January 28, 2012 – 4 Shevat 5772
Annual: Exodus 10:1 – 13:16 (Etz Hayim p. 374; Hertz p. 248)
Triennial: Exodus 11:4 – 12:28 (Etz Hayim p. 379; Hertz p. 252)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13 – 28 (Etz Hayim p. 395; Hertz p. 263)
Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
To the seven plagues that already have been inflicted upon Pharaoh’s Egypt,
Parashat Bo adds three more. The eighth plague brings an infestation of locusts
of unprecedented intensity to Egypt. This is an astounding claim. 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.
The next plague is three days of palpable and paralyzing darkness. The darkness
affected only the Egyptians, while “all the Israelites enjoyed light in their
dwellings.” 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, Parashat Bo establishes 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
finds its origins in these verses. The repeated scriptural injunction to explain the
meaning of Passover to our children, the source of the midrash of the Four Sons,
is in our parashah.
The Israelites mark their doorways with blood in anticipation of the tenth plague,
which is visited upon every Egyptian household at midnight, sparing the Hebrew
homes. 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, some 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 parashah 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.”
Theme #1: “Ladies and Gentlemen and Children of all Ages”
“Moses replied, ‘We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe the Lord’s festival.” (Exodus 10:9)
“The reason why we must take our young with us, Moses told Pharaoh, is that we
must hold a feast to the Lord, and how could we rejoice or celebrate a holiday if
we were to leave our children behind in an alien land? Without our children, no
joy can be complete.” (Shem Mi-Shmuel)
“We cannot ask our children to observe what we do not observe and practice
what we do not practice, to believe what we do not believe, to have respect or use
for worship if we do not worship.” (Rabbi Leo A. Bergman)
“Today our mandate continues to create a synagogue ‘with our young and with
our old.’ But it is becoming more challenging. Jewish parents still want their
children to learn about their heritage. But they also want them to play soccer and
other sports, participate in dance and other arts, and be involved in countless after
school activities… In addition, we are living in harsh financial times, making
synagogue involvement too expensive for some parents. How do we attract a
younger generation to our synagogue and to Jewish life? Like Moses, we cannot
simply say that religion is for the old. We need the young... Conservative
Judaism is an aging movement. I do not have all the answers on how to attract a
younger generation. But I know that we need to start asking the questions.” (Rabbi Michael Gold)
“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young,
compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the
weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.” (George Washington Carver)
Questions for Discussion
Was Moses’ response to Pharaoh a statement of principle or a practical (and
somewhat manipulative) reflection of the fact that he (and those he led) had no
intention of returning to Egypt from this “festival” observance?
How would you answer the questions framed by Rabbi Gold? How are
Conservative congregations to engage the young while remaining appealing to
the old, and while remaining congregations, and Conservative?
What steps might we, our families, and our communities take to realize the vision
articulated by George Washington Carver: genuine respect and empathy for
young and old, weak and strong?
How can we become more effective and accessible personal role models of joyful
Jewish living to our children and grandchildren?
Theme #2: “First Down and Gold to Go”
“Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” (Exodus 11:2)
“God’s promise to Abraham that ‘afterward they shall go forth with great
substance’ could be construed to refer to a higher, spiritual wealth: that is, that
the Israelites were to take with them from Egypt not mere silver and gold, but
whatever sparks of goodness and holiness they might find among the Egyptians.
But then Abraham might have protested, saying that the prophecy that the
Israelites should serve the Egyptians and be afflicted by them, God fulfilled in a
very obvious and literal manner, so that every Israelite, even the simplest among
them, could perceive it. Therefore it is only right that the promise of great
substance should also come true not symbolically but literally.” (Sichot Tzadikim)
“The Egyptians came to present their case against Israel to Alexander the Great,
‘Return to us the silver and gold that you took from us.’ Gaviha ben Pasisa said
to them: ‘Return to me the wages of the six hundred thousand you enslaved in
Egypt.’ Whereupon Alexander the Great said to the Egyptians, ‘Answer him.’
They replied, ‘Give us three days.’ He gave them time; they searched but found
no answer.” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 91a)
“The Egyptians honored them with these gifts, some in order to hasten their
departure, and others out of good neighborliness and friendship. When they went
forth, the Egyptians wept and suffered remorse for the way they had treated
“Gold and silver from the dead turn often into lead.” (R. Buckminster Fuller)
Questions for Discussion
What is the significance – and the moral justification – for God’s promise of
wealth to the Israelites upon their departure from Egyptian slavery? Was the
promised silver and gold reparations for Israelite suffering and payment for
services rendered? Was Egypt despoiled in order further to humiliate and debase
a defeated nation? To reinforce awareness of God’s absolute victory over
Pharaoh? Were these riches a reflection of amity that developed between individual Egyptians and Israelite slaves despite the repressive system under
which slavery was perpetuated?
Gaviha ben Pasisa’s argument that the Israelites were entitled to Egypt’s silver
and gold prevailed (according to the account in Sanhedrin) in the time of
Alexander the Great. How does his approach relate to reparations paid to
survivors of the Holocaust in the 20th and 21st centuries?
How is Buckminster Fuller’s observation applicable to the Biblical narrative and
the Israelite experience?
What good was silver and gold to the Israelites, who were embarking on what
would be a 40-year nomadic existence in the desert? Was the deprivation of
wealth inflicted on the Egyptians more significant than the material well-being
thereby bestowed upon the Israelites?
In Parashat Bo, read on January 28, 2012, Pharaoh continues in his refusal to
heed God’s command, conveyed by Moses and Aaron, to free his Israelite slaves.
Pharaoh’s self-destructive intransigence dismays even his own courtiers, who
warn him: “Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (10:7). On January 28,
2011 – one year ago today – Egypt responded to anti-government protests by
cutting off access to cell phones and the internet, as well as by imposing a
curfew. Whether the popular uprising, which launched the “Arab Spring,” will
lead to liberation or – as in the ninth plague – plunge the region into further
darkness, remains to be seen.
Exodus 13:6-7 says: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread (matzot)…
Throughout the seven days unleavened bread (matzot) shall be eaten, no
unleavened bread shall be found with you…” However, eating matzah is
obligatory only at the seder, and is optional during the rest of Passover. The
prohibition against eating (and owning) leavened food products applies
throughout the Festival (including the eighth day added in the Diaspora). See
Mishnah Pesachim 10:5; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 475:7; Rabbi Isaac
Klein, Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, p. 126. Despite the optional status of
matzah, many rabbinic authorities rule that those who nevertheless elect to eat
matzah on Passover outside the ceremonial act at the seder thereby fulfill a
mitzvah. See Aruch Ha-Shulchan O.H. 475; Mishnah Berurah O.H. 455:18;
Responsa Avnei Nezer 377; Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed 3:43, etc.