Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, describes the final three of the ten plagues that befell the land of Egypt and its people during the Israelites fight for freedom from Pharaoh. Until this point, the Egyptians had already contended with bloody waters, frogs, vermin, wild animals, pestilence, boils and hail. Now, they would have to struggle through land-covering locusts, three days of complete darkness and the unimaginable final plague of the death of the first-borns in Egypt.
Every year, as we celebrate our freedom from Pharaoh and Egyptian bondage, we cannot help but temper our joy with a sense of sadness for the losses that the Egyptians felt because of the plagues brought upon Egypt. At our seder, the instructions of which we also read in this week’s parasha, we spill out a bit of wine, a symbol of our joy, with the mention of each plague that the people of Egypt experienced, even as we remember our people’s passage to freedom.
A simple verse from the Book of Proverbs (24:17) inspires this Passover custom. It reads, “Binpol oyvecha al tismach.” (Do not rejoice at the fall of your enemy.)
A simple verse, but this proverb is far from simple to live. In fact, it is a lesson about which God must remind even the angels. According to the Talmud, when the angels tried to sing songs of praise to God as the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea, God silenced and rebuked them, saying, “My handiwork, my creatures are drowning in the sea and you want to sing a song of praise?”
Our sense of joy and success should never be derived or heightened from the fall or failure of others. Not only does this diminish the humanity of the other, it erodes our own spirit and soul.
And like any bad habit, when we rely on the trials and tribulations of other’s to establish our own sense of self-worth and pride, it becomes increasingly difficult to derive meaning in our lives in any other way save to use someone else’s misfortune as a barometer for our own accomplishments. In the wise words of Rav Papa, “Whoever takes vengeance destroys his own home.”
As we read this week from Parashat Bo and again in a few months’ time when we prepare for Passover and the celebration of our people’s liberation, may we remember to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt and not the downfall of the Egyptians. Every day, as we move through the world, may we strive to lift ourselves up not by pushing another down, but by reaching down and pulling another up.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)