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Torah Commentary
Bo (January 28, 2012)

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

PARASHAT BO CHRONICLES defining moments in the biblical account of the Israelites’ experience in Egypt. These chapters tell of the final three plagues and anticipate liberation by presenting the commemorative rituals of Pesach, t’fillin and the redemption of the firstborn. Included in this parashah are many of the pre-Sinai experiences that prepare to transform the Israelites into a collective entity — a community with a shared history and a shared destiny.

The previous parashah, Va-eira, ends with Pharaoh breaking his promise to liberate the Israelites. The hail ceased as soon as Pharaoh agreed to free the Israelites, but once the plague ended, so did Pharaoh’s resolve to let the Israelites leave. Parashat Bo begins in the shadow of this broken promise. Unlike the first three plagues invoked by Aaron, the next three by Moses and the seventh by the two together, the final three are brought about without a human intermediary. There is no magic, no sleight of hand, no trickery…and no doubt that these are divine in origin.

The threat of locusts — the eighth plague — prompts Pharaoh’s own counselors to urge concession to avoid the massive destruction to come. But this advice is not heeded. The text tells us that the hearts of Pharaoh and his courtiers were hardened, yet it is the courtiers who advocate for liberation of the Israelites in order to save Egypt. Why were they able to supersede this “hardening” whereas Pharaoh could not?

In his seminal work Legends of the Bible, the great Talmudic scholar Louis Ginzberg offers a plausible partial explanation: “As Pharaoh had wittingly hardened his heart with each of the first five plagues, and refused to turn from his sinful purpose, God punished him thereafter in such ways that he could not mend his ways if he would.” Perhaps Pharaoh’s heart was hardened more than the hearts of his courtiers?

Avivah Zornberg in The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus offers a different interpretation. If, after the first seven plagues, Pharaoh remains unmoved, why bother with more plagues? She posits:

It is only now, before the locust plague, that Moses experiences the full sense of fatality. God then explains: “For I have hardened his heart…” In all this insane stubbornness, there is something of God — something inexplicable in other terms. Beyond reasonable diagnosis, Pharaoh’s behavior has been engineered, so that certain purposes may be achieved.

Both Ginzberg and Zornberg agree that Pharaoh could not possibly have acquiesced to liberation even had such been his desire and even under pressure from his advisors. Clearly, he already had been insensitive to the suffering of the Israelites but now he demonstrates that he is also insensitive to the suffering of the Egyptian people. It is only when this suffering threatens him personally that he softens.

Pharaoh, like many despots — ancient and modern — is trapped by his own narrowness despite his opulence. He is a product of the dominant worldview of his time and surely did not want Egyptian history to judge him as the one who succumbed to the pressure to liberate the slaves. On the other hand, the punishing experience of slavery has not rendered the Israelites incapable of a wider vision. After all, the freedom Moses petitioned for time and again was not restricted to the freedom from servitude and economic hardship. The freedom to worship — religious freedom in modern parlance — was the stated objective.

Today, in Manhattan, it is easy to take this freedom for granted. Parashat Bo reminds us not only to appreciate this freedom but challenges us to exercise it. I look forward to celebrating this freedom by worshiping together in our magnificent Emanu-El Main Sanctuary. Shabbat Shalom!


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