Parashat Bo / Man and Other Animals

Yakov Z. Meyer
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'The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt,' by David Roberts (1830).
Yakov Z. Meyer

In the Torah portion that we will read in another three weeks, Parashat Mishpatim, God tells the Children of Israel, “And ye shall be holy men unto me; therefore ye shall not eat any flesh that is torn of beasts in the field; ye shall cast it to the dogs” (Exodus 22:30).

In the following midrash, the prohibition from eating the flesh of a dead beast is connected to a verse in this week’s portion, Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16): “You must deduce from this verse that God does not withhold reward from any of his creatures, as it is written, ‘But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog whet his tongue’ [Exod. 11:7]. God tells Israel: Give the dogs their reward.

“If that is the case for animals, it stands to reason that, just as God rewards dogs for their behavior, he will surely reward mortals – as it is written: ‘As the partridge that broodeth over young which she hath not brought forth, so is he that getteth riches, and not by right; in the midst of his days he shall leave them, and at his end he shall be a fool,’ and, ‘Thou throne of glory, on high from the beginning, thou place of our sanctuary’ [Jeremiah 17:11-12]” (Mechilta, Parashat Mishpatim: 20).

During the Exodus from Egypt, Moses promises the Children of Israel that dogs will not make a sound during their departure. As a reward, the midrash relates, God gives dogs the privilege of eating the flesh of a dead beast lying in the field, one that has been torn by other animals. The juxtapositioning of these two verses, an example of the concept of “measure for measure,” serves as the basis for the second part of this homily: that just as God rewards dogs for their behavior, he will surely reward mortals.

The Almighty arranges things such that dogs will receive their reward whenever the commandment prohibiting consumption of the carcass of a beast found in the field is observed. But, the real reason he arranges things in this manner is to teach us that, if dogs receive a reward for their behavior, God will surely not withhold from mortals the reward they should receive for their behavior.

To prove that what applies to mortals can be deduced from the example of animals, the midrash cites a verse from Jeremiah that draws a connection between “he that getteth riches, and not by right” and the partridge – a bird that broods over eggs that she has not laid (according to the commentary of Radak). Just as the young birds hatching from eggs in the partridge’s nest will abandon her in midlife, similarly, regarding a person “that getteth riches, and not by right,” his wealth will abandon him “in the midst of his days.”

The “reward” – actually, the punishment – of the person “that getteth riches, and not by right” is determined on the basis of the “reward” – or punishment – of the partridge. Before the unscrupulous individual and the partridge stands the divine “throne of glory, on high from the beginning, thou place of our sanctuary” – the throne of God who metes out justice to all living creatures.

The homilist uses Jeremiah’s view of unjust individuals as an interpretive tool to explain the lesson to be learned from the connection between the dogs that do not whet their tongues during the Exodus (as noted in Parashat Bo), and the idea that dogs should receive their reward and be given the flesh of a dead animal found in the field (as noted in Parashat Mishpatim). The lesson is that, if God rewards animals for their behavior, he will surely reward mortals. One can ask, however, why does the homilist feel obliged to rely on Jeremiah to prove the validity of this lesson?

Another example of the use of the biblical text as evidence appears in a midrash from Shemot Rabbah. In Parashat Shemot, read two weeks ago, Pharaoh orders the Hebrew midwives to kill all newborn Israelite boys – but the midwives disobey him: “And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them: ‘Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men-children alive?’ And the midwives said unto Pharaoh: ‘Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively [ki hayot heina], and are delivered ere the midwife come unto them’” (Exod. 1:18-19).

In a literal reading and in accordance with the usage of the Hebrew word “hayot,” one may infer here that the Hebrew women are midwives themselves and thus do not require the services of a midwife appointed by the Egyptian authorities. But, the midrash offers an alternative interpretation: “It is written, ‘ki hayot heina,’ which means literally ‘for they are midwives.’ But do not midwives themselves require a midwife when they are about to give birth? What the Hebrew midwives tell Pharaoh is that the Hebrew nation is like wild animals, who do not require assistance when they give birth.

“Judah is likened to a lion, as it is written, ‘Judah is a lion’s whelp [or, lion cub]’ [Genesis 49:9]; about Dan it is written, “Dan shall be a serpent in [or, along] the way” [Gen. 49:17]; Naphtali is a ‘hind let loose’ [Gen. 49:21]; Issachar is a “large-boned ass” [Gen. 49:14]; about Joseph it is written, ‘His firstling bullock, majesty is his’ [Deuteronomy 33:17]; Benjamin is a ‘wolf that raveneth’ [Gen. 49:27]; and about all the 12 tribes of Israel, it is written, ‘How was thy mother a lioness; among lions she couched?’ [Ezekiel 19:2]” (Shemot Rabbah 1:16).

Even midwives require another midwife to help in the delivery of their own child, argues the midrash; thus, the “hayot” cannot mean “midwives.” Rather, that word should be read as “wild animals.” Just as wild animals do not require human assistance when they give birth, similarly, Hebrew women give birth to their infants without any assistance; the babies are delivered by the time the midwife arrives.

To prove that the Children of Israel can be likened to wild animals – that is, to show that one must look at such creatures in order to understand Israel’s character – the homilist cites the blessing Jacob gives his children toward the end of the Book of Genesis, and also the blessing Moses gives the Tribe of Joseph toward the end of Deuteronomy: Both Jacob and Moses use animal imagery to describe the Children of Israel.

Ever since Creation, it has been obvious that human beings are not animals. Early in the Book of Genesis, God commands Adam and his descendants to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Human beings have a higher status than animals and rule them. But human beings also observe animals and, in doing so, learn about themselves.

In the two midrashic passages above, the homilist cites biblical verses to show that there are grounds for comparing mortals to animals. In effect, the two homilists look at the text – not at the animals in the field. In Mechilta, the homilist looks at Jeremiah, who studies wild animals and thereby deduces truths about human beings. In Exodus Rabbah, the homilist looks at Jacob, who also observes animals and from them infers truths about his own offspring.

Human beings have a higher status than Nature, have dominion over it, study it, and deduce laws and order from it; they also learn about the meaning of their own lives from the world of nature. However, for the homilist, the Torah replaces that world: He learns about human beings not from Nature, but from the biblical text. Human beings must look to the Torah, from which they draw sustenance. From it they learn the meaning of their own lives, and also that God will not withhold the reward they deserve for their conduct.