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The Portion of BO: The Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Plagues, and The Plague of COVID-19

When I began to write the eKI column for this week, I looked back on my hard drive. I discovered that I had composed the eKI article for this portion exactly one year ago. As I read over my words from last year, I decided to utilize sections from my previous column. I beg your forgiveness if you find my words repetitive. After all, we are commanded in the Mishnah by Rabbi Ben Bag Bag, “Hafoch ba hafoch ba, de’kula ba – Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” In other words, all of the wisdom of the world can be found in the Torah, as long as we review the text and chew up and digest the words over and over again.

We are in the middle of the most dramatic, most pivotal, most intense, most action filled, and most consequential Torah portion! The portion of Bo is the third section in the book of Exodus. We learn about the eighth, ninth, and the final tenth plague that the Almighty brings down on the Egyptians in order to convince Pharaoh that he must allow Moses and all the Israelites to leave Egypt.

We learn from the excellent commentary in our URJ Torah, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, that the first six plagues are designed both to punish and to instruct the Egyptians. They are intensifications of troublesome conditions that have afflicted them before, “lack of good water and the stink of dead fish; followed by unpleasant company, hopping and croaking around everywhere; then stinging flocks of minor irritations, lice and flies…”(page 381). This Sidrah describes the ultimate teaching to the Egyptians of the last three plagues that G-d Almighty reigns supreme over humanity and nature.

The eighth plague of Arbeh/locusts comes upon Egypt after Moses warns the Egyptians of the coming infestation. “For if you refuse to let My people go, tomorrow I will bring locusts on your territory…” (10:4). With these threatening words from G-d Almighty, Moses and Aaron warn Pharaoh of the coming eighth plague.

The locusts invade on the wind and lay waste upon Egypt, voraciously devouring all the crops and green foliage, but G-d again hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and after first granting permission, he changes his mind and refuses Moses’s demands.

The ninth plague of total darkness comes upon Egypt with no warning. This is a continuation of the literary pattern by which the editors teach us the Ten Plagues: Plagues 1, 4, and 7 are announced publicly at the Nile River; Plagues 2, 5 and 8 are announced directly to Pharaoh in the royal palace; and Plagues 3, 6, and 9 afflict the Egyptians without advance notice for maximum terror and effect! For three days, the Egyptians cannot see anything, total darkness enveloping everything and everybody, but the Israelites “enjoyed light in their dwellings.”(10:23)

After a final confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh during which Pharaoh threatens to end Moses’ life if he returns to the palace, G-d announces to Moses the ultimate and last plague, the slaying of the first born. In order that the Angel of Death know which homes were occupied by Jews, Moses commands his kinsmen to place blood from a sacrificial lamb on their doorposts. (We aging baby boomers remember vividly the evil and deadly green smoke and cloud that enters each and every unmarked home bringing death to the first born from the Cecil B. DeMille Ten Commandments movie!)

The plague occurs, and Pharaoh finally relents, convinced of G-d’s ultimate power. Moses and Aaron lead the Israelites out of Egypt without sufficient time for their bread to rise, and the unleavened dough is baked into Matzah.

The portion ends with the establishment of the Passover holiday. Prior to their departure, the Israelites eat from the Pascal lamb and unleavened bread for the first time. For all time, we are commanded to teach our children what G-d Almighty did for us as a nation on this day, a law that we take very seriously at our Passover Sedarim to this day! “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival of the Eternal….And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt.’”(13:6,8).

One year ago, January 2021, no one could imagine that we would still be suffering from COVID-19 and its variants! Yet here we are attempting to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the Omicron mutation.

COVID-19 has killed 5,500,000 people around the world, a staggering and incomprehensible number of N’shamot/divine souls that have been taken from us. This is truly a plague of Biblical proportion, along with the plagues described in our Torah portion.

We can find and celebrate Divine inspiration that has enabled us to invent many vaccines and booster shots to protect us from this merciless killer.  I sense G-d’s presence within every live stream, virtual Shabbat service from our sanctuary and from Synagogues around the world, and from every Zoom call, class, concert and lecture. The divinely inspired innovations of the inventors of computer communications have enabled us to live our lives with a modicum of normalcy. Ellen and I have the weekly opportunity to “daven” together, “shepp” Nachat, and learn Torah with our son, Rabbi Howard Tilman, as he leads Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Can you imagine the loneliness we all would have endured had this tragedy befallen us a few years ago, before the invention of computer based conferencing software, a contemporary sign of G-d’s inspiration?

I concluded my eKI article last year with a prayer for the success of the then President elect as he began his new term. We continue to pray for G-d’s inspiration for President Biden and his colleagues, scientists, and doctors as they find cures for the COVID-19 virus and its variants, and create the words to convince all of us to listen and to obey their teachings.

Ellen and our family join me in wishing you a Shabbat Shalom U’m’vorach filled with good health and safety.