Tag Archives: Bo

Commentary for Bo

10 Feb

To many modern readers the most morally troubling aspect of the story of the exodus is the idea that “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” This phrase (or a variant thereof), appears four times in the narrative- once in last week’s parshah and three times in this week’s- and is always followed by Pharaoh refusing to let the Israelites go, resulting in more plagues befalling Pharaoh and the Egyptians, bothers many readers because it seems like God is stacking the deck against Pharaoh. Even when Pharaoh might be willing to let the Israelites go as God has been commanding him, God is seemingly forcing Pharaoh to refuse to do so, which results in more punishment for Pharaoh and the Egyptians. If Pharaoh was prepared to let the Israelites go after just six plagues, then doesn’t God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” so that he does not do so mean that all of the remaining plagues constitute unnecessary suffering that only occurs because of God’s manipulation of Pharaoh?

The first time that God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” is after the sixth plague: the plague of boils. Before this point, whenever Moses and Aaron initiated a demonstration of God’s might as a warning to Pharaoh, they were usually opposed by Pharaoh’s “magicians” who would attempt to replicate the feat, with varying degrees of success. With the sixth plague, however, “The magicians were unable to confront Moses because of the boils, for the boils afflicted the magicians as well as all the other Egyptians (Ex. 9:11).” Then, in the very next verse, we are told that “The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh and he would not heed them, just as the Lord had told Moses.”

The second time the phrase appears is after the seventh plague- or perhaps more appropriately, before the eighth plague. The exact timing of this is important for two reasons. The first is the timing of the plague in context with those that came before it. The past few plagues- cattle disease, boils, and hail- have caused enormous suffering to the Egyptians. First their livestock were killed, damaging their supply of food. Then they themselves became sick (although midrash teaches that the only ones who died from this affliction were the magicians). Then the hail damaged their crops, further taxing the food supply. To put it simply, the Egyptians are really starting to feel the effects of God’s wrath. Frogs and lice were surely annoying, but they did not cause much death or suffering. Now is when the plagues have really started to kick it up into high gear.

The second reason the timing of this is significant is because during the seventh plague Pharaoh appears to have had an epiphany that he and the Egyptians are in the wrong and that God is right and the Israelites should be set free. He asks Moses to ask God to relieve the plague and God does, but “when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and continued to sin; he and his servants. Pharaoh’s heart stiffened (Ex.9:34-35)” all on its own and he refused to let the Israelites go.

God responds to this by hardening the hearts of not only Pharaoh, but of his courtiers as well (Ex. 10:1), then instructing Moses and Aaron to go warn Pharaoh that if he does not let the Israelites go, the next plague will be locusts that will wipe out the crops that survived the hail. When Moses and Aaron leave, Pharaoh’s courtiers beg him to give in to God’s demands, or at the very least try to negotiate a deal where some of the Israelites will be allowed to leave, saying “How long will this be a snare for us?… are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost (Ex. 10:7)?” After Pharaoh’s attempt at negotiation fails, the plague is brought on, and soon enough, Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron again, admitting that he is in the wrong and begging for the plague to be lifted, asking them to “Forgive my offense just this once, and plead with the Lord your God that God will but remove only this death from me (Ex. 10:17).” God removes the plague, but once again God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and he does not let the Israelites go.

The final mention of this phrase occurs after the ninth plague has been lifted and Pharaoh attempts to negotiate with Moses once again. Pharaoh finally agrees to let all of the Israelites go, but insists that all of their flocks remain in Egypt. This would rob the Israelites of what would have been their main food source, which would all but ensure that the Israelites would be forced to choose between returning to slavery in Egypt and dying of starvation in the desert.

The common theme between all of these events is Pharaoh’s lack of compassion. While he himself suffered from the boils, his loyal magicians all perished, but even upon seeing this he did not summon Moses and Aaron back and begs them to remove the plague as he often would. Then, after the finally realizing that he is in the wrong during the seventh plague, he reverts right back to sinning, knowing that it will only continue the cycle of punishment being brought down upon him and his people. When he is warned about the eighth plague- the second in a row to target the crops- Pharaoh still won’t let the Israelites go because he knows that he will always be able to afford food. It is Pharaoh’s courtiers- who also had their hearts hardened- who realized the great suffering this plague would cause to the Egyptian people and begged Pharaoh to seek some kind of settlement. Pharaoh agrees to do so, but offers terms that he knows will be unacceptable to Moses because he has no interest in the negotiations succeeding. When the plague hits, Pharaoh notably begs Moses to ask God to “but remove only this death from me.” Not from “us” or “my people,” but from “me.

After the ninth plague, Pharaoh once again enters into negotiations intending to offer terms he knows will result in the breakdown of negotiations and God once again hardens his heart in preparation for the final plague. The purpose of hardening Pharaoh’s heart is not to have an excuse to inflict more suffering by making Pharaoh refuse to release the Israelites, but rather to increase Pharaoh’s own personal tolerance for the conditions of the plagues in the hope that, as his courtiers come to do before the eighth plague, this will cause Pharaoh to focus less on his own suffering and more on the suffering of others, so he will understand what he has done wrong by enslaving the Israelites and so he will learn to pay attention to the needs of his subjects, as any good ruler must do. After the smiting of the first-born there is “a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead (Ex. 12:30),” and Pharaoh, hearing this “loud cry” of all of Egypt, finally understands the suffering he has caused to both the Israelites and his own people, and sets the Israelites free.


Commentary for Bo

18 Jan

This week’s parshah picks up where last week’s left off, with the final three of the ten plagues. First locusts, then darkness, but Pharaoh will not release the Israelites from slavery. Then Moses announces the slaying of the firstborn, and still Pharaoh will not let the Israelites go. God follows through on the threat, and at midnight on the fourteen of Nissan, God smote every Egyptian firstborn, from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low, and even the firstborn of the cattle which the Egyptians worshipped as gods, and finally Pharaoh agreed to set the Israelites free.


The parshah then continues by giving us various mitzvot related to the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt. The institution of Passover as an annual holiday, it’s various associated dietary restrictions, instructions for how to eat the paschal sacrifice, and the commandment to teach the story of our redemption from slavery to future generations are all found here. We are even commanded to put a passage regarding the exodus in our tefillin to remind us of the exodus even on days where we don’t remind ourselves of it by saying Kiddush.


Also included in this bunch is the mitzvah of redemption of the firstborn. The firstborn of all cattle is to be given over to God. If it is not given to God, it must be killed. It may be exchanged to the priest for a donkey (a much less useful animal since it is not kosher and thus neither its meat or milk can be used), but no matter what happens, its human owners will get no use of the animal. Additionally, every male Israelite who emerges from the womb and is his mother’s first child is also considered to be given over in service to God as a priest, and must be redeemed by his parents for a monetary price.


This mitzvah, dealing with the two categories of beings that were struck down in the tenth plague, teaches us how we are different from Pharaoh. While both we and the Egyptians use cattle in our worship, we Jews are not willing to sacrifice our children. While the Egyptians were willing to sacrifice their own children in order to not give up having his Israelite slaves (one midrash even portrays the Egyptian firstborn rebelling upon hearing Pharaoh’s decision, leading to a civil war), we Jews are willing to make sacrifices for our children. When it comes to our children, we are taught not to make decisions base don our own greed as Pharaoh does, but based on our love for them.

Commentary for Bo

26 Jan

This week’s parshah contains the final three of the ten plagues that God brings against the Egyptians. While they seem like a minor point when compared to the plagues themselves and their place in the exodus, there are many important things we can learn by studying the nuances of the narratives of the individual plagues and by comparing them to each other. Sometimes Pharaoh is warned before a plague; sometimes he is not. While some of the plagues start simply when God causes some miraculous thing to happen, there are other plagues where God waits for Moses to take a specific, predetermined action before bringing on the plague. Sometimes it is Aaron performing the action instead of Moses, and for the sixth plague, it is both of them together. Some of the plagues affect all of Egypt, while others are specifically stated to not affect Goshen, where the Israelites live.

Of this last category, the ninth plague, darkness, is a little bit different than the others. There were five plagues that did not strike the Israelites or their flocks (wild beasts, cattle disease, hail, darkness, and the slaying of the firstborn). The tenth plague targeted the Egyptians as well as any Israelites who did not heed Moses’ instructions in chapter twelve. The fourth and seventh plagues are specifically said to have spared “the land of Goshen, where My people stand/where the Israelites were (Ex. 8:18/9:26),” and the fourth and fifth plague both mention that God is sparing the Israelites’ land and livestock to show that these are not natural occurrences, but rather Divinely directed acts of punishments of the Egyptians.

The ninth plague, however, only states that “but for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings (Ex. 10:23).” It does not mention a Divine motive to show that the darkness was not natural phenomenon because three straight days of darkness darker than the average night is clearly not a natural phenomenon. It similarly does not mention Goshen itself being spared, but just the Israelite dwellings, implying that outside in Goshen, the plague still struck. If plague still struck Goshen and there is no mention of God specifically sparing the Israelites to show a differentiation between them and the Egyptians, why were the Israelite dwellings unaffected by the plague?

Many modern commentators have used the description of the darkness so thick that no Egyptian could “stand up from where was (10:23)” to infer that the darkness brought on a depression-induced lethargy in the Egyptians, an idea which fits in well with Midrash Rabbah’s comparison of the darkness in Egypt with Job’s description of his depression as “a land whose light is darkness; all gloom and disarray, whose light is like darkness (Job 10:22).” Other commentators have seized upon the description of a darkness so thick that “no man could see his brother (Ex. 10:23),” to explain the darkness as a physical representation of the Egyptians spiritual state.

One of the curses Moses warns the Israelites that they will suffer if they reject God is that they will “grope around at noon as a blind man gropes in the darkness… and there will be no savior (Deut 28:29).” Rabbi Yosi asks why the words “in the dark” were included, as the amount of light outside does not affect how well a blind man can see. He then answers his own question, explaining that in the daylight others will be able to help the blind man around, but in the darkness they are just as blind as he is and will not be able to help (Megilah 24b).

Towards the end, as Pharaoh begins to realize God’s power, he starts trying to negotiate with Moses. One time he proposes that he will let the Israelite men go, but that the women must stay. Another time he suggests that the adults be let go, but the children remain behind. Both of these offers are quickly rejected. Each and every Israelite is part of the nation, and none of them will have their freedom come at the expense of any of the others. Even their animals must be allowed to leave Egypt with them. The Israelites had suffered through generations of slavery together, and they would all leave together.

The Egyptians, on the other hand, were not willing to stick up for each other. The Tosafot present a midrash that says that when the Egyptian firstborn saw that the Israelites were choosing lambs for sacrifice, they realized that the Israelites were preparing for the final plague (which Moses had announced in Ex. 11). Seeing this, they went to Pharaoh’s court and begged for Pharaoh to let the Israelites go so that their lives would be spared, but Pharaoh and his courtiers would not relent. Even when the lives of their children hung in the balance, they were concerned only with themselves.

The Talmud defines the time that it is halachicly light enough to see as “when one can recognize the face of a friend (Berachot 9b).” The Israelites have light during the ninth plague because of the support and friendship they showed each other, while the Egyptians sat mired in depression and darkness because none of them were willing to see each other as friends in need, and thus unwilling to be the savior of Deut. 28:29 and help each other through the darkness.

Commentary for Bo

3 Jan

This week’s parshah tells the story of the night of the exodus from Egypt. Every year for more than three thousand years since this event, Jews have gathered to retell it. It is a story that every Jew knows, from the most irreligious Jew you can find to the Rabbi with the blackest hat in all of Me’ah She’arim. It is a story that unites us all, and a story that hearkens back to a time when we were all united. Every Israelite was equal, all just lowly slaves hoping for salvation, and every Israelite was treated equally. Those plagues that struck the Israelites affected them all, and those that struck only the Egyptians affected none of them. God demanded that Pharaoh release every single Israelite, regardless of gender, age, physical capacity or mental capacity. All that mattered was that you were an Israelite.

Then, when the tenth plague is about to come and the grand moment of liberation is about to be upon them, this all suddenly changes. God commands that the Israelites offer the Paschal sacrifice and spread its blood on the doorposts of their houses so that “when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt (Ex. 12:13).” Before this moment, if the plague was not meant to strike the Israelites, all you had to do to be protected was be an Israelite. Why, then, before this final, most terrible plague, does God suddenly require obedience to the letter to this seemingly random task in order for each Israelite household to be protected?

Many commentators have remarked that is it during their journey through the desert that the Israelites truly transform from just the tribe of Jacob’s descendants into a full-fledged nation. They leave Egypt as a tribe of Abrahamic monotheists and emerge as the Jewish People. To be a member of a tribe, all you have to do is be born into it. To be a member of a people, though, you need to actively commit yourself to being a part of that people.

It is not enough to be born to a Jewish family. To be part of the Jewish People, one needs to engage themselves with their community, adhere to Jewish values and take part in Jewish practices. Anyone who refused to take part in the Paschal sacrifice and marking their doorpost with its blood would be showing that they did not wish to be part of the new Jewish People, and just like the contrary son in the Hagadah, who separates himself from the community, those people would not have been redeemed from slavery in Egypt.