How many plagues appear in this weeks sedra Bo/בא? … It’s in the name… Just like we did with last week’s sedra, Vaeira, the gematria of Bo should tell us… so ב = 2 and א = 1… therefore we have the last three plagues which are Locust, Darkness and The Death of the Firstborn.
This weeks sedra therefore starts with Hashem telling Moshe to go to Pharaoh and pre-warn him about the next plague to come his way, locust. In his commands to Moshe, Hashem introduces a new factor in His reasoning for unleashing the plagues on Egypt stating that through His signs we shall… ‘know that I am Hashem’ and more interestingly ‘so that you may relate in the ears of your son and your son’s son that I made a mockery of Egypt’… which was what was successfully achieved with the Egyptians not only losing the Jewish people as slaves but having to endure ten painful plagues and also lose all their valuable possessions due to Pharaohs stubbornness.
The Midrash teaches that the plague of locust was measure for measure because the Egyptians forced the Jews to grow crops for them and therefore the locust devoured these crops which were planted by slave labour. The locust came in their millions and the actual word the Torah uses for the locust, ארבה/arbe, also happens to sound like the Hebrew word for many, הרבה/harbe which we actually tend to also pronounce arbe. With this new warning from Moshe, Pharaoh would be expected to give in to the demands as he has just endured six plagues proving the existence of G-d, even Pharaohs servants were advising Pharaoh to let the whole Jewish nation go… but no, instead Pharaoh offered an unreasonable compromise only permitting the elders and leaders to go, and according to Ramban, eventually extending this offer to allow the adult males but not the women and children. We then see a new angle on Pharaoh’s response with what seems to be a sarcastic comeback to Moshe’s counter-requests of letting the whole nation, including the women and children, ‘go and serve Hashem’… he states sarcastically… “so be with Hashem as I will send you forth with your children!” furthering this sarcasm with an angry accusation of… ‘the evil intent is opposite your faces’ [10:10]. So what is the reason for this sarcasm and anger from Pharaoh when Moshe requests the women and children, surely this was not an unreasonable request or even out of context with the demands?... Through Moshe’s request for the whole nation to go and serve Hashem and Pharaoh’s subsequent sarcastic and angry rejection we can enunciate a key principle which sets Judaism apart from other religions. The Torah requires the same of every boy and girl once they come of age as it does of the patriarchs and matriarchs. All commandments are equally binding on everyone, and when the nation is bidden to bring offerings to G-d, everyone (and not merely just the elders or males) must participate. We now see why Pharaoh was so accusing of Moshe’s plans naming them evil as in Egypt it was just the priests who offered up sacrifices to their idols, he couldn’t fathom how the women or children could have any use in a so called festival to Hashem. Onkelos confirms this point by stating that Pharaoh chastised Moshe by saying, “Your evil intent is to leave and not return – that is obvious because there is no other reason to take your children along. Thus your evil intent is rebounding against you, for it has exposed your treachery”.
With Pharaoh thinking he outsmarted Hashem once again, along comes the locust like a group of Americans in a hamburger restaurant, demolishing everything in their path. But did Pharaoh learn his lesson? Nope! Next up on the menu was darkness…Just like the third and sixth plagues this plague was the final in a set of three (as discussed last week) and was therefore not preceded with a warning. Rashi informs us that the darkness was so intense towards the end that the Egyptians couldn’t even move. Rabbi Kaplan described it as tangible, like extremely thick smoke or black marshmallow fluff (no idea either, he is American… they have these funny foods). There is another opinion brought down in a Midrash that it was actually extreme light and it was so bright it was dark because you just couldn’t see due to this phenomenon. Other commentators state that it was the darkness of Gehinom which is from a source in kabbalistic readings which tells us that Gehinom is just sitting in darkness alone for your allotted time of teshuvah… this comes from the idea that measure for measure people commit sins when other people don’t see and therefore we are punished in a similar way. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai gave a famous blessing to one of his students that he should fear G-d as much as he fears man, because if we all did this we wouldn’t sin on our own like we do when others aren’t watching.
The question is written, how thick was the darkness? Answers the Talmud, as thick as a dinar (which is an ancient coin). What is the implication of this answer… what does it mean? The darkness was as blinding as money is. As we all know, tt is very difficult to look through money, who hasn’t had rows and falling-outs over money issues with close friends or family?
So why did darkness have to be the penultimate plague, the one which would prepare the nation for their exodus? Rashi brings down two reasons for the darkness; 1. Among the Jews were people who did not actually want to leave Egypt as they were so assimilated into society (much like we saw with the Jews of Nazi Germany and see today in modern day America) and therefore did not deserve to be freed as there was no hope for them to return to the covenant of Israel anyway. These people died during the darkness with as many as four fifths of the Jewish people dying during this plague. Hashem therefore provided the darkness so that the Egyptians would not see their death and claim that the plague affected Jews and Egyptians alike.
2. The darkness provided an opportunity for the Jews to search the Egyptian homes and determine the location of valuables which they would later request to borrow, this also caused the Jews to earn esteem in the eyes of the Egyptians who later realised that they had been in their homes but had not stolen anything… this ultimately led to the willingness of the Egyptians to give over these possessions before the exodus.
Following the plague of darkness the Torah gives us our last occasion when Pharaoh tries to bargain with Moshe and his offer this time includes the whole nation but not the flocks or cattle. By doing this, Ramban points out that since the main wealth of the Jews was their livestock, they would be forced to return and if not Pharaoh would keep the animals him self, a scarce commodity following the beating the poor animals took during the plagues. Moshe refuses however, stating that… “we will not know with what we are to serve Hashem until our arrival there” [10:26]. On the surface this seems to be a logical reason as to why the Jews would need the livestock to go with them, as they would not know how many sacrifices would be necessary when they were to have this ‘festival for Hashem’. A deeper meaning is brought down by one of the commentaries however who reads this line to mean something personal to everyone, ‘we will not know with what we are to serve Hashem until our arrival’ means that until we reach the after life we will not know what our mission was in this life… we all have to try our best with every mitzvah and to generally be good people by Torah values but until we reach the afterlife we will not know which aspect of our lives was what we were put in this world for. If you read back the sentence with this explanation I think it reads pretty nicely.
At this point of course, Pharaoh loses it as he really does want these animals for his new petting zoo, exclaiming for Moshe to ‘Go from me’, interestingly not using the usual words ‘go from before me’ because he was still in the dark at this point and couldn’t be a hundred percent sure that he was in front of him! For the first time, he ejected Moshe and threatened him with death if he dared appear again. Moshe agreed, for there would be no need for him to seek out Pharaoh again, since the next plague would kill the firstborn of Egypt, and bring Pharaoh grovelling and begging the Jews to leave Egypt as soon as possible. Just enough time to warn Pharaoh of the final plague however, which Hashem gives Moshe the heads up on by informing Moshe that… ‘just one more plague shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt, after that he shall send you forth from here’ [11:1]. In this warning Hashem also requests of Moshe that he… ‘Please speak in the ears of the people and let each man request of his fellow and each woman from her fellow silver and gold vessels’ [11:2]… this seems a strange way to inform the Jews of this command, which surely isn’t really a command? Why the use of the word נא/please? If someone asked you to go and help yourself to a few bars of gold from Fort Knox would it really be a command and would you really need someone to twist your arm to make you do it? Rashi brings down that Hashem requested in such a manner so that he could fulfil the promise to Avraham that the nation would leave with great wealth but this still surely wouldn’t be such a burden for the Jews for them to need it in a command form?
Rabbi Kaplan brings down a very interesting explanation to this question. There are three reasons why there might be resistance from the Jews to go and take from the Egyptians, firstly they might just generally be intimidated and would still fear their former masters and find it difficult to pluck up the courage to actually request the items. Another reason might be the fact that they wanted to leave quickly and after so many years of captivity they would just want to leave pronto while the opportunity was still there, especially with Pharaoh’s history of suffering from a hardened heart. My favourite explanation however is that we didn’t want to lose dignity as a nation. During the darkness the Jews went into the Egyptians houses and didn’t take anything, not a single coin was taken, and this earned them esteem in the eyes of the Egyptians. This request to now take from them cheapens this original act and sometimes in life the reputation or honour earned from an act of goodness outweighs any monetary value offered to remove this. An example of this would be if you helped a friend all day not expecting payment and at the end he offered you some money as a thank you, majority of people wouldn’t take this as it would take away from the act of kindness you just performed. With this in mind Hashem needed to beg the Jews to forget their good status and take the wealth of Egypt in order to fulfil the promise to Avraham.
With the final plague in progress the Torah describes how there was ‘a great outcry in Egypt’ [12:30]. The Midrash describes how there was not a single house that didn’t have a dead corpse in it and this loud eruption of sound was the reaction of the Egyptian people. So why does such an outcry have to be described? The Torah is teaching us how this was a measure for measure punishment for the Egyptians. They kept silent during all the years when they should have been yelling about the way the Jews were being treated but didn’t, so instead now they will have to yell over their dead.
Next week we finally leave Egypt!
This week’s sedra is in fact my Bar Mitzvah sedra so that adds extra importance to it; I hope everyone has a restful and enjoyable Shabbat and successful week ahead.
Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)