Commentary on Parashat Bo, Exodus 10:1 - 13:16
Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.
- God sends the plagues of locusts and darkness upon Egypt and forewarns Moses about the final plague, the death of every Egyptian firstborn. Pharaoh still does not let the Israelites leave Egypt. (Exodus 10:1-11:10)
- God commands Moses and Aaron regarding the Passover festival. (Exodus 12:1-27)
- God enacts the final plague, striking down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt except those of the House of Israel. Pharaoh now allows the Israelites to leave. (Exodus 12:29-42)
- Speaking to Moses and Aaron, God repeats the commandments about Passover. (Exodus 12:43-13:16)
Then Adonai said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky, and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.
Pharaoh then summoned Moses and said, “Go, worship Adonai! Only your flocks and your herds shall be left behind; even your children may go with you.” But Moses said, “You yourself must provide us with sacrifices and burnt offerings to offer up to Adonai our God; our own livestock, too, shall go along with us — not a hoof shall remain behind, for we must select from it for the worship of Adonai our God; and we shall not know with what we are to worship Adonai until we arrive there.” (Exodus 10:21-26)
What is “a darkness that can be touched?”
Why does the Torah first state that people could not see one another and afterward mention that they could not move around?
Since the plague of darkness occurred before the discovery of electricity, what was the light that the Israelites “enjoyed” in their dwellings?
The events in Exodus 10:1-12:28 take place just before the last plague, during which the Israelite firstborns are saved by the mark of lamb’s blood on their doorposts. How do you think that God knew which houses were inhabited by Israelites in order to save them from the first nine plagues?
The Torah takes five full chapters to discuss the 10 plagues. Why does it give such a detailed description of each plague, when only the last one was successful?
When Moses says, “We shall not know with what we are to worship Adonai until we arrive there,” what does he teach us about prayer?
By the Way…
Since [the Egyptians] did not submit, God put them in prison-darkness. (Tanchuma, Bo 4)
Why did the Holy One bring darkness upon the Egyptians? Because there were transgressors within the House of Israel who had patrons among the Egyptians, lived in their midst in affluence and honor, and were therefore unwilling to leave Egypt. The Holy One said: “If in the sight of all I bring a plague upon them also and they die, the Egyptians will say, ‘Just as plagues have befallen us, so has a plague befallen them.'” For this reason, God brought darkness upon the Egyptians for three days so that the Israelites could bury their [disloyal] dead without their enemies seeing what they were doing. (Exodus Rabbah 14:3, M’chilta B’shalach)
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of Adonai is risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth and gross darkness the peoples. But upon you Adonai will arise, and God’s glory shall be seen upon you.” (Isaiah 60:1-2)
It says, “Hope in Adonai, yea, hope in Adonai” (Psalms 27:14): One hope after the other. “Be of good courage and let your heart be strong” (ibid): If you have hoped and have not been saved, hope and hope again. (Midrash Rabbah, Psalms 129a)
“And they had faith in Adonai…” Great is faith, for as a reward that the Israelites had faith in God, the spirit of holiness rested upon them and they sang the Song [of the Sea]… The Israelites were delivered from Egypt only as a reward of faith… The reward for the faith that our ancestors had in God in this world, which is all night, is that we are counted worthy for the world-to-come, which is all morning. (M’chilta B’shalach 6-7)
“In every generation, each one of us must feel that we personally left Egypt.” (Passover Haggadah) If we want to understand what it was like to leave Egypt, then we have to understand the story unfolding before our eyes not merely in retrospect. What was it like for our ancestors to witness plague after plague–nine plagues, to be exact–and to see that none of them worked? Have you ever experienced such disappointments time and time again?
“They had faith in Adonai and in God’s servant Moses.” (Exodus 14:31) Remember, Moses did not “brief” the Israelites on the day’s accomplishments or how Pharaoh was gradually cracking and offering more and more to Moses with each successive plague. All they saw was that they were still slaves in spite of their prayers and God’s miracles. So where did they get the faith to continue to believe? Where do you get the faith to continue to believe?
How long can people have faith when miracles do not work? If God answered our every prayer, if our own personal miracles arrived the minute we call out, we could never understand our ancestors’ despair as they waited and waited, their hopes dashed time and again. But it doesn’t happen for us, either. We and our loved ones suffer illnesses that are not cured with a single pill or a single course of treatment. We endure physical therapy, falling time and again as we try to regain control of our muscles. We enter depressions that seem unending. We struggle for causes that are just but seem always to be out of reach.
We need to understand the faith it took for the Israelites to say, “Maybe this time, Moses will succeed. Maybe this time, Pharaoh will let us go. Maybe this time, the miracle will really happen.” It is easy to have faith in miracles if we can call them up at will. But it is hard–very hard–to have faith in miracles and in God when we are repeatedly disappointed. Yet the Israelites did it, and so can we. It is fine to say that we Jews need to feel that we personally left Egypt. But it will mean more and teach us more if we can acknowledge that we personally are waiting to leave Egypt.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.