Thursday, January 6, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi

PARASHAT BO:  2011/5771


And Moses said: Thus says the Lord: About midnight I shall go out into the midst of Egypt, and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, to the firstborn of the maid who sits behind the mill, and all the first born of cattle. And there shall be a great crying out throughout the whole land of Egypt, the like of which never was and the like of which shall never be again.  But against all the children of Israel no dog shall whet his tongue, against man or beast that you shall know that the Lord distinguishes between the Egyptians and Israel. (Ex. 11:4-7)

Our text describes the final and most dreadful of the ten plagues.  The outcry, the weeping and the wailing were terrible. “There was no home in which there was nobody dead.”  But our text includes a strange detail:  “And unto the children of Israel no dog shall whet his tongue against man or beast.”  Amidst the crying and the wailing of the bereaved Egyptian families and the bellowing of the dying cattle, only the dogs were silent.  Why didn’t they bark?  Surely one might have expected them to respond to the anguish of the families with whom they lived by joining the sounds of sadness and desolation.  There are countless stories of canine grief reactions to the death of their carers.   The unusual, eerie silence of the dogs requires explanation.

The sages of the Talmud do offer an aggadic explanation of this anomalous phenomenon:  “Our rabbis taught:  When dogs weep [it is because], the angel of death has come to town.  When dogs frolic [it is because] Elijah the prophet has come to town.” (Bava Kama, 60b).

According to this exegesis, the dogs were silent because they were conflicted.  On the one hand, they empathized with the unutterable pain of their caregivers, and were instinctively driven to respond in kind to the walling and weeping, by themselves howling.  On the other, they intuited the supernatural dimensions of the apocalyptic event.  Millions of people were celebrating their freedom and the end of their dehumanizing subjugation.  The main thoroughfares were alive with men, women, and children preparing to leave the house of bondage, and exulting in the experience of divine salvation.  The divine Presence was manifest. Apparently the dogs were aware of and sensitive to the magnitude of the joy, and felt impelled to express those feelings with yelps of delight.  But because they were torn by conflicted emotions and could not decide whether to respond to loss and grief or to triumph and exaltation, they were struck dumb.

This rabbinic aggadah can be understood on various levels, ethical, spiritual and psychological, and should not be taken literally.

 In his Introduction to The Guide of the Perplexed, Moses Maimonides (Rambam) writes:   “All the sages, possessing knowledge of the Lord, God and discern the truth, when they aimed at teaching this [profound] subject matter, spoke of it [the deeper meaning] only in parables and riddles…Hence an ignorant and heedless individual might think that they [these parables] possess only and external [literal] meaning, but no inner one. 

Similarly, the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew writes in his Introduction to his classic defense of aggadic literature, Be’er ha-Golah, that aggadic and midrashic statements conceal profound truths. Indeed the more apparently far-fetched the statement, the greater its inner truth and the more important the message it conveys.

 Understood in this light, the aggadah of the muted Egyptian dogs has contemporary relevance. On one level, the sages taught that absolute neutrality is only appropriate for dogs.  Human cognitive gifts and ethical instincts and training demand appropriate responses to even the most painful ethical and ideological dilemmas. Things are seldom black or white.    We are able to see some validity in both sides of the dilemma, and we are thus forced to make difficult, often agonizing, decisions.  To take no action, to remain functionally neutral, to avoid tough issues is not an option for responsible human beings.  Perhaps dogs can remain neutral; human beings are obliged to take uncomfortable stands

There is another powerful lesson concealed in our rabbinic parable.  One can also argue that the silence of the dogs was not an instance of conflicted neutrality, but was simply a reflection of their inability to express the turmoil they were feeling.  According to this interpretation, only dogs can be permitted to silence their emotions.  When humans are uncomfortable with expressing their feelings, or frightened of sharing their emotions, they effectively deny a major aspect of their humanity.  Humans are defined as much by affect as they are by intellect.   Parents who tell their sons: “men don’t cry” are teaching them that repression is more appropriate than expression.  Tragically, however, “the stiff upper lip” response to hurt and pain is the source of much neurotic dysfunction. The pain is often directed inward, and experienced somatically. What cannot be expressed in words is expressed in pathologies of the digestive or pulmonary systems—or in recurring night terrors and paralyzing flashbacks.

According to the sages, the human being is a chai medabber, a living being capable of verbal expression. Deliberately stifling the expression of one’s feelings is dehumanizing. It is an assault on the essence of one’s personhood. People who are not permitted to make themselves heard, who are afraid to share their feelings, feel diminished and invisible. 

This is what we can learn from the parable of the muted dogs of Egypt.  To experience disappointment, suffering and pain is inevitable. To repress those feelings is dangerous and demeaning. And to ignore or mock the expressed feelings of others, particularly of those who admire and depend on us, is unworthy, and, sometimes, unforgivable.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this point Rabbi. Ignoring the expressed feelings of others can cause great damage, as you state.

    "A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city, and contentions are like the bars of a citadel."

    As you stated, sometimes unforgivable.