Moses announces the tenth plague to Pharaoh, the slaying of the firstborn sons of Egypt. God hardens Pharaoh's heart, and Pharaoh does not respond to his final ultimatum. Once Pharaoh sees his own family affected, he permits the Israelites to leave the country.
The way Pharaoh responds to the tenth plague gives us insight into his relationship with the people he rules. Pharaoh not only enslaved the Israelites, but he also enslaved his own plague-stricken people by his lack of concern for their welfare. He could not care less about the fact that his own people -- the Egyptians -- were suffering blow after blow.
Only when the angel of death is at his door is he willing to let the Israelites go; when only the people suffered, Pharaoh was not moved in the least. God then commands Moses to instruct the Israelites how to prepare the sacrificial meal that is to occur immediately prior to the Exodus. The people are to take a lamb, slaughter it on the 14th day of Nisan, at twilight, mark the doorposts of their houses with its blood, and eat the lamb on the eve of the 15th. On the same night, God strikes down all the first-born of Egypt. God further commands the Israelites to observe this festival -- the 15th of Nisan, Passover -- for all time.
It is well-known that the Hebrew calendar is lunar (more precisely lunar-solar). The author of the Sefat Emes understands the Hebrew lunar calendar as a metaphor for the miracle of outliving our persecutors. Whereas others may survive only when the sun shines upon them, the Jews have survived and managed to spread light, as the moon does, even in the darkness.
This portion forms the basis of our Passover Haggadah. A good strategy to spice up your Seder would be to read parts of this Parsha from a Chumash such as Etz Chaim with commentaries. This can be an adjunct to the Haggadah itself.
Exodus 12:24-27 emphasizes this in the commandment, "You shall observe this as an instruction for all time . . . you shall observe this rite. And when your children say to you, `What do you mean by this rite (ma ha-avodah hazot lachem)?' you shall say, `It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt .’
The phrase, "What do you mean by this rite?" is placed into the mouth of the wicked child in the Passover Haggadah. Often, we dismiss this question and view the child's inquiry more as a challenge rather than a request for more understanding. Yet, embedded in his comment may be a thought worth pondering.
The word, "avodah," derives from the very same word as "avdoot," slavery. The child's question is, therefore, "What makes servitude to God any better than servitude to Pharaoh? I thought the whole point of leaving Egypt was to be free and now it turns out we are "avadim," slaves, again!"
If we understand the child's question in this way, the "wicked" child is presenting a challenging question. One way to respond is to suggest that Egyptian bondage was purely utilitarian. Pharaoh has no interest in the welfare of the slaves. In contrast, being a servant of God is a means of becoming who we were intended to be at creation; and this requires discipline, which is meant not to crush us (as was Pharaoh's intent) but to focus our energies so that we can become a holy people.
The Haftorah somehow casts the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar as a positive figure since he will wipe out Egyptian society! I suppose, as Abba Eban once stated, “The enemy of our enemy is our friend.” Maybe we should re-install the missing NUN in our Ashrei!