A couple weeks ago at his Bar Mitzvah, Henry asked us the following question: Do we owe God anything for passing over the firstborn of our ancestors on the night God killed the firstborn Egyptians. It’s a provocative question, but a curious one. First of all, while some of us take this story to be true, it’s far from a piece of history. The idea that we would owe anyone anything based on a story seems tenuous until you look at the myriad of fictions we base our lives upon. There are borders we agree upon simply because we’ve etched them into our consciousness, things we are allowed and not allowed to do because of laws dating back tens and sometimes hundreds of years. If you’ve ever been to a court of law anywhere in the world you will have seen a high drama of various people playing different roles, all accepting the entirely made-up structures at play, which carry very real consequences. As Jews we also created stories that reach back into time to find a frame for our years, months and days, as well as our sense of identity.
So okay Henry, maybe we could owe something based on a mythical story of ours, real or not.
Secondly though, I wonder about the notion of owing God anything whatsoever. Some of us don’t even believe in God. How could we owe something to an entity we’re not even sure exists?! This one I find easier to answer. Whether God put us here or not, whether God is the one who protected our ancestors ancient and more recent or not, we are here. Gratitude, appreciation, a sense that we have been given this life, these are natural human tendencies. We have certain responsibilities as human beings. We receive and we give back. Call it God or life or what you will, we have a life and have to make something out of it. We owe it to something or someone.
So okay Henry, we do owe God, as you called it, something.
Third comes the complexity of the specific incident Henry defined, the firstborn sons that were spared in Egypt. For me the story lives more in the drash than the pshat, in the expounding than in the simple understanding. It is a metaphor of how my life happens, an echo of moments of fear and salvation in my past and future, a miracle of survival that replays itself over and over in my personal and collective history. In that sense it happened to me, and therefore of course I do owe a debt of gratitude to God for…