Parshat Bo

Summary: Bo is the 3rd parasha in the Book of Shemot, spanning chapters 10:1-13:16 and containing the last 3 plagues (locusts, darkness and death of the first-born) brought by G-d against Pharaoh and the Egyptian people.

It includes a detailed description of the Paschal Lamb and the laws of the Pesah Seder. Toward the end of the parasha, Pharaoh unconditionally released Bnei Yisrael, ending in an instant their 430-year servitude. The parasha concludes with laws about redeeming first born animals and humans, and about wearing tefillin.

At the beginning of Parshat Bo, Moshe and Aharon warned Pharaoh to release the Jewish slaves or suffer the plague of swarming locusts that would consume all remaining vegetation in the land. Persuaded by his advisors that all was lost, Pharaoh recalled Moshe & Aharon. But when they refused to leave their children as security, talks collapsed. After the plague struck, Pharaoh quickly capitulated promising to let Bnei Yisrael go. But no sooner had the East wind blown the locusts to the sea, Pharaoh reneged again.

The plague of darkness descended on the Egyptians and for 3 days they weren’t able to leave their dwellings. Yet in Jewish homes there was light.

Pharaoh told Moshe to go, leaving behind the cattle. Moshe instead demanded that Pharaoh give them additional offerings to take. Pharaoh warned; ‘the day you see my face is the die you’ll die.’

G-d told Moshe to have Bnei Yisrael borrow silver and gold utensils from their Egyptian neighbours. Moshe warned Pharaoh at around midnight a plague would kill their first-born, there would be an enormous outcry of grief and the Egyptians themselves would expel Bnei Yisrael. G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he refused to release the Jewish people.

The Torah turns to the story of the first Pesah. Told this would be the 1st month of the calendar, G-d commanded that each household take a lamb on the 10th of the month. On the 14th at twilight they would all slaughter their animals, putting some of the blood on their door posts and lintel. Those inside should roast and eat the meat, dressed in their coats and shoes with their staffs in hand, eating the meal in haste. While outside, G-d would pass through the land striking dead all the Egyptian first-born. This would be a ritual festival in perpetuity. From the 14th to the 21st one must eat matzah and not leavened bread.

Moshe instructed the elders how to prepare the Paschal offering, telling them that when they reached the Land of Canaan and their children asked the reason for this ritual, they should explain it was because G-d passed-over all the homes of Bnei Yisrael. At around midnight the plague struck; no Egyptian home was spared, Pharaoh arose to hear the cries of the entire country, called Moshe and Aharon and told them to leave unconditionally, and asked only that they bless him.

The Egyptians pressed Bnei Yisrael to leave quickly, before their bread dough could rise. Roughly 600,000 men, as well as a mixed multitude, left abruptly, ending 430 years of servitude. The remainder of the parasha contains laws about Pesah, redeeming first born animals and humans, and about wearing Tefillin.

Comment: Several portions from this week’s parasha make up the Pesah – Festival and Hol HaMoed readings. In fact, much of our prayer liturgy revolves around a daily remembering of the experience of our ancestors when they left Egypt.

Yetsiat Mitsrayim (the Exodus) is the singular defining characteristic in the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. Earlier in Shemot 4:22-23, G-d told Moshe to tell Pharaoh the Jewish people are ‘my first-born’ and if Pharaoh would fail to release them, G-d would strike down the Egyptian first-born in their stead.

One role of first-born is to be responsible in conveying the parental will and values to younger siblings. As G-d’s first born, it’s our national duty to uphold and transmit Divine Principles to a world that has adopted cruder, baser values. On the other hand, though we aspire to a more tolerant, inclusive view than perhaps in past generations, some would mis-define tolerance and pluralism to dilute recognition and adherence to a belief in G-d.

Egypt, like all civilisations, was proud of its achievements, substituting a belief in its triumph, for the recognition that all true success comes from the Almighty. For Bnei Yisrael, the Exodus is meant to disabuse us of such misinterpretation. Being unable to extract ourselves from the oppression of our taskmasters, enabled us to see that redemption had to come from G-d.

In times of political flux and uncertainty, remembering our Exodus anchors the Jewish people in our faith and confidence as a nation. Once redeemed by the hand of the Almighty, we will again be redeemed as G-d’s first-born.