Friday, January 11, 2019 /5 Shevat, 5779
Parashat Bo Exodus 10:1-13:16
Leil shimurim hu – It was a night of watching,” (Ex. 12:42) so states the Torah describing the night of the Pesah Mitzra’im – the night we departed from Egypt and slavery.
It is a powerful statement, commonly recited from Torah, and reiterated in the Passover Haggadah. Yet, what does it signify? For what were we watching?
The easy answer is we were watching for the opening to depart Egypt. Yet, the idea of watching is inconsistent. We already had witnessed the ten plagues, and had heard Pharaoh’s charge for us to leave the stricken and destroyed land. Perhaps our watching is understood in some other context. The Midrash (Midrash Rabbah Exodus 13:12) asks our question:
Why does God call it “A Night of Watching?” Because on that night, God performed great things for the righteous, just as God had wrought for Israel in Egypt… It is like the case of a woman eagerly awaiting her husband who went abroad and said to her, “Let this be for a sign to thee; and whenever thou seest this sign, know that I will soon come back.” So Israel has eagerly awaited salvation since the rising of Edom.
The hint here is “Edom.” Edom, geographically, was a name for the red, mountainous region across the Dead Sea in what is today Jordan. Yet, in the days of the Talmud and Midrash, when it was forbidden to speak critically of Rome, the rabbis used “Edom” as a code word for both Rome, and for all oppressive regimes.
Thus, the message of the midrash is that the people of Israel have been in a protracted night of watching, or cascading nights of watching, for signs of redemption from oppression over the ages. The midrashic writer applied the Torah verse to Rome; later writers applied it to the Crusades, the Inquisition, Hitler.
Clearly, Jewish history is not only a chronicle of persecutions, yet they cannot be discounted in shaping the Jewish historical personality. And, in every age, we have been fortunate to fall back on our text, Leil shimurim hu – It was a night of watching,” as a reminder to keep looking, to remain vigilant, and to see the sign “that I will soon come back.”
Rabbi Doug Kohn