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Torah Sparks

Parashat Bo
January 23, 2010 – 8 Shevat 5770

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 Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, NJ

Torah Portion Summary

We have come to the climax of the story of the Israelites in Egypt. Pharaoh’s intransigence continues, and Egypt experiences the eighth and ninth plagues – locusts and darkness. God tells Moses that there is only one more plague to come and then Pharaoh finally will let the people go. He instructs Moses to tell the people to request objects of silver and gold from their Egyptian neighbors.

Moses announces the final plague – the death of the firstborn – to Pharaoh, but once again Pharaoh does not heed Moses’ words. God then tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to prepare a lamb to be slaughtered and eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs on the 15th of Nisan, the night on which God will strike down all the Egyptian firstborn. Moreover, this date is to begin a seven-day celebration in subsequent years. Moses speaks to the elders and tells them to prepare for the first Passover, and the people do as they have been taught.

The final horrible plague occurs and the firstborn of all Egyptians of all strata of society are dead. Finally, Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and tells them to take the Israelites and go immediately. The Israelites leave Egypt after 430 years.

God gives Moses and Aaron the laws of the Passover festival that is to be observed in future years. He also gives them the laws of the redemption of the firstborn and of tefillin.

1. Delightful Parting Gifts

The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed (vayishalu) from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing. And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians. (Exodus 12:35-36)

  1. And I will dispose the Egyptians favorably toward this people, so that when you go, you will not go away empty-handed. Each woman shall borrow (v’sha-alah) from her neighbor and the lodger in her house objects of silver and gold, and clothing, and you shall put these on your sons and daughters, thus stripping the Egyptians. (Exodus 3:21-22)
  2. “Each woman shall borrow – v’sha’alah” As an outright gift. After all, God had encouraged the people to ask for these gifts. . . . The expression sha’al in the same sense as here occurs also in Psalm 2:8, “Ask it of Me, and I will make the nations your domain.” This is the principal meaning of the verse and it effectively silences the heretics who speak of the Jews borrowing and not giving back. (Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir), 1080-1158, France, grandson of Rashi)
  3. Rabbi Nathan said: There would be no need of saying “they let them have,” except to indicate that they let them have even what they did not ask for. The Israelites would say to an Egyptian, “Let me have such and such a thing.” And the Egyptian would say to him, “Take it, and here is another one like it.” (Mekhilta, Pisha 13)
  4. In payment for the things they would have to leave behind for the neighbors because they were too heavy to move. (Don Isaac Abravanel, 1437-1508, Spain and Italy)
  5. The Hebrew slaves had worked for their masters for the number of years preordained by Providence. They were entitled to their freedom and, therefore, at the same time, to the statutory farewell gratuity. The law or rather absolute justice demanded it. Though the latter does not exist in the world, the court on high sees to its implementation, directing the course of events accordingly. (Rabbi Umberto Cassuto, 1883-1951, Italy and Israel)
  6. The people had just proved their sterling moral quality in the most brilliant manner. For three days long their oppressors, chained in blindness, were completely helpless in their power; for three days long all their treasures lay open in their houses, and no Jew took the opportunity to take the slightest advantage either against their persons or their possessions. ... The honesty and magnanimity that the Jews displayed during the three days of darkness had so raised the opinion of the Egyptians towards Israel, that they pressed their possessions upon them before they asked, and stripped themselves of their treasures. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
  7. On another occasions, the Egyptians came to sue Israel before Alexander of Macedon. They pleaded, “Behold, the Torah says, ‘And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request.’ Return to us immediately the gold and silver that you took from us.” . . . [Gebiha ben Pesisa] went and argued against the Egyptians, saying, “From where do you bring proof?” They replied, “From the Torah.” “Then I, too,” he said, “will bring you proof only from the Torah, where it is said, ‘The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was 430 years’ (Shemot 12:40). Pay us wages for the toil of sixty myriads whom you enslaved in Egypt for 430 years.” Alexander of Macedon said to the Egyptians, “Answer him.” “Give us three days’ time,” they requested. So he gave them the respite, during which they sought, but found no answer. (Talmud Sanhedrin 91a)

Sparks for Discussion

If a neighbor borrowed money or household utensils from you without mentioning that he was about to leave town permanently, you would be justified in claiming fraud and theft. Is that what happened here? Our commentators clearly reject this interpretation. Rashbam rightly points out that sha’al can mean ask as well as borrow and that the translation used alters the meaning of the story. Did the Israelites commit fraud? Were their actions justified? Why?

The passage from Sanhedrin sees the wealth the Israelites took from Egypt as “back pay,” reparations for centuries of unpaid labor. How do you react to this argument? In recent years some people have argued that African Americans deserve reparations for their ancestors’ slavery, either from the U.S. government or from the corporations that profited. Is this a parallel case? If the Israelites had not taken Egyptian gold and silver with them, would we have a legitimate claim against Egypt?

2. The Ties That Bind

And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead – in order that the Teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth – that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt. (Exodus 13:9)

  1. The exodus from Egypt shall be to you “a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead,” that you shall write down these paragraphs and bind them upon the head and upon the arm. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  2. Two approaches are possible – one figurative, in the sense of “Bind them about your throat, write them on the tablet of your mind” (Proverbs 3:3. … The second explanation is to take it literally that the actual making of tefillin is involved. Since the latter is the way it is understood by rabbinic tradition, the first must be disregarded, since it is not authenticated by tradition like the second. (Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, 1092-1167, Spain)
  3. Our rabbis taught: Beloved are Israel, for the Holy Blessed One surrounded them with mitzvot: tefillin on their heads, tefillin on their arms, tzitzit on their garments, and mezuzot on their doorposts. ... Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob said: Whoever has the tefillin on his head, the tefillin on his arm, the tzitzit on his garment, and the mezuzah on his doorpost is absolutely secure against sinning, for it is written, “A threefold cord [the three mitzvoth of tefillin, tzitzit, and mezuzah] is not readily broken” (Kohelet 4:12) and it is also written, “The angel of the Lord camps around those who fear Him and rescues them.” (Psalm 34:8) (Talmud Menahot 43b)
  4. Profound is the spiritual impact of tefillin. So long as he continues to wear them on his forehead and forearm he remains meek and God-fearing and is not given to frivolity and gossip, nor is he preoccupied with evil thoughts but channels his mind to paths of truth and justice. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefillin u-Mezuzah 4:25 (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), 1135-1209, Spain and Egypt)

Sparks for Discussion

Why do we wear tefillin? As Ibn Ezra points out, it is possible to read this commandment as symbolic – keep this in mind as if it were bound on your head and hand. Why do you think the rabbis chose to interpret it as a command to bind these words on our bodies literally? How does wearing tefillin make you feel? How do you feel when you see other people wear tefillin? Today some women have assumed this traditionally male-only mitzvah. What significance do you see in this?

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