This week’s Torah parsha, Bo, continues with the story of Exodus. God had already inflicted seven devastating plagues on Egypt, subsequent to the Pharaoh’s perpetual denial to free the enslaved Israelites. In parsha Bo, it becomes apparent that from the very first time that God approached Moses (behind the burning bush), He had a grandiose plan to punish the Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites to freedom.
In last week’s Torah parsha, Va’eira, the words ‘God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart’ created a frenzy of opinions and suppositions, pertaining to the concept of ‘free-will’. In contrast, as parsha Bo leads to its conclusion, there is somewhat of a reversal in the minds of our rabbinical scholars and Talmudists: “One sin leads to another, and the heart becomes more hardened with each negative action” (1).
Parsha Bo begins with Moses and Aaron again talking to the Pharaoh: “Let the people go; and if you refuse, God will bring a swarm of locusts into your midst; and your houses and those of all Egyptians, will be permeated with these vermin. They will obscure the view of the earth, eat all of the vegetation, and all of the fruits of the trees” (2). The advisors to the Pharaoh implored him to concede to the wishes of the God of the Israelites: “Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?” (3). The Pharaoh remained unyielding.
Then, the Lord said to Moses: “Stretch forth your hand toward the heaven, and there will be darkness over the land of Egypt” (4). This darkness was doubled and re-doubled. If an Egyptian was standing, he was unable to sit; if sitting, he was unable to stand. Because of the Pharaoh’s stubbornness, his people were smothered by the darkness of inertia (5).
Suddenly, at this climactic moment, there is a shift in the narrative. In Chapter 12 of parsha Bo, God proceeds to give instructions regarding the ‘Passover’ offering: “Each Israelite shall take a lamb; slaughter it at twilight; take some blood from the lamb to put on the doorposts; and eat the roasted ‘sacrifice’ that same night”. He continued: “I will go through the land of Egypt…when I see the blood; I will ‘pass over’ the home, so that it will not be affected by the next plague” (6).
“And, it was at midnight, that God killed every first-born in the land of Egypt; and there was a great outcry, for there was not a house, where there was not a corpse” (7).
Throughout parsha Bo, woven in between the descriptions of the plagues, God makes frequent reference to future generations. “In days to come, when your child asks you: ‘What does this mean?’ Say to the child: With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of the land of slavery” (8).
“To be Jewish is to ask questions. Our Torah, by insisting we question, allows us to doubt. To disengage from these in-depth questions, or not to participate in the re-telling of our history, is to declare apathy. To learn more, to think more, to challenge yourself to think more deeply is one of the central tenets of the Jewish religion” (9). Elie Wiesel wrote: “What other cultures have done through systems, Jews have done through re-telling stories, and learning something new with each repetition” (10).
(1) Talmud (Ethics of our Fathers)
(2) EXODUS (10: 3-6)
(3) EXODUS (10: 7-9)
(4) EXODUS (10:21)
(5) Midrash Tanchuma (Va-eira, Chapter 14)
(6) EXODUS (12: 12-13)
(7) EXODUS (12: 26-27)
(8) EXODUS (13:14)
(9) Edgar Bronfman (The Washington Post)
(10) Elie Wiesel, “Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends”