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Parsha BO

To the seven plagues that already have been inflicted upon Pharaoh's Egypt, Parasha Bo adds three more. The eighth plague brings an infestation of locusts of unprecedented intensity to Egypt. This is an astounding claim, as even a typical swarm can include as many as 50 million such insects per square kilometer, "which in a single night can devour as much as one hundred thousand tons of vegetation" (JPS Commentary). It is little wonder that Pharaoh refers to the locusts as "this death." Wondrous indeed is the statement that not a single locust remained in Egypt at the plague's divinely ordained conclusion.

Next in the succession of plagues is three days of palpable and paralyzing darkness. The darkness affected only the Egyptians, while "all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings." In a new escalation of hostility, Moses demands that Pharaoh himself provide the Israelites with sacrificial animals when he agrees to let them go and worship. Pharaoh, predictably, demurs. His "hardened heart" sets the stage for the tenth and most devastating plague: the death of all Egyptian firstborn, regardless of social station. Firstborn livestock also are to die.

Before the final plague strikes, Parashat Bo provides instruction for establishing the Israelite calendar, with the first month in the spring (today, the month of Nisan; in biblical parlance, Aviv), when Passover is observed. Detailed instructions for observance of the Paschal offering and the "Festival of Matzot" are transmitted. The centrality of these rites is reflected in the chapter's sevenfold repetition of the Hebrew verb-root sh-m-r, meaning to guard or keep or observe. Much of our own Passover observance (matzah and the prohibition of leaven, maror, the family meal, the commemoration of the Exodus, the timing and structure of the festival etc.) finds its origins in these verses. The repeated scriptural injunction to explain the meaning of Passover to your children, on which the midrash of the Four Sons is based, also is included in our parasha.

The Israelites mark their doorways with blood in anticipation of the tenth plague, which is visited upon the Egyptians at midnight, sparing the Hebrew homes but striking every Egyptian household. Terrified and bereft, the Egyptians and Pharaoh himself finally urge their slaves to depart. The Israelites leave with dispatch, as well as with Egyptian wealth: gold, silver, and clothing. The despoiling of their former oppressors is a telling sign of Egypt's utter and abject defeat. Accompanied by a "mixed multitude" of hangers-on, 600,000 Israelite men and their families begin the Exodus, marking the end of 430 years of enslavement. The first leg on their journey to freedom takes them from Raamses to Succot.

The parsha concludes with a variety of rituals marking the sacred status of firstborn sons and firstborn livestock – a commemoration of the tenth plague –as, too, in recognition of the People Israel's stated status as God's "firstborn son."

In Parsha Bo, G-d commands the first mitzvah to be given to the people of Israel: to establish a calendar based on the monthly rebirth of the moon. The Israelites are also instructed to bring a "Passover offering" to G-d: a lamb or kid is to be slaughtered and its blood sprinkled on the doorposts and lintel of every Israelite home, so that G-d should pass over these homes when He comes to kill the Egyptian firstborn. The roasted meat of the offering is to be eaten that night together with matzah (unleavened bread) and bitter herbs.

The death of the firstborn finally breaks Pharaoh's resistance and he literally drives the Children of Israel from his land. So hastily do they depart, there is no time for their dough to rise, and the only provisions they take along are unleavened. Before they go, they ask their Egyptian neighbors for gold, silver and garments, draining Egypt of its wealth.

The Children of Israel are commanded to consecrate all firstborn and to observe the anniversary of the Exodus each year by removing all leaven from their possession for seven days, eating matzah, and telling the story of their redemption to their children. They are also commanded to wear tefillin on the arm and head as a reminder of the Exodus and their resultant commitment to G-d.

Theme #1: "Disabling, Disorienting Darkness!"

"People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings." (Exodus 10:23)

Here are some descriptions of the nature of the darkness from a variety of commentators:

"For three days the land is engulfed in darkness, a spell corresponding to the three-day journey for worship that Pharaoh had repeatedly refused to grant the Israelites." (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

"Darkness has no actual, independent existence. In the absence of light, darkness occurs by default, and thus light dispels the darkness. The ‘darkness of Egypt,' however, was indeed a distinct phenomenon, something entirely new, with real substance – 'a darkness that could be felt' – and no light, therefore, could dispel it." (Sforno)

"When a person does not see another, or chooses not to see him, darkness descends on the world." (Eshkol Ma'amarim)

"As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being." (Carl Jung)

"A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word 'darkness' on the walls of his cell." (C. S. Lewis)

"Darkness is only driven out with light, not more darkness." (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

The significance of darkness. A man saw not his fellow, neither rose any from his place for three days (10:23)

According to Midrash Rabbam, there were six days of darkness... during the first three, "a man saw not his fellow"; during the last three days, he who sat could not stand up, he who stood could not sit down, and he who was lying down could not raise himself upright.

Darkness is loneliness. If you can’t see, you feel isolated, alone. When our spirits are malnourished, we often feel isolated and alone. In darkness. But darkness can also affect how we treat others.

There is no greater darkness than one in which "a man saw not his fellow" -- in which a person becomes oblivious to the needs of his fellow man. When that happens, a person becomes stymied in his personal development as well -- "neither rose any from his place."

Some commentators discuss the uniqueness of the plague of darkness. The verse speaks of ‘thick darkness,’ a special sort of darkness that Rashbam (R. Samuel b. Meir: France, c.1080-c.1158) describes as “great darkness,” and that his grandfather Rashi (France, 1040-1105) describes as “a murky darkness so that one person did not see another during those three days, and another three days of darkness twice as thick, in which no one was able to rise from his place. If he was sitting he could not stand and if he was standing he could not sit.” The special nature of this darkness is also described in the first-century Wisdom of Solomon: “And no power of fire was able to give light,nor did the brilliant flames of the stars avail to illumine that hateful night” (17:5).  Yet, Abraham ibn Ezra (Spain, 1092-1167) did not see anything extraordinary in the darkness: “Sometimes in the great ocean there is a thick darkness in which a person cannot distinguish day and night. Sometimes it lasts for five days. I have experienced it on many occasions.”

Others, like R. Joseph. H. Hertz (U.S., England, 1872-1946) in his commentary to the Pentateuch, and Dr. Pnina Feller, see the darkness as connected to the defeat of Egypt’s gods, and to the overthrow of its cosmology. “The sun god was of such importance that the Egyptian king saw himself as the son of Ra” (Feller, Exodus – Reality or Illusion, 98). By means of the plague of darkness, the God of Israel defeats the sun god Ra, the Egyptian god of creation.

Another approach sees darkness, and all of the plagues, as punishment that fits the crime. Thus, Wisdom of Solomon views the darkness as suitable punishment for placing the people intended to bring the light of Torah to the nations in the dark prison of slavery: “For their enemies deserved to be deprived of light and imprisoned in darkness, those who had kept thy sons imprisoned, through whom the imperishable light of the law was to be given to the world” (18:4).

As opposed to all of these, the midrash proposes a surprising explanation of the plague of darkness that seems to contradict the plain meaning of the text. It sees the darkness as a cover under which evil Israelites can be put to death and buried in secret:

…Because there were wrongdoers in Israel who had Egyptian patrons, and they enjoyed wealth and respect, and did not wish to leave. So the Holy One said: If I strike them down in public, the Egyptians will say that what happened to us is now happening to them. Therefore, He placed the Egyptians in darkness for three days, so that they could bury the dead without being seen by their despisers… (Exodus Raba 14).

Drash by Rabbi Salomon Gruenwalk – HEA Denver

Darkness is a recurring theme in this week’s parsha.  According to the Torah, the plague of locust covers the earth “kaved me’od” – so thick that nothing could be seen.  Then, of course, there is the plague of darkness.  The Torah describes this darkness not merely as the absence of light or even the loss of sight.  The plague of darkness is something thick and tangible, freezing the Egyptians in place for three terrifying days.  And finally, the last plague, the killing of the Egyptians’ firstborn takes place in the dark of night, at the stroke of midnight. 

The darkness can be frightening.  It triggers a primordial innate human fear.  The Midrash teaches that Adam and Eve – the first human beings – were terrified by the first night they experienced.  The sun setting filled them with dread.  The midrash teaches that after having committed the first sin, Adam saw his first sunset on the eve of Shabbat; he was alarmed, afraid that the world was blacking out, running down, and that he had caused it to happen.  The cosmic darkness, he thought, not only reflected his own inner darkness, but perhaps resulted from it.  At sunrise, Adam realized it was the way of the world, and that he would have to cope with it and confront the darkness.  After Shabbat, God gave Adam two flints, which Adam struck together and created fire, blessing God, “Blessed are You, who creates the lights of fire.”  We say this blessing at havdalah at the end of Shabbat. (see BT Avodah Zara 8a; Bereshit Rabba 3:6)

One of the reasons darkness is so frightening is that it separates us from our fellow human beings.  In describing the plague of darkness, the Torah says:

 Moses held out his arm toward the sky and a thick/palpable darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days.  A person did not see his brother, and for three days no one got up from under it; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.

 The 19th Century Hassidic Rebbe Hanoch of Alexander – a disciple of the 1st Ger Rebbe – explains the meaning of this darkness by teaching:

 It was because “a person did not see his brother” – that is to say, each individual only worried about himself and only looked to save himself and the members of his household – and, thus, “did not rise from under the darkness for three days.”  Not a single one of them succeeded in rising above the degraded spiritual level that they were caught in.  (see Parpera’ot La-Torah p. 43).

 In other words, the palpable thick darkness the Egyptians experienced was of their own making.  It came about by their selfishness and self-centeredness.  The fact that they couldn’t see their fellow human being was not a symptom of the darkness – it was the cause.  Reb Hanoch equates darkness with egocentrism.

The Torah says that the Israelites had light in their homes.  It isn’t clear what this means.  If the darkness the Egyptians experienced was spiritual rather than merely physical, perhaps the same is true of the Israelites.  Interestingly, the darkness of the Egyptians is described in individual terms – “lo ra’u ish et achiv” a person didn’t see his brother.  The light of the Israelites is communal – “lcol bnei Yisrael haya ohr b’moshvoteichem” – “for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings.” It was during this time that the Israelites were preparing to leave Egypt and celebrate the communal meal of Pesach together – a holiday, which by its nature cannot be celebrated alone.

Halachah L'Maaseh

The willingness "not to see" one's fellow human beings – willfully to ignore their needs, their plight, their innate dignity – is entirely inconsistent with Jewish sensibilities. It is to remind us of this moral pitfall, says Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, that Jewish law requires that a synagogue be built with windows (see Talmud Berachot 31A, based on Daniel 6:11). When we withdraw from the world and pray only for our own needs, we invite the darkness of Egypt.

Theme #2: "Death Takes a Holiday?"

"When the Lord goes through to smite the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the Lord will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home." (Exodus 12:23)

Derash: Study

"The Passover haggadah says explicitly that the killing of the firstborn was carried out by the Holy One Blessed be He by Himself, alone, as it is said: ‘I shall pass through the land of Egypt, I and not an angel, I and not a Seraph...' If so, why does the verse make reference to the Destroyer? ...Even though the plague was carried out by God Himself, there were – given the considerable size of the Israelite population in Egypt – others whose time had come to experience regular, natural deaths on that night. These were to be carried out by the Angel of Death, the angelic Destroyer. The verse indicates that at the fateful hour of the final plague, the Destroyer was not permitted to carry out his regularly scheduled task, so as not give the Egyptians the opportunity to claim that the Israelites, too, were stricken with the killing of the firstborn." (The Vilna Gaon)

"The plague itself is called the "destroyer" – as it was said earlier (12:13): 'No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.'" (Shibolei Ha-Leket)

"Once leave has been given the Destroyer to do harm, it no longer distinguishes between the innocent and the guilty." (Mechilta)

When God desires to destroy a thing, he entrusts its destruction to the thing itself. Every bad institution of this world ends by suicide." Victor Hugo "We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed... A few people cried... Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hinduscripture the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form, and says, 'Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another." (J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project)

Historic Note

Parashat Bo, which continues to dramatize the autocratic power of Pharaoh, and which culminates in the final plague, directed at Egypt's firstborn – including Pharaoh's son "seated on the throne" – is read on January 8, 2011. On January 8, 1926 (85 years ago) Abdul Aziz bin Abdur Rahman Al Saud ascended the throne of Hejaz, renaming it Saudi Arabia. With an estimated 22 wives and 37 sons, he established Saudi Arabia as a hereditary absolute monarchy; the throne has passed to a number of successors, all of them his sons.

Drash by Rabbi Jonathan Sachs

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells us that there is a fascinating moment in the unfolding story of the plagues that should make us stop and take notice.

“Seven plagues have now struck Egypt. The people are suffering. Several times pharaoh seems to soften, only to harden his heart again. During the seventh plague, hail, he even seems to admit his mistake. “Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron. “This time I have sinned,” he said to them. “The Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.”9: 27). But as soon as the plague is over he changes his mind. “He and his officials” says the Torah, “hardened their hearts” (9: 34).

And now Moses and Aaron have come to warn of a further plague, potentially devastating, a plague of locusts that, they say, will devour all the grain left after the hail as well as the fruit of the trees. And for the first time we hear something we have not heard before.

Pharaoh’s own advisors tell him he is making a mistake:

 Pharaoh’s officials said to him, “How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their G-d. Do you not yet realize that Egypt is ruined?”

These words immediately transform the situation. How so?

 Back in 1984 the historian Barbara Tuchman published a famous book called The March of Folly. In it she asked the great question: How is it that throughout history intelligent people have made foolish decisions that were damaging both to their own position and to that of the people they led?

 By this she did not mean, decisions that in retrospect proved to be the wrong ones. Anyone can make that kind of mistake. That is the nature of leadership and of life itself. We are called on to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty. With the wisdom of hindsight we can see where we went wrong, because of factors we did not know about at the time.

 What she was talking about were decisions that people could see at the time were the wrong ones. There were warnings and they were ignored. One example she gives is of the wooden horse of troy. The Greeks had laid siege to troy unsuccessfully for ten years. Eventually they appeared to give up and sail away leaving behind them a giant wooden horse. The Trojans enthusiastically hauled it inside the city as a symbol of their victory. As we know, inside the horse were thirty Greek soldiers who that night came out of hiding, and opened the city gates for the Greek army that had sailed back under cover of night.

 It was a brilliant ploy, but Laocoön , the Trojan priest, had guessed that it was a plot and warned his people, in the famous words, I fear the Greeks even when they come bearing gifts. His warning was ignored, and Troy fell.

 Another of Tuchman’s examples is the papacy in the sixteenth century which had become corrupt, financially and in other ways. There were many calls for reform but they were ignored. The Vatican regarded itself, like some financial institutions today, as too big to fail. The result was the reformation and more than a century of religious war throughout Europe.

That is the context in which we should read the story of Pharaoh and his advisers. This is one of the first recorded instances of the march of folly. How does it happen?

Some years ago Dreamworks studio made a cartoon film about Moses and the exodus, called Prince of Egypt. The producer Jeffrey Katzenburg invited Rabbi Sachs to see the film when it was about half complete, to see whether he felt that it was a responsible and sensitive way of telling the story, which he thought it was.

What fascinated Rabbi Sachs, was that it portrayed Pharaoh not as an evil man but as a deeply conservative one, charged with maintaining what was already the longest lived empire of the ancient world, and not allowing it, as it were, to be undermined by change.

Let slaves go free, and who knows what will happen next? Royal authority will seem to have been defeated. A fracture would appear in the political structure. The seemingly unshakable edifice of power will be seen to have been shaken. And that, for those who fear change, is the beginning of the end.

Under those circumstances it is possible to see why Pharaoh would refuse to listen to his advisors. They are weak, defeatist, giving in to pressure, and any sign of weakness in leadership only leads to more pressure and more capitulation. Better be strong, and continue to say No, and simply endure one more plague.

 We see Pharaoh as both wicked and foolish, because we have read the book. His advisors could see clearly that he was leading his people to disaster, but he may well have felt that he was being strong while they were merely fearful. Leadership is only easy, and its errors only clearly visible, in retrospect.

 Yet Pharaoh remains an enduring symbol of a failure to listen to his own advisors. He could not see that the world had changed, that he was facing something new, that his enslavement of a people was no longer tolerable, that the old magic no longer worked, that the empire over which he presiding was growing old, and that the more obstinate he became the closer he was bringing his people to tragedy.

 Knowing how to listen to advice, how to respond to change and when to admit you’ve got it wrong, remain three of the most difficult tasks of leadership. Rejecting advice, refusing to change, and refusing to admit you’re wrong, may look like strength to some. But usually they are the beginning of yet another march of folly.”

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