are you responsible for your own sins and when for the sins of your fathers, and we address all points of view. We decide in here how we will act if this is the truth or if that is the truth. In here, we figure out how to hold each other accountable.
Now Sabba, keep your hand where it is, and turn around. Moshe turned carefully, holding his hand against the doorpost and looking out.
We look outside, Rechavia said, and we hope that inside other doorways it’s the same as in here. But we know it’s not. Not in too many Egyptians homes, and not even in all Israelite homes. It’s all right to wish that other homes would be like ours. When they aren’t, people die. The wrong people are punished.
If we only look out, all we will see is that the wrong people die, how they are all responsible and they are never accountable. We’ll think that is all there is. So each time we look out, we have to look back in here.
Sabba, we have to stand right here, and look both ways. How did you tell it to me once -- when you are sitting in your home and when you are out on your way. A doorpost that shows blood, a doorpost with Hashem.
It was midnight now. Moshe held his arms against the posts. How did you know, Rechavia, that I have been standing here an hour every day since the new moon, feeling this spot over and over, trying to smooth what won’t ever be smooth enough.
He looked at Tzippora, with her hand on the lamb. Moshe thought: Today each of us is a precious lamb, and I do know the moment in twenty-four hours exactly when we will become a flock, losing ourselves as we protect each other on the way out of here.
You know, said Sabba Moshe, I still have my sources still down the Nile. There are Egyptians who today want to come with us, and I have heard that on their doorposts they put up a sign, in our own language as a code to find each other: V’erev rav alah itam. I sent them a message today -- take down the note and put up blood instead and meet us tomorrow after midnight.
Maybe it’s the grandchildren of the women who fished you out, Sabba.
Do you think their homes will be spared from the plague?
I hope they will, Rechavia. When we talk of these things in the future, to your grandchildren -- that’s how we should want them to remember it. It was good to talk, Rechavia. I needed to talk before we left.
Not talk, said Rechavia. Teach. You just needed to teach. See you when we’re free.
Rechavia walked out, under the almost full moon. And without realizing it, he was humming a child’s song, peh peh Hashem ayeh, about the secret hiding place of Yosef’s bones and the day coming when Hashem would no longer hide but redeem them, and if not everyone in Egypt at least many more would be free tomorrow -- poh poh, yavo hayom.