Before the final plague, the plague of the firstborn, in response to which Pharaoh and the Egyptians sent Benei Yisrael out of Egypt, Moshe conveyed to Pharaoh the prophecy predicting the deadly plague. He announced that cries of grief and terror would be sounded throughout Egypt, but among Benei Yisrael, “lo yecheratz kelev leshono” – not even the barking of dogs would be heard, “so that you know that the Lord distinguishes between Egypt and Israel” (11:7), The contrast between the peaceful silence in Benei Yisrael’s communities, and the shrieks of terror sounded by the Egyptians, would prove that God was punishing Egypt for its cruelty towards Benei Yisrael.
The Midrash (Mekhilta to Shemot 22:30; Shemot Rabba 31:8) draws an association between this verse and a verse later in Sefer Shemot (22:30) regarding the prohibition of tereifa, forbidding eating the meat of a mortally ill or wounded animal. The Torah prohibits partaking of such meat, requiring instead that it be left for the dogs (“la-kelev tashlikhun oto”). This command, the Midrash comments, was issued as a “reward” granted to the dogs for keeping silent on the night of the Exodus. The dogs restrained their natural tendency to bark in fulfillment of God’s will, and so they were rewarded by receiving tereifa meat which is forbidden for human consumption.
How might we understand the meaning and significance of this “reward” given to the dogs for their silence?
The Tur (Peirush Ha-Tur) explains that, as the Torah explicitly states (11:6, 12:29), the plague of the firstborn affected not only the Egyptians themselves, but also their firstborn animals, such that there were animal carcasses strewn throughout Egypt. Normally, the Tur writes, dogs excitedly bark upon smelling the scent of carcasses, and they rush to partake of the meat. In fulfillment of God’s will, however, Benei Yisrael’s dogs that night remained quiet and still. They were thus rewarded by being given meat which the Torah deemed forbidden for human beings. According to the Tur, then, the Midrash here speaks of the value of discipline and restraint in regard to our physical urges and impulses. It teaches that just as the dogs were called upon to exercise restraint when smelling the scent of fresh meat, we, too, must at times restrain our natural inclinations for the sake of fulfilling God’s will.
We might, however, suggest an additional explanation of the Midrash’s comments, by considering the purpose of this miracle of the dogs’ silence on the night of the Exodus. God had the animals remain quiet and still in order to underscore the stark contrast between Benei Yisrael, who were protected and cared for by God, and the Egyptians, whom God severely punished for their crimes. The dogs’ silence that night represent the aura of serenity that we are to maintain even as there is “noise” and panic all around us, trusting in God’s protection. Like dogs, we often feel naturally inclined to “bark” – to become agitated, aggrieved, anxious or tense. But as Benei Yisrael, chosen by God to become His special nation, we are expected to live, as best we can, with composure and dignity, confident that we are being cared for by the Almighty. Just as the dogs’ silence in Egypt brought honor to Benei Yisrael, who experienced peace and tranquility as the Egyptians grieved, similarly, we bring honor to our nation when we avoid “barking,” when we refrain from unnecessary aggravation and anxiety, and instead maintain our composure even under difficult conditions, trusting that, like our ancestors on the night of the Exodus, we are under God’s special protection. The reward given to the dogs, then, teaches us of the great important of serenity, of remaining calm and confident, and placing our trust in God under all circumstances.