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Parashat Bo: On Belonging and Otherness

It’s not enough to expand or to include. We have an obligation to look at the way we go about including, how do we invite other people to join us, how we behave toward them when they do
Rabbi Avital Hochstein is a faculty member at the Shalom Hartman Institute and has learned, taught, and done research at the institute for more than 15 years. In 2016, she was among the first recipients of rabbinical ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute / HaMidrasha at Oranim Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis. Avital is currently working on her Ph.D., focusing on Talmud, in the Gender Studies Program at Bar Ilan University. Avital is President of

Parashat Bo: On Belonging and Otherness

The twelfth chapter of Shemot gives us a wide-angle view of the present, past, and future. At the climax of the story we find the description of the final plague, the death of the firstborn. This is when Pharaoh finally relents and the Exodus begins.

The first section of the chapter contains God’s instructions to Moshe and Aharon for the preparations that the People of Israel should make for their departure; the first Pesah (Shemot 12:1-13). The second section of the chapter is focused on the way this Pesah will be commemorated in the future (vv. 24-20). The third section portrays Moshe’s commanding the elders about all of these preparations (vv. 21-29), followed by a description of the actual events (vv. 30 and following).

I’d like to focus on a select number of verses which describe the exodus and a midrashic question which this passage raises:

Shemot 12:30-31

And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians – because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead. He summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Lord as you said!”

In the Tannaitic midrash collection, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, the author asks about inclusion of various groups of people in the events of the fateful night of the first Pesah:

Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai 12, p. 29

“You.” This only includes you (the children of Israel who are being addressed by the verse). From where do we know that it also includes converts/strangers (gerim)1 and slaves? Since the verse says, “Also you.”

This short midrash presents a very careful, gentle, and sensitive reading of the verses. First, it focuses on the word “You” as spoken by Pharaoh. It seems that “you” refers to the people whom Pharaoh summoned at the beginning of the verse, Moshe and Aharon. In the straightforward reading of the verse, it seems that Pharaoh uses this word in order to distinguish between Moshe and Aharon and the rest of the people. As if Pharaoh is emphasizing: I don’t want “you” alone to leave Egypt, but also the rest of the children of Israel. However the midrash chooses to read this word as excluding a specific social group – you, and not slaves and converts/strangers. The midrash then asks, since we know that “you” has a limited and specific referent – Israel – how do we know that not only the biological children of Israel, but all of the people including converts/strangers and slaves went out?

The question of “from where do we know?” reveals two assumptions. First, the fact that it is obvious to the midrash that the slaves and converts/strangers did in fact leave Egypt with the rest of Israel. Second, it emphasises the fact that if you were to read the verses without a midrashic eye you wouldn’t be able to see that fact in the text! There is a significant gap between the general inclusive assumption in the midrash and what the verses state explicitly.

The question of the midrash is then: Given that it was not only “you” who left Egypt, but also the slaves and converts/strangers, where can one ground that assumption in the text?

Let’s step into the Egypt that the midrash imagines. In this Egypt not only are the children of Israel slaves to Pharaoh, but they have slaves of their own. In this Egypt, not only are the children of Israel strangers (gerim) in a land that doesn’t belong to them, but there are converts (gerim), people who have chosen to join their group, to be foreigners among them. The term for these converts, gerim, can be understood in two ways: either as actual religious converts or merely as strangers, foreigners who have chosen to join the people. Either way we understand this term, the fact that the midrash believes that they exist forces us to see the people of Israel in Egypt in a way that we wouldn’t readily see from the verses. Thus, according to the imagination in the midrash, Israel is a people composed of many different groups with different types of relationships. And it is clear that according to the midrash these other groups of people joined Israel not only when they left, but even while they were still slaves.2

Time after time the Sages brazenly suggest we imagine the unthinkable. And here they are brazen enough to describe Israel in Egypt as a nation that is powerful enough to have its own slaves, converts, or others who choose to tie their destiny and join them as strangers. The question that the midrash raises brings us to the point where we no longer think of the children of Israel as slaves who were oppressed and disdained, but rather as a group that people would want to join and cling to! The Israelites even have their own internal hierarchy, people who have status and those who serve them as slaves.

However the almost unbelievable assumptions and questions that the midrash raises can be read as trying to accomplish something beyond reading the texts. They often reflect a worldview, a viewpoint, a concern, a belief, or a hope. It is our responsibility as readers and learners to not only understand the content of what the midrash says, but what it speaks to more broadly, what it implies.

The teaching that we have has one direct statement but actually reveals an almost opposite worldview. On the one hand it includes the converts/strangers and slaves as being part of the people. But on the other hand, it leaves them as adjuncts and somewhat separate.

This teaching exhibits the midrashic hermeneutic of inclusion, but a careful reading yields that this is a teaching with a profound lesson about exclusion. Even though the teaching explains that the Israelites left Egypt with the converts or strangers and slaves, the way in which these different groups are included is not as being part of an undifferentiated whole, but rather they maintain their status as add-ons, as extras, as others. The converts/strangers and slaves are spoken about and thought about as additional, as “also,” and they are not part of the original core of “you.” They are adjuncts but not part of the root or essence, they aren’t really part of the core of “the children of Israel.”

If we want to live in a society that is aware of the injustices of exclusion, where there is a call to expand the boundaries and to live with plurality and multivocality, to live lives of inclusion and equality, then this midrash teaches us something foundational: It’s not enough to “expand” or to “include.” We have an obligation to look at the way we go about including, how do we invite other people to join us, how we behave towards them when they do. Sometimes we’ll find that the way we attempt to bring people in will actually be exclusionary, leaving those who have been invited in as additions rather than as core members. The midrash invites us to examine our own behavior and attitudes: If inclusion is our goal, are we doing it in a way that truly achieves it?


[1] The word gerim has a double meaning of both “converts” and “strangers,” which will be discussed further on. ^

[2] The term gam (also) in the verse is a term what the midrash uses to anchor its suggestion that the “you” who are leaving Egypt also includes “converts and slaves.” Instead of saying “you” the verse says “also you” which clarifies that Israel left Egypt with someone else, someone “also,” the slaves and converts who had joined them. ^

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