The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16

by Avraham ben Yaakov

We see in the account of the Ten Plagues and the Exodus that God repeatedly discriminated between the Egyptian masters - who were stricken - and their Israelite slaves, who were saved. This happened in the case of the plague of wild animals (Ex. 8:18-19), the pestilence that afflicted the Egyptian livestock (ibid 9:4, 6), the hail (ibid. v. 26), the darkness (10:23), and most strikingly, the death of the Egyptian firstborn as related in our portion.

Another kind of discrimination between Israel and all the other nations appears in the institution of the sacrificial Passover lamb that the Israelites were commanded to eat annually in Temple times to commemorate the Exodus:

"And God said to Moses and Aaron, This is the statute of the Paschal Lamb: No alien may eat from it. No uncircumcised male may eat from it" (Exodus 12:43, 48). Only Israelite females and males that had been duly circumcised were allowed to partake of the meat of the sacrifice.

Thus the Torah Code as it applies to Israel, which begins to unfold in our present portion and is elaborated in all the remainder of the Five Books of Moses, may appear to be highly exclusive and even racist in its discrimination between members of the people of Israel and other peoples.

That a religious pathway should be open only to members of one people while apparently excluding all others runs contrary to the modern egalitarian doctrine that "all men are created equal". For this reason many throughout the world reject the Torah, feeling it has no place for them. Others have claimed that because the people of Israel sinned, God's covenant with them was rescinded and that the Community of Israel is now open to all gentiles and the Torah belongs to all.

The 613 Commandments that God gave to Israel are indeed a highly rigorous code with many demands and many restrictions. If the Israelites had hitherto been slaves of the Egyptians, their Exodus was no release to a life of freedom in the sense of license to do as you please. Having been saved by God, they and their descendants were beholden to Him and obliged to serve Him.

Adherence to this code with all its demands is not required of other peoples, but they are by no means excluded from accepting it and becoming fully-fledged Israelites, as long as they are willing to embrace the 613 commandments in their entirety.

Thus our portion states explicitly: "And when a stranger shall dwell with you and will keep the Passover to HaShem, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land. There shall be one law for a person that is home-born and for the stranger that dwells among you" (Exodus 12:48-9).

One and the same Torah applies equally to a person who is Israelite by birth and to a righteous convert ( Ger Tzeddek ) - one who has accepted the Torah code in full. This is surely perfectly egalitarian and does not fly in the face of the modern outlook any more than the idea that the doctors are entitled to put the most stringent demands on anyone who wants to practice medicine while no-one is excluded if they submit to those demands.

The exclusion of anyone who is not a circumcised Israelite or a full convert from certain Torah commandments including the Passover lamb is thus quite different from racism of the kind practiced by the Nazis, where no non-Aryan could ever "convert" or be accepted as a member of the "master race".

Membership of the people of Israel by birth is not in itself any guarantee of God's salvation or a place in the life of the world to come. Home-born Israelites and converts are equally subject to the stringencies of the Torah code, where infringement of God's commandments may be punished by penalties in this world and after death.

When a gentile comes seeking conversion to Judaism, he is warned: "Know that before you enter this religion, if you eat the cheilev -fat of an animal you will not be punished with spiritual excision after death, and if you desecrate the Sabbath you are not liable to the penalty of death by stoning, but now after you convert, if you eat that fat you will be punished with excision and if you desecrate the Sabbath you are liable to the penalty of stoning" (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Forbidden Unions 14:2).

The worst of all penalties for an Israelite is to have no share in the eternal life of the World to Come. Among the transgressions that would cause an Israelite to lose his share in the World to Come are: atheism; idolatry; denial of the divinity of one or more of the commandments or even of one verse or one word of the Torah, denial of prophecy, of the received Oral Torah, of the coming resurrection of the dead and of Messiah (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance chapter 3).

The 613 Commandments are not a kind a religious smorgasbord from which one may pick and choose what to observe according to one's fancy. Those who believe they are Israelites without submitting to all the stringencies of the Torah code as explained by its sages are simply deceiving themselves.

God has not demanded that other peoples submit themselves to Him as His "servants" in precisely the same way that he makes this demand of Israel. Yet those from other peoples are free to become His servants if they so wish in one of two ways. Some may choose to convert to Judaism, but the Torah by no means requires this, for it provides the gentiles with their own many-faced pathway through the Seven Universal Laws of the Children of Noah with all their ramifications.

And "Everyone who embraces the Seven Commandments and is careful to practice them is one of the saints of the nations of the world and has a share in the World to Come" (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 8:11).

"Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises in a skilful song. God reigns over the nations; G-d sits upon His holy throne. The noble princes of the peoples are gathered together, the people of the God of Abraham; for to God belong the shields of the earth; He is greatly exalted" (Psalm 47:7-10).




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