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Torah Sparks

Parashat Bo
January 4, 2014 – 3 Shevat 5774

Annual (Exodus 10:1 – 13:16): Etz Hayim p. 374; Hertz p. 248
Triennial (Exodus 10:1 – 11:3): Etz Hayim p. 374; Hertz p. 248
Haftarah (Jeremiah 46:13-28): Etz Hayim p. 395; Hertz p. 263

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

God afflicts an eighth and ninth plague upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. God speaks to Moses to announce the first commandment for the Israelite people -- to offer a Passover sacrifice on the anniversary of their impending exodus, and to commemorate the occasion annually in a festival.

The final plague results in the deaths of all Egyptian first-born. Pharaoh asks the Israelites to leave, and this time, he does not change his mind (at least not immediately). The Israelites leave Egypt quickly, taking Egyptian goods as they depart.

God commands that the firstborn of every Israelite family be assigned to God.

Theme #1: The Decider

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them -- in order that you may know that I am the Lord.” (Exodus 10:1-2)

God pulls the strings while plaguing the Egyptians, exerting extraordinary power, and making sure that the Egyptians take notice.

While inflicting the “ten plagues,” … the Lord repeatedly intervenes in Pharaoh’s very mind to prevent him from acting in the best interests of Egypt. The Lord’s motives are undisguised. … The Israelites are to gloat over the disaster that befalls Egypt, and the very gloating will be an acknowledgment of the Lord’s power. … But their departure from Egypt is not, despite its later use in liberation movements, a victory for justice. It is simply a victory, a demonstration of the power of the Lord to pursue fertility for his chosen people and wreck it for their enemy, a proof that “the Lord makes a distinction” when and as he chooses. -- Jack Miles, God: A Biography

Israel is endlessly exhorted to remember, to make present choices in awareness of past experiences, so as not to enslave itself by paying attention only to momentary passions. Though the present world of action deserves attention, it must be considered against a background of past experience. -- Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader

With their notable realism, the Hebrews regarded human freedom as obvious and axiomatic. Yet, having said that, they recognized that they had not exhausted the problem. For they held firmly to a divine purpose and process in history. And history is only human life in the large. Hence if God is shaping human ends, he must at times interfere in individual thought and will. For one phase of this there was a ready explanation; the prophets by profession sought to subordinate their minds to divine impulse. Hence God could through them intervene in human affairs. -- Henri Frankfort, H.A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson, Thorkild Jacobsen and William A. Irwin, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man

Questions for Discussion:

Miles claims that God wishes for the plagues to be a show of strength more than anything else, and that the people ought not be shy about gloating in God's strength. Is this a rare case when gloating must be encouraged? When is it permissible to gloat, if at all? Is God allowing the Israelites to brag about God as a way to cheer them up after years of suffering?

To Wildavsky, the plagues are mechanisms for remembering God's power, to leave a lasting impression so that their faith in God will be everlasting. To what extent do the Israelites actually keep in mind God’s show of strength? Does giving the people a reason to celebrate justify the harsh nature of the plagues? What are the best ways to ensure that people will remember the lessons of the past?

The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man suggests that the Israelite understanding of God is that of an “interventionist” being, and that freedom is incomplete without God inserting God's self from time to time. Would God’s presence in everyday decision-making compromise free will? Or is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart along the lines of Maimonides’ understanding, in which Pharaoh’s prior cruel behavior makes God’s intervention inevitable?

Theme #2: Who Turned Out the Lights?

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” (Exodus 10:21)

In the Torah, darkness is not just the absence of light. In the case of the ninth plague, it is physically and emotionally harrowing.

The darkness of Gehenna [underworld] is thick as the wall of a city. Nothing is more terrible than this darkness, as it is said, “A land whose light is darkness, all gloom and disarray, whose light is like darkness” (Job 10:22). This is the darkness of the plague of darkness, when “Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended”. Where did that darkness come from? From the darkness of Gehenna. -- Midrash Tanhuma

During the plague of darkness, since the wicked were unable to use the light in any way at all, it must obviously have been possible for Israel to make use of the primordial, hidden light. And this is what our sages taught: that Israel was able to see all the hidden treasure of Egypt. For in this primordial, hidden light, nothing was concealed from them. And just this was the light enjoyed by Israel in their dwellings. -- Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

The worst darkness is that blindness in which one person will not “see another,” refusing to look upon his misery and to help him. He who will not “see another” will himself become incapable of “rising from his place;” that is, of growth and development. -- Hiddushei HaRIM

Questions for Discussion:

Midrash Tanhuma claims that the darkness that afflicts the Egyptians is equivalent to the worst darkness of the underworld, which is so thick that they are unable to move over the course of three days. Sometimes, during our darkest hours, we feel stifled and paralyzed due to fear or anxiety. How do we find our way out of such darkness? Which understanding makes the most sense: the Egyptians who suffer this plague are frozen in their tracks or they chose to remain in place rather than face their fears?

Menachem Mendel of Kotzk says that the Israelites are able to thrive in inverse proportion to the Egyptians’ suffering during this plague. Was this an especially poignant way to show the extent to which they were being punished? Or was this meant merely as a sign to the Israelites of their favored-nation status?

Hiddushei HaRIM hints that the plague of darkness is a pointed critique of the Egyptians’ refusal to truly see at the Israelites and have compassion for their plight as slaves. In what circumstances to we look at others without actually seeing them for who they are? What stops us from doing so? And how do we teach ourselves to look closer?

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