We are in the middle of the most dramatic, most pivotal, most intense, most action filled, and most consequential Torah portions in the Torah! The portion of Bo is the third section in the book of Exodus. We learn about the eighth, ninth, and tenth and final plagues 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 throughout the Ten Plagues: 1, 4, and 7 are announced at the Nile River; 2, 5 and 8 are announced in the royal palace; and 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 dwelings.”(10:23)
After a final confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh during which Pharaoh threatens to end the life of Moses 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. 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 all of us 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).
The final verse of the portion has been used by traditional Rabbinic authorities as a proof text for the Mitzvah of wearing Tefillin/Phylacteries for daily morning prayer as a constant reminder of the Exodus from Egypt.
Our generation can relate to the Ten Plagues in a very real and painful way. The Coronavirus and the illness it has inflicted on us, Covid 19, has brought more untold suffering on so many people throughout the world than any other naturally occurring event. This is truly a plague of Biblical proportion, along with the plagues described in our Torah portion.
Of course, we can also celebrate the Divine inspiration that has enabled us to invent vaccines to stop the spread of this merciless killer. I also feel G-d’s presence with every Zoom call, meeting, and Shabbat service. The divinely inspired brilliance of the inventors of computer communications has enabled us to live our lives with a modicum of normalcy. Ellen and I have the weekly opportunity to “daven” together, and learn Torah with our son, Rabbi Howard Tilman, as he leads Shabbat services at his congregation in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Can you imagine the loneliness we all would have endured had this calamity befallen us a few years ago, before the invention of computer based conferencing software, a contemporary sign of G-d’s inspiration?
This is a week of new beginnings for the United States. The Torah portion describes a new beginning for Moses our Teacher. He must grow from being the leader of the Israelite slave insurrection to the leader of the Israelite nation and
G-d’s greatest prophet. We join in prayer that our new President will be filled with divinely inspired wisdom to solve the infinite varieties of problems that he and his advisors will confront. We pray also that we can all receive our medical injections quickly and efficiently.
A Jewish Musical Postscript to the Presidential Inauguration: G-d Bless America in Yiddish
This morning, Ellen sent me a brand new recording of G-d Bless America, entitled G-t Bentsch Amerike. Irving Berlin wrote this eternal tribute to our great country in 1918. Earlier this month, the original cast of the Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof and their director, Joel Grey, gathered virtually to record this great song in Yiddish, the language spoken by Irving Berlin and most of our parents and grandparents.
It is a perfect tribute to the USA, our democracy, and the unique role that the Jewish community has played in American history. Steven Skybell, Tevye in the Fiddler production, begins with great humility and piety.
Ellen and all the Tilman’s join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom U’m’vorach.