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Torah Sparks

Parashat Bo
January 19, 2013 – 8 Shevat 5773

Annual: Ex. 10:1-13:16 (Etz Hayim p. 374; Hertz p. 248)
Triennial (Ex. 12:29-13:16): Etz Hayim p. 387; Hertz p. 258
Haftarah (Jeremiah 46:13-28): Etz Hayim p. 395; Hertz p. 263

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

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, paralyzing darkness which affected only the Egyptians ("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 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 when Passover is observed. Detailed instructions for observance of the Paschal offering and the "Festival of Matzot" are transmitted.

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: "The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night"

"He summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, 'Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Lord as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!'" (Exodus 12:32)

Derash: Study

"Pray on my behalf that I will not die, for I am a firstborn." (Rashi, Mekhilta)

"Pharaoh asked that they bless him and pray for him… also: he had given them sacrificial offerings, as Moses had stated." (Ibn Ezra)

"The king himself has to rise during the night, thereby compounding his humiliation at having to surrender unconditionally to Moses' demands. By summoning Moses and Aaron, he must retract the arrogant threat made at their last meeting (10:28). For him to seek their blessing is thus the ultimate humbling of the despot." (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

"And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me." (Anne Boleyn)

"Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it." (Thomas Paine)

Questions for Discussion

Was Pharaoh's request for a blessing entirely self-serving, as Rashi seems to suggest? Was it simply inappropriate, as we might infer from Thomas Paine (or from our own common sense!)? Did Pharoah recognize his own mortality, as in the case of Anne Boleyn?

What was Pharaoh's emotional state when he asked for God's blessing (or was it Moses and Aaron's blessing)? Was Pharaoh's request a case of theological humility or political humiliation?

Does anything in our parashah support the claim that Pharaoh was sincere in either his recognition of the God of Israel or his desire for His blessing? Does Ibn Ezra's contention regarding sacrifices provided the Israelites by Pharaoh strengthen this theory?

Caring non-Jews – particularly devout Christians – customarily pray "for" or "on behalf" of others in need or in adversity… regardless of the subject's faith. Similarly, non-Jews are included in Jewish prayer; e.g., we pray for non-Jews who are ill when we offer a Mi-Sheberach. To what extent is it appropriate to turn to practitioners of other faiths with a request that "you bring a blessing upon me also" – or to respond to their requests that we do so on their behalf?

Theme #2: "The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky are also on the faces of people going by"

"Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds." (Exodus 12:38)

Derash: Study

"Strangers (Hebrew: gerim – also used for "converts" -- JHP) from among various nations." (Rashi)

"The Erev Rav ('mixed multitude') caused much grief to the Jews of that generation. They instigated the sin of the Golden Calf and other rebellions against God in the wilderness. And their descendants throughout the generations continued to bring troubles upon Israel. Nevertheless, the culmination of the End of Days will be blessed by these difficult and diverse forces. All of the troubles and suffering they caused will be ultimately revealed as for the best, as the absorption of the Erev Rav within Israel will enrich and complement the nation." (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook)

"These were people from the bottom of Egypt's social strata who took the opportunity to escape from their fate." (Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary)

"The mass of non-Israelite strangers, including slaves and prisoners of war, who took advantage of the panic to escape from Egypt. They were not a desirable class of associates." (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

"The magic of America is that we're a free and open society with a mixed population. Part of our security is our freedom." (Madeleine Albright)

Questions for Discussion

Plaut and Hertz assume that the "mixed multitude" was an unsavory lot! On what do they base this contention? Is this reading necessary? Self-deprecating? Offensive? Racist (or, at least, chauvinistic)?

How is Rav Kook's related analysis of the "mixed multitude" different from other 20th century commentators? How is Kook's comment consistent with his broader philosophy and leadership of pre-State Jewry in the Land of Israel?

How is Rashi's comment transformed if we understand "gerim" as converts, rather than merely "strangers"? Compare such a reading to the Book of Esther's assertion that "Many of the people of the land became Jews themselves…" (8:17). Doesn't it make sense that those who witnessed God's miracles – especially theologically sensitive and thoughtful Egyptians – might have joined converts in the days of Esther and Mordechai)?

How does former U.S. Secretary of State Albright's comment praising the "mixed multitude" comprising the United States offer insight into our verse? How does it inform Conservative Movement attitudes toward Jewish identity, interfaith relationships and conversion? How might Rav Kook respond to Mrs. Albright… especially considering her (until late in life, unknown) Jewish birth, Catholic upbringing and conversion to Episcopalianism?!

Historic Note

In Parashat Bo, read on January 19, 2013, Moses speaks to Pharaoh of the Israelite slaves' anticipated departure from Egypt: "We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters… for we must observe the Lord's festival" (Exodus 10:9). On January 19, 1977, the largest crowd in recorded history – some 12.7 million – gathered on the banks of the River Ganges, for the Hindu religious festival Kumbh Mela. Time magazine described the (1977) event as "The Holiest Day in History."

Halachah L'Maaseh

In his commentary to the Passover Haggadah (see pages 36-37), British Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks states, "It is our custom to spill a drop of wine at the words, 'Blood', 'Fire', and 'Pillars of smoke'; at the mention of each of the plagues; and at the three words of R. Judah's mnemonic." He credits Abudraham with "the most beautiful" (and best known) explanation for this practice: as a response to the moral duty prescribed in Proverbs 24:17… "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls." Rabbi Sacks expands on this theme: With each drop of wine, "we shed a symbolic tear for those who suffered… Judaism forbids Schadenfreude, malicious joy in the discomfort of others. It was the first faith in history to teach the unity of mankind under the universal fatherhood of God. Tears, therefore, are a universal language, and sympathy should know no religious or national borders."

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