Parshat Bo – Remembering a one-off event: the release from Egyptian slavery

This Parsha ends the story of the 10 Plagues, with the final three of Arbeh (locusts), Choshech (darkness) and Makat Bechorot (Killing of the Firstborn).

The locust plague has a terrible effect on Egypt, as it comes after the plague of fiery hail. Whatever crops were not destroyed by the hail were then destroyed by the locusts, which would be so numerous as to ‘cover the eye of the land’ so that nobody will be able ‘to see’ it. This connects with the coming plague of darkness, where no Egyptians can see anything for three days. The locusts were also in the houses like the frogs were. It’s interesting that ‘no green thing remained on the trees or on the grass in the whole land of Egypt’. This total destruction of crops is perhaps a punishment for a lack of gratitude and forgetting that Joseph had saved Egypt during the 7 bad years, when it was the only country in the area with crops.

Those who participated in the ‘free Soviet Jewry’ protests in the 1970s will be familiar with the phrase from this and last week’s parsha “Let My People Go’. This is also well known in the Spiritual song ‘Go Down Moses’. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is only the first part of the phrase that Moses and Aaron ’tell old Pharaoh’. In fact, on each occasion, they say: “Ko Amar Hashem: Shlach et ami veya’avduni’. ‘Thus said G-d: Send out my people so they can worship Me’. The long version is, ..so they can worship Me in the desert three days journey from here. This phrase is not so catchy or multicultural, but it is central to what Judaism is about, and what Pesach is about. For atheist Jews freedom itself is enough, but without G-d the Jewish message withers and dies, maybe not immediately, but after a few generations. Worshiping in the desert means getting the Torah at Mt Sinai. There are three famous sentences with 4 verbs (or 5), which the four cups (plus Elijah’s 5th cup) of wine at the Seder are supposed to represent, (Shemot 6:6): And I will take you out (vehotzeti) from under the suffering of Egypt, and I will rescue you (vehitzalti) from their slavery, and I will save you (vega’alti) with an outstretched arm…And I will take you to be my people (velakachti)… And I will bring you (veheveti) to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as an inheritance.”

Plague by plague, Pharaoh begins to get the message. First he says that they can worship G-d in Egypt, then that they shouldn’t go so far away, then that only the men can go to worship G-d in the desert, then that they can all go but they must leave their sheep and cattle behind. Finally, after Pharaoh himself has lost his own firstborn son, he calls them in the middle of the night to tell them: “Go out from my people, you and also the Children of Israel and go and worship G-d as you have said. Also, take your sheep and cattle, and bless me as well.” (12:31-2) Then the people of Egypt panic that they are all going to die, so they send the Israelites out even more quickly – “lemaher leshalcham”.

Growing up in a non-Jewish society, many Jews absorb anti-Semitic ideas unconsciously. One way we do this is through mistranslation of the Bible. Our Tanach in Hebrew has been translated into every language, and in this Parsha a pivotal word has been mistranslated to our detriment: “Vayenatzlu et Mitzrayim” This could be translated as “and they exploited or spoiled” the Egyptians, but can also be “and they saved the Egyptians”. The Torah later says we must not hate the Egyptians, and the Israelites were commanded to ask (lish’ol) their Egyptian neighbours for gold and silver dishes and clothes. This was part restitution for the 210 years of terrible slavery and persecution. The text says that the Egyptians gladly gave the items to them. This payment can be understood in terms of other expulsions in Jewish history. So many times, as Jews were being expelled from a land, their property and goods were confiscated so that they were not only deprived of their land but of any security that money could provide. A case in point is the 2007 estimate of $300 billion which the World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC) gave of the value of property confiscated by Middle Eastern countries which expelled or persecuted Jews into leaving from the 1930s-1970s. The Jews of Egypt were threatened with reprisals if they did not sign their property over to the state as they left. Many Muslim countries revoked the citizenship of their Jewish inhabitants as a reprisal for the formation of the State of Israel, and took all their property. G-d was certainly making sure justice was done in this regard in the going of the Israelites out of Egypt.

Another important message of this parsha is that G-d wants us to remember everything that happened in Egypt, as a cornerstone of our religion. The Pesach festival, the mezuzah, the tefillin, are all mentioned in this Parsha, and they are all ways of remembering over and over what happened once. G-d is like a teacher who wants to get the attention of the students by saying: “Now watch carefully. I’m only going to do this once.” The whole scenario of the plagues and liberation of the slaves is showing Pharaoh, the Egyptians and the Israelites who runs the world – “So that you should see My strength, so that you should talk about My Name in all the world”, so that G-d should execute judgement against all the gods of Egypt. The Sun was the most worshiped god in Egypt, and according to Rabbi J Sacks, Rameses means the son of the Sun (and Moses comes from the same word meses) So the plague of darkness, where the sun was not seen for three days, was a pretty serious plague.

So next time someone eats Matza, celebrates Pesach, says Kiddush, kisses a mezuzah, puts on tefillin or says the third paragraph of Shema, they are remembering and reliving a one-off event when G-d proved who runs the world, and they are keeping the Jewish people alive in some way.

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