Parshat Bo  Exodus 10:1-13:16                                                      
Summary

In Parshat Bo, God inflicts the last three plagues upon the Egyptians and gives the instructions for the observance of the festival of Passover. Chapter 10 begins with God’s telling Moses to go to Pharaoh (“Bo el Paraoh") to instruct him that the God of the Hebrews is, indeed, God of all. Moses and Aaron ordered Pharaoh to free the Hebrew slaves or face a plague of locusts. For the first time, Pharaoh’s courtiers spoke up and begged Pharaoh to reconsider. Pharaoh called Moses back to negotiate: He was willing to let the men go, but insisted on keeping the women and children. Moses replied: “We will go, young and old; we will go with our sons and daughters!” Moses then held out his rod, and God brought an east wind which covered the entire land with locusts, which devoured every plant, fruit, tree, and grass in Egypt left unharmed after the hail. In panic, Pharaoh begged Moses to intercede with God, and the plague was lifted. But once the crisis had passed, Pharaoh went back on his word and refused, once more, to let the Israelites go. Moses then stretched out his arm, and a great darkness fell on the land of Egypt – a darkness so thick that it could be touched. The Egyptians could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he or she was. Only the Israelites continued to enjoy light in their dwellings. As before, Pharaoh said that the Hebrews could go, but this time he insisted that they leave their flocks and herds behind. Moses refused, and Pharaoh kicked him out of the palace and threatened to put him to death should he ever return.

Before the tenth and final plague, God commanded Moses and Aaron to instruct each Israelite family to slaughter a lamb (or join with other families in sharing a lamb), and to daub some of its blood on the doorposts and lintels of their homes. This was so that God would pass over their houses during the tenth – and most horrible – of the plagues. God also commanded them to roast the lamb and eat it entirely that same night with matzah and bitter herbs. God ordered Moses to tell the people that all first-born Hebrews are consecrated to God. Henceforth, this day, the 14th day of the first month of the Jewish calendar, is to be a day of remembrance throughout the ages, to be celebrated once they enter the land flowing with milk and honey which God has promised them. For seven days the people shall remove all traces of hametz (leaven) from their possession, and eat unleavened bread; they shall tell their children that this observance “is because of what Adonai did for me when I went free from Egypt.”

The Israelites did exactly as they were told and in the middle of the night, God struck down all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt – from Pharaoh’s firstborn to the firstborn of the non-Israelite slaves and even the cattle. The outcry was so great that even Pharaoh awakened. Finally, acknowledging God’s power over him, Pharaoh told Moses and Aaron to leave with the people and their flocks and herds so that they might worship God in the wilderness. They left hurriedly, before their dough could rise, without any provisions.

Commentary

  • The mitzvah for the wearing of tefillin originates in this week’s Torah portion. “And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead – in order that the teachings ofAdonai may be in your mouth – that with a mighty hand Adonai freed you from Egypt (Exodus 13:9)” and “… so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand Adonai freed us from Egypt (Exodus 13:16).” Tefillin are traditionally worn on the arm and the head every weekday during morning prayers.
     

  • The act of oppression creates a condition of “opaqueness” in which the oppressors are blind both to their own behaviors and to the way in which they are perceived. In order to carry on their arrogance and injustice, they must cut themselves off from feeling the pain of others. The only thing that they are able to touch is the “thick darkness” that begins to wall them off even from one another. The subjugated, on the other hand, are endowed with an extra level of awareness. They perceive the moral blindness of their captors and of their captors’ society. To survive, they have learned transcendence and have discovered how to nurture light in their private space. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from a Birmingham jail: “I had never been truly in solitary confinement; God’s companionship does not stop at the door of a jail cell. I don’t know whether the sun was shining at that moment. But I do know that once again I could see the light.”

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. How does your Passover seder compare to the one described in the parasha? Rabbinic Judaism provides specific foods to serve as symbols when we celebrate Passover. Looking at this chapter, what other foods and symbols might be used today? If possible, ask an older person to share memories of seders from their childhood and compare them to the ones they participate in now. Are there certain traditions that are unique to your family? Think about and discuss if there are any traditions based on this Torah portion that can be incorporated into your future Passover seders.
     

  2. In the last two parshayot, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart after each of the plagues “in order to show that God can do wonders in the midst of Egypt” (Sforno). Can you think of other examples when people or countries have hardened their hearts to the pain or suffering of others? Has there ever been a point in your life where you have felt that circumstances have hardened your heart and you no longer had a choice? Are there ever any good times to have a hard heart? What are things we can do to keep from being “hardhearted”?
     

  3. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ …” (Exodus 12:26) God tells the Israelites to be prepared to teach their descendants the story and rituals of Passover. God commands the Israelites to tell their children about the exodus from Egypt three different times in parshat Bo. Why is it so important to tell this story to our children? Can you image being a slave? What would it be like? What do you think it meant for the Israelites to be free? Do you and your family consider yourselves to be free? What does it mean to be free for you today, living in this country?
     

  4. The Passover Haggadah speaks of four types of children who ask questions: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one too young to ask. (In Bo we find three of the four passages from which the four children are derived; the other comes from Deuteronomy 6:20-21.) At times we take on the characteristics of each of the four types of children in the Haggadah. Think about a time – either at a seder or elsewhere – when you have felt or acted like each one of these children. What did you learn from this experience? The story of the four children also teaches us that attitude and ability are important factors that affect how we learn. How do you learn best? Through words? … pictures? … dance? … song? Think of some new ways to tell the story of our exodus from Egypt at your seder next year.
     

  5. What does “a darkness which could be felt” mean? Why did darkness fall upon the Egyptians and not the Israelites? The Torah tells us that the Israelites “had light in their dwellings.” Note that it does not say “in the land of Goshen,” the area in which the Israelites lived in Egypt. The midrash interprets this to mean that the Israelites brought light with them wherever they went – even into the house of an Egyptian. What advantages did they have by being able to see while others couldn’t? The midrash speaks of the Jewish people as being “or l’goyim” – a “light to the nations.” Do you agree? Does this imply a responsibility to use the light of our tradition to help create a better world?