Bo: The Midnight Harpist

The Israelites’ last night in Egypt was tense and dramatic. The Angel of Death was out and about and the Israelite slaves were in lockdown—commanded to remain inside their homes, secured behind doorposts smeared with amulets of blood and hyssop. Outside, the streets were haunted by the shrieks of dying men and beasts – “there was no house where there was not someone dead” (12:30). Even the dogs dared not whet their tongues with the Angel of Death so close at hand. Given the richness of the Torah’s description of this “night of vigil,” it seems surprising that when the rabbis discuss the eve of the Exodus, they are focused less on what happened and more on when it happened – and on why that timing matters.

The rabbis in the opening pages of tractate Berakhot (9a) discuss the timing of the Exodus to determine whether the Pesach sacrifice may be eaten only until midnight, or all the way until dawn. The answer hinges on whether the redemption happened in the middle of the night—when God struck down the Egyptian firstborns; or in the morning—when the Israelites went free. The Talmudic rabbis express surprise that when Moses warned Pharaoh of the tenth and final plague, he spoke in approximate terms, informing him that God would strike down the Egyptian firstborns “at about midnight” (11:4). They assume that Moses was merely relaying what God had told him, and yet God must have known exactly when He would send forth the Angel of Death. “Is there any doubt before God in heaven?” they ask. Surely God does not speak in approximations! They therefore conclude that God must have told Moses that He would strike down the firstborns at midnight, but Moses was not certain of the exact middle of the night; and thus it was Moses who introduced this language of approximation.

The notion that the ability to calculate time precisely is a hallmark of the Divine comes up in Mishnah Bekhorot 2:6, amidst a discussion of the mitzvah to consecrate every firstborn to God – a mitzvah that is taught in this week’s parsha, where God commands Moses, “Consecrate to Me every first-born, man and beast, the first issue of every womb” (13:1). The sages of the Mishnah consider the case of a sheep that gives birth to two males, with both heads emerging simultaneously. If the sheep has never before given birth, how do we determine which is the firstborn? In the Talmud (Bekhorot 17a) the majority of the sages argue that unlike God, human beings lack the capacity to discern between two acts that appear simultaneous, and thus both sheep must be given over to the priest. Only God can get the timing exactly right, at least according to the prevailing rabbinic opinion. Other dissenting rabbinic voices, however, insist that human beings are able to be just as discerning – which may explain why the rabbis are so surprised that Moses, the human being who came closest to the divine, lacked this capability.

Another reason the rabbis are so surprised that Moses spoke of the tenth plague in approximate terms is because even King David knew how to calculate the timing of midnight – at least according to Talmud Berakhot 3b. The rabbis quote from the book of Psalms, attributed to King David: “At midnight I rise to give thanks for your righteous laws” (Psalms 119:63). David woke up every night at exactly midnight to praise God. But how did David know exactly when midnight was, if even Moses didn’t know? They explain that David had an unusual sort of alarm clock: A harp hung over his bed, and every night at midnight, the northern wind would come and cause the harp to play of its own accord. David, upon hearing the music, would immediately arise from his bed and study Torah until the first rays of dawn. David’s lyre is reminiscent of the Aeolian harp, a wooden instrument played by the wind which served for the Romantic poets as a metaphor for poetic inspiration. Indeed, perhaps the poetry of the book of Psalms was inspired by the music of the wind.

The wind also played a key role in the redemption from Egypt. The Torah relates that the sea was split by means of a “strong east wind” (ruach kadim, Exodus 14:21). The Hebrew word for wind, ruach, is also used to refer to the divine spirit (ruach elokim, Genesis 1:2) and the human soul (ruach chaim, Genesis 7:22). And the English word “inspire” literally means to draw in breath – when Adam was “inspired” by God, he was transformed from inert earth into a human being with a divine spirit. This is not just a play on words. To be receptive to poetic inspiration is to be receptive to the divine – the wind that plays on the poet’s lyre is also the wind that heralds redemption.

Flannery O’Connor famously said that she used to sit down at her desk at the same time every morning because that was her way of holding “office hours” for her characters – she never knew whether they would drop in, but she wanted her characters to know how to find her. We can never be sure when inspiration will come; even Moses didn’t know exactly when the miracle was going to happen. But we can hang our lyres by our beds and keep our windows open – unable to discern the precise moment, but awaiting it nonetheless.

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