Parashat Bo – Seeing is Believing
In this week’s Parasha, we read the culmination of the struggle between Moshe and Pharaoh, along with the immediate preparations for the exodus from Egypt. Throughout the parasha there is an immense emphasis placed on that which is shown, and that which is seen. To truly understand the importance of it, one has to also consider what is as plain as day, and what can be concealed by darkness. For here the power of HaShem to turn the natural world on its head is revealed.
In last week’s parasha the first seven plagues are based on natural phenomenon –s o much so that Pharaoh’s magicians are able to recreate them, albeit weakly. Hail, flooding, lice, even boils are all basically natural phenomena of weather, parasites and disease. While many apologists have claimed that all of the plagues, except perhaps the last one are perfectly normal phenomena, in fact the last three plagues were outside of the realm of nature.
Why are the last three different – what is so unnatural about locusts? Following two consecutively temperate, rainy summers, African locusts tend are known to swarm. The locust swarm of 1915 stripped the entire region of Egypt, British Mandate Palestine and Syria of vegetation. But the plague of locusts in Shemot did defy nature – it was selective. While described as all-encompassing for the Egyptians, the Israelites still had grazing animals on the land. Sheep, goats and cattle left Egypt with them – all of them grazing animals for whom stored fodder would have already been depleted by Spring. While the Egyptians saw the decimation of all vegetation, they also knew that they would see all their animals starve. Not only did the Israelites possess great wealth, extraordinary in and of itself for a people held in slavery, their livestock and their fodder was not depleted.
And thus with the plague of locusts, Pharaoh finally began negotiating: OK – some of you can go – just the adult men. That would sound reasonable to anyone well-versed in the religion of the era and region. Women and children had no part in the typical a sacrificial religious practice of the Bronze Age Levant. However, Judaism is set off from all other religions (and was then as well) – it is equally binding upon all – women and men, and all children who have come of age enough to understand a mitzvah – if they are old enough to understand it, they are obligated to do it. So, “No go – we’re all going – women, children, even our flocks.” And so Pharaoh actually begs – “Call it off. I repent of my sins.” And so Moshe entreats G-d, Who responds with a West wind that blows the locusts immediately to the West, outside of Egypt. The response from Pharaoh is, or course insincere.
Immediately Moshe returns to warn of the next plague – complete and utter darkness – a tangible thick darkness which will endure for three days. Pharaoh has not yet acknowledged that this is beyond nature. Locusts are natural, solar eclipses happen. As long as the darkness is a theoretical warning, Pharaoh is not yet convinced that these plagues are truly an unnatural manifestation. Terrible, yes, worse than anything that had been recorded, but still, natural.
The predicted darkness would prevent the Egyptians from more than mere sight. Whether an all-encompassing fog, as Rambam contends, or Rashi’s Midrashic interpretation of two stages of darkness each lasting three days, with a final culminating day of darkness at the parting of the Red Sea on , the text is explicit. The darkness was so palpable that, as Rashi puts it – one who was sitting could not stand, and one who was standing could not sit. This is no three-day sandstorm or solar eclipse.
As one would expect darkness can serve many purposes – it provided the cover for the Israelites to confiscate the Egyptian wealth of silver and gold vessels as instructed by G-d. It also covered the fact that many of the Israelites were so assimilated into Egyptian culture that they were not considered fit to leave Egypt. They too would die under the cover of a darkness designed to prevent the Egyptians from claiming that final plague of death struck Jew and Egyptian alike. Some things are just not meant to be seen, because to see them is to question them.
The cards are on the table – Moshe has already made it clear to Pharaoh that the terms of their leaving are non-negotiable. That alone is unnatural – since when do slaves negotiate with their owners, dictating terms of their release? In one last attempt, Pharoah attempts to hold the animals as ransom. To which, Moshe responds, “Nothing doing. We’re all going: We all leave, every man and woman, every last child and old man, our herds, and even the beasts of burden that we can’t eat – we’re going out and we’re taking everything with us.
In this final stage Pharaoh tells Moshe that he is at the end of negotiating: “Go from me! Do not see my face again, for on the day you see my face, you shall die!”
לך מעלי השמר לך אל-תסף ראות פני כי ביום ראיתה פני תמות
And Moshe answers in kind, equal to equal: “Damn straight – I’m not intending to see your face again!”
ואמור משה כן דברת לא-אסף עודה ראות פניך
Moshe and Pharaoh are done negotiating – there is nothing left to be said between them. At this juncture, before Moshe can leave the palace, the last plague is communicated by G-d to Moshe. Whereupon Moshe turns in burning anger to inform Pharaoh that the final plague will be the death of all the Egyptian’s first born: “When you see what will happen, your servants will come running to bow down to me! You will send your servants to me in order to beg us to leave! And only then, once they have bowed down to me – then, and only then will I leave!”
ורדו כל-עבודיך אלה אלי והשתחוו-לי לאמר צה אתה וכל העם אשר ברגליך – ואחרי כן אצה
The last plague has a two-fold purpose. Grief would weaken the Egyptians as all of their first-born die. They would not turn out with the army in full strength. But more importantly – the Israelites would see the power of G-d, and go forth from Egypt without reservation. They are leaving the bread-basket of the ancient world. In times of famine, their forefathers always went to Egypt. With only the goods they can carry, without time to bake bread properly (the fermentation process was much lengthier than it is today using the modern yeasts developed in the middle ages), they would leave. The death of the first born of every Egyptian is proof for the Israelites who still might harbor doubts of Moshe’s leadership, or of G-d’s will. Before leaving every head of household will slaughter a kid or lamb, roast it, and share it amongst their extended family. All of it must be consumed before morning. No one is leaving on an empty stomach. G-d commands Moshe to tell the people: You will eat. You will be prepared to move, dressed and ready to go. No one is going to bed. No one is dawdling. The blood of these lambs shall be a sign upon the doorposts of the Israelites – not for the Egyptians to see – but on the inner doorposts, for the Jews to see, so that this act would be inscribed as part of the national consciousness. Any Israelite household that did not participate fully, accurately in this commandment would die under the cover of the darkness, unseen by the Egyptians.
The Israelites would leave not at night, but in the morning. And so when G-d smote the first-born at midnight, Israel did not flee under the cover of darkness. But we were prepared to leave en masse.
Parashat Bo concludes with the commandment to keep Pessah. The commandment is twofold : All Jews shall eat no leavened bread for the week, for one who disassociates himself from his people, is as though he were one of the Israelites who disassociated himself while in Egypt, and did not heed G-d’s commands then. And he shall teach this to his children: “It is because of this that G-d acted on my behalf when I left Egypt.” Not to commemorate Pessah as if it happened to our ancestors, but to teach it in the first person. So that your children will in turn teach it to theirs, also in the first person.
The final part of the parasha tells us of what must be included in Tfillin – these are the things that one must literally keep before one’s eyes, and act upon with one’s arms, every day, and give over to every generation. The first two passages of Shema – which contain the tenet that G-d is One, and can only ever be One, and that all Jews accept His Kingship. To keep this always before our eyes. And upon one’s arm – the fact that G-d with a strong hand removed us from Egypt to come to Eretz HaKodesh, for the purpose of making of us a people, a consecrated nation.