Bo (Weekly Torah)

Deceit or Difference? (5774/2014)

Under threat of a locust attack, Pharaoh agrees to hear Moshe’s request for a three-day Israelite excursion to worship YHVH. “Go serve your God,” says Pharaoh. Then, he asks for a list of names. “Who and who will go?” Moshe answers, “Young and old, we’ll go; with our sons and with our daughters, with our sheep and our cows, we’ll go. We have a God-festival.” Pharaoh responds, “It won’t be that way. The men may go” (Exodus 10:8-11).

Some politically astute readers find Moshe’s proposal disingenuous. His real intent is for the entire nation to leave with its property and never come back. Thus, Pharaoh is right to be suspicious and make a counter-proposal.

Other readers, such as Rabbi Shimon Felix, see a genuine difference of opinion about religious matters. Pharaoh’s philosophical orientation is hierarchical and authoritarian. Designated leaders should perform religious rituals. Multiple perspectives and personal participation are not helpful. Relatively speaking, Moshe’s orientation is democratic. Moshe teaches repeatedly that God reaches out to every individual. Everyone must stand in God’s presence and participate in relationship with the Divine.

To Rabbi Felix’s view, I would add: people of diverse generations, genders, tribes, and occupations are likely to have different views about relating to the Divine. Some common practices and ideas would unify them. But a religion that truly respects individual relationships with God will necessary be a pluralistic one. As the Torah’s story unfolds, Moshe is ambivalent about the extent of this pluralism; nonetheless it is part of his message.

In Israeli news this week: Government-designated religious leaders disparage Modern Orthodoxy, Reform Judaism, and gender-egalitarian Judaism. Thus, it’s a good week to remember Moshe’s pluralistic messages. How might you open your heart this week to understand and accept different approaches?


What Money Can’t Buy (5773/2013)

If everything in life is purchased on an economic market, no principles guide our social life at all, and our society falls apart. So teaches Parshat Bo as it tells the story of Pharaoh’s deterioration.

Pharaoh cannot own religious freedom. He cannot decide when the Israelites will worship their God or who can participate. Pharaoh tries to say, “Only the males can go and celebrate the religious holiday.” But this is not acceptable to Moshe or to God.

Pharaoh cannot buy forgiveness. He can ask to be forgiven for his harsh policy on religious freedom, but if he does not change his behavior, forgiveness will not come.

Pharaoh cannot bargain his way to knowledge. Despite all his power, he sits in a plague of darkness so deep it is palpable.

Pharaoh cannot arbitrarily confiscate property. He tries to say, “You people can go out into the wilderness, but leave your sheep and cattle behind.” This, too, is unacceptable.

Pharaoh cannot buy long life.  All of the fences he has built around his power and his tools of control cannot protect the firstborn.

The Israelites are not ever supposed to become complacent about the protection of these rights. They must remember every year of their lives, in a Passover ritual that includes everyone, rich or poor, citizen or foreigner. And when children ask about the meaning of the ritual, they are supposed to say, “Because God saved us from the destruction that the Egyptians brought upon themselves.”


Not a Dog Will Growl (5772/2012)

“Among the Israelites, not even a dog will growl” when I come to strike Egypt’s first born. – Shemot/Exodus 11:7

Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas admits that he wondered about this verse for years. His understanding of it came during World War II, when he was a prisoner in a POW camp, in a special unit for French Jewish soldiers. During his internment, the Nazi guards treated the Jewish prisoners as shadows. They shouted orders, identified people by number, engaged in the absolute minimum of required interaction.

One day, a dog wandered into the camp and befriended the prisoners, who named him “Bobby.” Every afternoon Bobby joyously greeted the prisoners as they returned from work. And Levinas realized: this dog recognizes us as human beings in a way that our oppressors do not. The dog in Parshat Bo recognizes the Israelites in a way that Pharaoh does not.

Perhaps there is much to learn from this image of the quiet dog, both on the personal and the political levels.

Is there someone in your life you fail to recognize fully? Perhaps someone who has faded into the background – a cousin who misses your phone call but does not complain? a child in need of help who endures stress and does not know how to name it? an employee of a local business whom you and others forget to thank? a street person whose presence no longer calls you to speak out against economic injustice or human trafficking?

Please take some time this week to notice others, become aware of what they move in you, and reach out.


Offering Help (5770/2010)

Parshat Bo describes the final three plagues in Egypt: locusts, darkness, death of the firstborn. Torah talks about the impact of the plagues on the Egyptians and on the Israelites. But Torah doesn’t tell us anything about the reactions of the surrounding nations.

We might create a little midrash on Parshat Bo and imagine the response in surrounding countries. People probably had all kinds of opinions about how Pharaoh got the country into this mess with his obstinate and repressive policies. And yet, they likely recognized that the suffering of the Egyptians deserved a response. Placing their judgments aside, perhaps they offered financial aid, expert help, political lobbying.

So it is today with situations of large-scale suffering. Haiti: Pundits blame Haiti’s corrupt government and legacy of slavery for the widespread devastation. Darfur: They blame the rebel factions, the African Union, the United Nations for the weakness of the peacekeeping effort. Vancouver: They blame profit-hungry corporations for the financial drain on social services caused by the Olympics.

But in situations of suffering, we set aside these judgments, and reach out to help in ways we are able. Please review the tikkun olam opportunities below and choose a way to help. The Jewish Federation calls us to help in Haiti. Canadian Jewish Congress reminds us this week to keep Darfur on our political and fundraising lists. And our own eyes call our hearts to be active locally.

Please make this midrash on Parshat Bo come alive!


Coming or Going? (5768/2008)

At the beginning of Parshat Bo, God says to Moshe, bo el par’oh. Translators approach these words in different ways. Some translators focus on the literal meaning of the Hebrew words and offer the translation “Come to Pharaoh.” But this translation is awkward. At first glance, it seems it would only be grammatically correct if Par’oh himself invited Moshe in. So, other translators use the more natural English expression, “Go to Pharaoh.” But this translation misses something. Torah is intentional poetic prose. When Torah uses an odd expression, Torah usually points to a deeper layer of meaning.

We can explore this layer of meaning by comparing the two translations. In English, “to go” means “to move on a course or to move out of or away from a place expressed or implied.” When we direct someone to embark on a journey alone, we are likely to tell them to “Go!”  If God were telling Moshe to “Go!” it would mean Moshe would embark alone.

“To come” means “to move toward something or to advance toward accomplishment.” When we plan to travel along with a person, or when we will be waiting for them at the destination, we tend to invite them to “Come.” By telling Moshe to “Come,” God is letting Moshe know that Moshe is not alone on the journey. God will be with Moshe as Moshe confronts Par’oh. Although Moshe is reluctant, God’s invitation inspires him to step forward.

Often we ask others to step forward to advocate for us or to advocate on our behalf for important causes. How much more powerful would our request be if we let each other know that we are in it together!

— Adapted from Sarah Margles and Nancy Schwartz Sternoff


Tefillin and the Exodus (5767/2007)

It shall be to you for a sign upon your hand, and for a remembrance between your eyes, so that the law of God shall be in your mouth, for with a strong hand did God bring you out of Egypt. – Shemot/Exodus 13:9

Parshat Bo introduces the practice of placing a sign and reminder of the Exodus on one’s arm and forehead.  In later rabbinic hands, this “sign and reminder” will evolve into tefillin: black boxes containing hand-scribed passages from the Torah that are tied on to the forehead and left arm during morning prayers.

What connection does the Torah make between tefillin and the Exodus from Egypt?  Ibn Ezra says that the sight and feel of tefillin should simply remind us of the Exodus.  Ramban teaches that tefillin remind us of the Exodus in order to give us a reason for following God’s laws.  Ha’emek Davar believes that we need a “strong hand” in the form of daily tefillin wear in order to reinforce our faith in God.

The Ba’al Shem Tov offers the mystical teaching that God wears tefillin in order to be bound to the people – just as people wear tefillin in order to be bound to God.  The Exodus, which required the cooperation of God and human beings, was an exchange of love and faith, the first act that bound God and the entire people together.

– Adapted from Nechama Leibowitz &


Locusts: Symbol of Transformation (2005/5765)

Shemot/Exodus 10:13 says: V’ruach hakadim nasa et ha’arbeh.

Literally: “The east wind carried the locusts.”

Or, if you read more deeply, “A creative spirit brings change.”

Bo is a parashah of transformation: the Israelites make up their mind to leave Egypt, celebrate their first communal festival, and gather great riches.  That transformation is previewed in the description of the eighth plague, locusts. Ruach kadim could be translated as: the east wind, the primal wind, the wind of origination, or the spirit of originality. And arbeh, the locusts, as the symbol of transformation.  For what is a locust but a transformed grasshopper!

Desert grasshoppers are normally solitary animals. But when rainfall patterns cause vegetation to grow in small, contained areas, grasshoppers are attracted to those areas. There they eat, drink, and multiply.   When conditions become crowded, the pattern of the grasshoppers’ maturation changes, and the normally solitary animals grow up into a hungry herd without enough to eat. Their bodies harden and darken and together they swarm off to find food.

Scientists believe that the mysterious origin of locusts was first understood in 1921. But the secret of the locust is encoded in the four letter Hebrew word that the Torah uses for “locust.” Rearrange the letters, and find the secret.  The locusts, the arbeh  (aleph resh bet hey) come into being when grasshoppers travel to the well, be’erah (bet aleph resh hey) where miraculously they multiply, arbeh (aleph resh bet hey) and become something new that God created, barah hashem (bet resh aleph hey).