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Parshat Bo 2018
It never fails to amaze me that the story of the enslavement in and exodus from Egypt takes up only four parshot in the Torah. Considering its importance, the story should have taken up at least half of the Torah. It was our foundational event. And our parsha is the climax of the actual exodus.
As such, it raises a lot of questions, sometimes more than it gives answers. Today we will address three of them. First, why is this revolution different from all other revolutions? In all other revolutions the upstarts take revenge on their oppressors (think the reign of terror after the French Revolution) and here the Israelites do not. Second, what do the final three plagues we read about in the parsha – locusts, darkness and death of the firstborns – have in common? And third, how do the plagues reflect a replay – but in reverse – of the creation of the world – a sort of de-creation?
The first question is why is this revolution so different from other revolutions? We see in country after country, when a new regime overthrows the old one, the first thing they do is kill off the old guard and their families and their friends. Whether in the times of King David, or Roman times or in revolutions that erupt in countries we have barely heard of, that is the modus operandi. Let the new rulers begin their own bloody regime with a tabula rasa, a slate wiped clean…with blood.
Here, the Israelites are given gifts by the Egyptians, gold and silver and expensive garments and precious stones – and when the exodus begins there is no hint of revenge killings by the Israelites.
As Rabbi Shlomo Riskin points out, we can attribute this to a number of factors. First, the Egyptians had been given a strong dose of revenge killing in the form of 10 plagues, which did the job better than the most sophisticated guillotine ever could. Second, the Israelites didn’t want to take over. They were not staying. All they wanted was to skedaddle out of there. Let the old guard remain and pox or a blessing on them. Freedom was the highest gift they could receive. And finally, remembering that there is always someone stronger on this earth, they were not interested in being an instrument of revenge that might be turned against them. They had their own personal avenger and terminator. God as Schwartzenegger. That was enough.
But what about the final plagues? What do locusts, darkness and death of the firstborn have in common? After Moshe informs Pharaoh of the coming locusts, and Pharaoh seems willing to relent and asks who is going, Moshe says that everyone will be marching out to worship their God. Pharaoh says, You are bringing EVIL (ra) on your people by asking so much. Rabbi Ari Kahn suggests that ra can be read differently. Raa was the sun deity of Egypt. Raa was the strongest of the Egyptian gods. You want to take everyone out, Pharaoh says? You will bring the wrath of RAA down on you.
And what happens is that the locusts come in such swarms that the sun is blotted out. Raa, the sun god, has been blanketed. This is what truly frightens Pharaoh – and the people!
Well, if the artificial darkness of locusts can create such panic, let’s try full darkness. All the lights are turned out on the Egyptians. Raa dies for three whole days.
According to the midrash, the final plague of the killing of the firstborn came on the third day of darkness. Midrash describes how Pharaoh stumbled around in the dark (no Raa to help him) to find Moshe and implore him, command him, beg him, threaten him to get those people out of the country on the triple!
It was all a matter of darkness.
Which leaves us with the third question: can we connect the plagues to Bereshit, but in reverse? Rabbi Lydia Medwin, citing Prof. Ziony Zevit, shows that in essence, the plagues reversed every aspect of creation.
The waters that were bloodied and rendered undrinkable remind us of the waters that were divided during creation to form earth and sky and the various seas and lakes. The animals are afflicted and killed in two of the plagues, plant life becomes a vegetable by two others. The very light that began creation on the first day is extinguished in the ninth plague, and finally, in the killing of the firstborn, the highest form of creation, humans, is reversed.
Divine revenge, the defeat of the sun god and the reversal of creation – not bad for one sequence of four parshot.
We repeat the story every year at Pesach, we mention the exodus from Egypt every week in Kiddush, but we don’t really think about the lessons the story offers. Too many other urgent things are going on around us.
But we should also remember Kohelet, there is nothing new under the sun, what was is what will be – and unfortunately, we see this in signs of the resurgence of antisemitism, the rise of extreme nationalism all over the world, brutality and disregard for the world and its inhabitants from every corner.
Are we, the Jews, any better? That’s obviously the most important question (which is basically how every group sees events). Rereading the story each year, retelling it at Pesach – these are supposed to remind us of what we should be and how we should act. Whether we heed the messages and take them heart – that is another matter.