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Torah Sparks

January 8, 2011 – 3 Shevat 5771

Annual: Ex. 10:1 – 13:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 374; Hertz p. 248)
Triennial: Ex. 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 Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Portion Summary

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, as even a typical swarm can include as many as 50 million such insects per square kilometer, "which in a single night can devour as much as one hundred thousand tons of vegetation" (JPS Commentary). It is little wonder that 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.

Next in the succession of plagues is three days of palpable and paralyzing darkness. The darkness affected only the Egyptians, while "all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings." In a new escalation of hostility, 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 strikes, Parashat Bo provides instruction for establishing 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 (matzah and the prohibition of leaven, maror, the family meal, the commemoration of the Exodus, the timing and structure of the festival etc.) finds its origins in these verses. The repeated scriptural injunction to explain the meaning of Passover to your children, on which the midrash of the Four Sons is based, also is included in our parashah.

The Israelites mark their doorways with blood in anticipation of the tenth plague, which is visited upon the Egyptians at midnight, sparing the Hebrew homes but striking every Egyptian household. 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, 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 parasha 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: "Disabling, Disorienting Darkness!"

"People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings." (Exodus 10:23)

Derash: Study

"For three days the land is engulfed in darkness, a spell corresponding to the three-day journey for worship that Pharaoh had repeatedly refused to grant the Israelites." (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

"Darkness has no actual, independent existence. In the absence of light, darkness occurs by default, and thus light dispels the darkness. The ‘darkness of Egypt,' however, was indeed a distinct phenomenon, something entirely new, with real substance – 'a darkness that could be felt' – and no light, therefore, could dispel it." (Sforno)

"When a person does not see another, or chooses not to see him, darkness descends on the world." (Eshkol Ma'amarim)

"As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being." (Carl Jung)

"A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word 'darkness' on the walls of his cell." (C. S. Lewis)

"Darkness is only driven out with light, not more darkness." (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Questions for Discussion:

Professor Sarna's observation that the plague of darkness paralleled the three days of worship denied the Israelites suggests that the real darkness of Egypt was the refusal by Pharaoh and his subjects to acknowledge the true God. What evidence does the text provide to support this reading? How is Sarna's reading changed by the fact that the Israelites' proposed three-day journey was apparently a ruse intended to facilitate escape?

The tradition conveyed by Eshkol Ma'amarim also treats the darkness as metaphorical (or at least as a fitting punishment for a metaphorical darkness in the corporate life of the Egyptians). "Seeing" one another, however, does not necessarily mean investment, involvement, or intervention in the suffering of others. How does the second descriptor of the plague – "no one could get up from where he was" – add to the moral clarity of this interpretation?

In the worldview of the Bible, which later was embraced by the rabbis, Egypt came to symbolize moral corruption and human depravity. From such a perspective, how might Jung or Lewis interpret the plague of darkness?

What does it mean to feel darkness? When does an emotional state or a moral condition become "palpable"? What is the difference between darkness as a mere absence of light and darkness with a substantive existence of its own, as suggested by Sforno?

What forms of darkness is it within our power to dispel (or how do we maintain homes and families uniquely conducive to light)?

Theme #2: "Death Takes a Holiday?"

"When the Lord goes through to smite the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the Lord will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home." (Exodus 12:23)

Derash: Study

"The Passover haggadah says explicitly that the killing of the firstborn was carried out by the Holy One Blessed be He by Himself, alone, as it is said: ‘I shall pass through the land of Egypt, I and not an angel, I and not a Seraph...' If so, why does the verse make reference to the Destroyer? ...Even though the plague was carried out by God Himself, there were – given the considerable size of the Israelite population in Egypt – others whose time had come to experience regular, natural deaths on that night. These were to be carried out by the Angel of Death, the angelic Destroyer. The verse indicates that at the fateful hour of the final plague, the Destroyer was not permitted to carry out his regularly scheduled task, so as not give the Egyptians the opportunity to claim that the Israelites, too, were stricken with the killing of the firstborn." (The Vilna Gaon)

"The plague itself is called the "destroyer" – as it was said earlier (12:13): 'No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.'" (Shibolei Ha-Leket)

"Once leave has been given the Destroyer to do harm, it no longer distinguishes between the innocent and the guilty." (Mechilta)

When God desires to destroy a thing, he entrusts its destruction to the thing itself. Every bad institution of this world ends by suicide." Victor Hugo "We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed... A few people cried... Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hinduscripture the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form, and says, 'Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another." (J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project)

Questions for Discussion:

What is the ultimate concern of the famous haggadah passage (and its function as a commentary on our verse) cited by the Vilna Gaon? The appearance of dualism? The moral dilemma of an imperfect being – even an angel – bringing about the death of apparent innocents? The danger of muddying the theological contest between God and Pharaoh? The haggadah itself (and countless other texts) acknowledges the existence of an Angel of Death; why deny its involvement in the tenth plague?

How does the Mechilta passage elucidate the narrative of the plague of darkness?

Does the linguistic approach of Shibolei Ha-Leket provide a stronger or weaker case for God's unilateral action in Egypt? That is, is it more compelling for God to restrain the "Destroyer" as an independent force, or for that "Destroyer" not to exist?

How might Victor Hugo have applied his aphorism to the downfall of Pharaoh's Egypt? What in Egyptian society itself was a "Destroyer" – from which the Israelite slaves managed to maintain an immunity? What such forces are at work in our own society?

Historic Note

Parashat Bo, which continues to dramatize the autocratic power of Pharaoh, and which culminates in the final plague, directed at Egypt's firstborn – including Pharaoh's son "seated on the throne" – is read on January 8, 2011. On January 8, 1926 (85 years ago) Abdul Aziz bin Abdur Rahman Al Saud ascended the throne of Hejaz, renaming it Saudi Arabia. With an estimated 22 wives and 37 sons, he established Saudi Arabia as a hereditary absolute monarchy; the throne has passed to a number of successors, all of them his sons.

Halachah L'Maaseh

The willingness "not to see" one's fellow human beings – willfully to ignore their needs, their plight, their innate dignity – is entirely inconsistent with Jewish sensibilities. It is to remind us of this moral pitfall, says Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, that Jewish law requires that a synagogue be built with windows (see Talmud Berachot 31A, based on Daniel 6:11). When we withdraw from the world and pray only for our own needs, we invite the darkness of Egypt.

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