Torah Weekly - Parshat Bo

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Parshat Bo

For the week ending 10 Shevat 5761 / February 2 & 3, 2001

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    Hashem tells Moshe that He is hardening Pharaoh's heart so that through miraculous plagues the world will know for all time that He is the one true G-d. Pharaoh is warned about the plague of locusts and is told how severe it will be. Pharaoh agrees to release only the men, but Moshe insists that everyone must go. During the plague, Pharaoh calls for Moshe and Aharon to remove the locusts, and he admits he has sinned. Hashem ends the plague but hardens Pharaoh's heart, and again Pharaoh fails to free the Jews. The country, except for the Jewish People, is then engulfed in a palpable darkness. Pharaoh calls for Moshe and tells him to take all the Jews out of Egypt, but to leave their flocks behind. Moshe tells him that not only will they take their own flocks, but Pharaoh must add his own too. Moshe tells Pharaoh that Hashem is going to bring one more plague, the death of the firstborn, and then the Jews will leave Egypt. Hashem again hardens Pharaoh's heart, and Pharaoh warns Moshe that if he sees him again, Moshe will be put to death. Hashem tells Moshe that the month of Nissan will be the chief month. The Jewish people are commanded to take a sheep on the 10th of the month and guard it until the 14th. The sheep is then to be slaughtered as a Pesach offering, its blood put on their door-posts, and its roasted meat eaten. The blood on the door-post will be a sign that their homes will be passed-over when Hashem strikes the firstborn of Egypt. The Jewish People are told to memorialize this day as the Exodus from Egypt by never eating chametz on Pesach. Moshe relays Hashem's commands, and the Jewish People fulfill them flawlessly. Hashem sends the final plague, killing the first born, and Pharaoh sends the Jews out of Egypt. Hashem tells Moshe and Aharon the laws concerning the Pesach sacrifice, pidyon haben (redemption of the first born son) and tefillin.




    "Stretch forth your hand toward the heavens, and there shall be a darkness on the land of Egypt, and the darkness will be tangible." (10:21)

    Nothing is more frightening than nothingness. As young children, our last request at bed-time is "Daddy, don't close the door!" And what if the door accidentally closes and we find ourselves alone and in the dark? What is the fear that lurks in the darkness? Some vast and hideous monster two inches from our face? Some huge slimy insect hiding under the bed? Or worse -- the remnants of last night's midnight feast?

    Maybe it's something much more fundamental that frightens us.

    Even when we grow to adulthood, we never quite lose our fear of the dark. If we no longer fear it as we did when we were children, it's because we have the means to restore the light. We know we can get out of bed and flick the switch. We're in control. But if we were placed in a darkness over which we had no control, if we were powerless to restore the light, all those primordial youthful fears would immediately take hold.

    Why is the dark so frightening? More than large furry spiders or the famous, but rarely-spotted, Boogy man, what really frightens us about the dark is that we are in a world where nothing exists outside ourselves. Nothing exists. Only the sound of our own breathing. The thump, thump of our heart. And after a few minutes of silence, the low whistling of the blood flowing in our ears. The sound of nothing. In Hebrew the word for darkness is connected to the word "to withhold." ("And you have not withheld your son, your only son from Me." -- Bereishet 22:12)

    Darkness is the absence, the withholding, of the world outside.

    In this week's Parsha, the Torah records the penultimate plague inflicted on the Egyptians -- the plague of darkness. Ostensibly, this was a very benign plague. No blood turned to water. No-one suffered excruciating boils. Just darkness. A darkness that at first prevented you from seeing someone even if they were right in front of your face, and then it became even thicker until it literally froze people. How can darkness freeze someone?

    The answer is that, in the dark, I perceive that there is nowhere outside of me. I have nowhere to go. If I extend my little finger, it will vanish. There is nothing there. No place, no space outside.

    I often think that our present situation in Israel is rather like those Egyptians in the plague of darkness. We are paralyzed, incapable of action. We are living in a world of darkness. A world where the Boogy man wears an Arab kafia on his head and has a permanent three-day stubble on his face. A world where G-d is so hidden from us that we feel that if we move at all we will simply vanish into nothingness -- like some medieval sailor's nightmare of sailing off the edge of the world.

    One of G-d's names is Hamakom. "The Place." The mystics teach that G-d doesn't exist in the world -- The world exists in G-d.

    G-d is the place of the world. He is the place of all existence. He causes existence.

    The nations of the world repeat the same message to the Jewish People down the ages: "You have no place in this world." You are trying to Judaize the Haram el-Sharif. You don't belong here. You stole the land. Your destiny is to wander, to be the Wandering Jew of Christian mythology.

    In every lie, there is a grain of truth.

    It is true that the Jewish People have no place in the world -- in the natural order of things. We are an anti-historical people. By all the "laws" of history and probability, the Jewish People should have faded out long ago. One of historical theory's biggest problems is our survival. Because we shouldn't be here. We have no place in the world. Our biggest problems start when we think that we belong here, when we want to play at being a nation just like any other nation.

    G-d didn't make us that way; we are a supernatural people. We are His "inheritance," His "portion" in this world. Our entire existence is only in Him. It is only when we realize that our place in this world is to be in Hamakom -- to be in the Place of the world -- we will emerge from our paralyzing darkness to a world of light and security.


    Yirmiyahu 46:13- 28



    Much attention is given in the Torah to the ten plagues and to Egypt's downfall. We are not rejoicing at our enemies' ruin. Rather, this is part of Israel's education: We had to learn that even the great super-power, Egypt, could fall. Each plague demonstrated how the mighty empire was like putty in G-d's hands.

    This was not the last time Egypt would suffer devastation. The Prophet Yirmiyahu foretells Egypt's fall to Babylon. Her armies will turn and flee from the invaders who will appear more numerous than locusts; they will cut her down like so many axes reducing a forest to nothingness.

    Egypt gives way to Babylonia, and Babylonia later falls to Medio-Persia. All are transient. They rise to the greatest of heights, but disappear without a trace when G-d so decrees.

    Israel, however, will never be wiped out. We live on to fulfill our eternal mission as the Chosen People.There is no human super-power for us to put our trust in. The higher they rise, the bigger their fall.

    Written and Compiled by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair
    General Editor: Rabbi Moshe Newman
    Production Design: Michael Treblow

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