When reading this week’s Parasha, Parashat Bo, we learn not only about the additional plagues that were not mentioned in last week’s portion, and not only about the preparations for the very first Passover, but we discover when, why, and who went out of Egypt and were delivered by God. The chapter does not specify names of Jewish families or a list of those who came out of Egypt, but does answer some questions such as “when did the Exodus start?” and perhaps even gives a hint on how to make this important Jewish event a success.
The first question is raised not by Moses, but by Pharaoh: “Who are the ones to go?” (Exodus 10:8). Moses’ answer included elderly and young, sons and daughters – there is no list of names or
number, just an estimate of, “about 600 000 men, not counting the children” (Exodus 12:37).
Moses’ answer was based on Pharaoh’s initial idea to release only the males, which is why Pharaoh’s next decision, right after the ninth plague, was to release women and children, while insisting that the cattle and sheep should remain. However, there were no compromises in our
story from Moses’ side, and the condition of the Exodus from Egypt was eventually expanded to include also the cattle. Moreover, we learn from the Parasha that God made the Hebrews appear in a favorable way to the Egyptians, and Moses himself was esteemed not only by his own people but also by the Egyptians and by Pharaoh’s court. This is further reflected in the fact that God’s commandment to His people to take the Egyptians’ objects of silver and gold did not cause any resistance from the Egyptians. Thus, God takes the Israelites out from Egypt with their children, with cattle and with precious things.
Maybe it is not surprising that Pharaoh raised the question of who would come out of Egypt. But, it seems a bit strange that the choice of the time for the Exodus was also connected to him. We read of the prophecy that, “all the courtiers of Pharaoh come down and bow low” (Exodus 11:8) to Moses, asking that he would lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. The Almighty assigns the month and the day of the Exodus but not the exact time of release, and the choice was again left for Pharaoh.
Nobody, not the Hebrews nor the Egyptians expected that Pharaoh would make the decision the remove the Children of Israel from Egypt at midnight. It is possible that Pharaoh could theoretically have gotten around all the previous 9 plagues, but this time, since he was personally affected by the Plague of the First Born, he immediately followed all of Moses’ instructions. Thus, who will go and when depended on God, Moses and a little bit on Pharaoh.
This is not a difficult question, although we keep seeking new answers to it during the Passover seder. There are those who say that everything was predictable: God’s promise to take the people
out of Egypt and Pharaoh’s stubbornness to keep them in Egypt. One can agree with the statement in The Torah, A Modern Commentary (G. Plaut, editor): “God had determined that Pharaoh should act as he did… Pharaoh had only to be himself to do God’s will” (p. 419). But the question
remains whether Moses, Aaron, Miriam and others had expected Pharaoh to say: “Go! Worship the Eternal as you said … And may you bring a blessing upon me also.” The recognition that his stubbornness and absolute power transformed him from the ruler to the victim led Pharaoh to pledge for the blessing to be made by the Hebrews for him.
During the Communist regime, many Jews in the Soviet Union, including my family, bought matza for Passover, despite the prohibitions of the authorities. Why did so many Jews, who did not know the haggadah, or who had heard only snatches of the Passover story and mitsvot, need matza on Passover? The answer to this question can be found in our Parasha. For both the Jews in the Soviet Union and those in our Exodus story, the feeling was that totalitarian rule was temporary and God’s commandment of matza would last for many generations.
Our chapter is actually not only the story of the Exodus, which is the Torah’s answers to the Passover questions, but it also gives good advice for the development of our Jewish communities today. In planning any synagogue event, there are always questions: Who? When? Why? Perhaps these are the questions that need to have a clear answer. In initiating new ideas and bringing on new projects, we often meet “Pharaoh and obstacles”, and obstinacy together with great hope for the blessing and help of God need to prevail in these cases. We need to also consider the role of leaders on whom the success of the event will depend, as in our story there were not only wonders done by God but Moses and Aaron played essential roles in the Exodus story. Whether we plan the congregational trip or community seder, it is necessary to consider the issues and lessons that we discover in our weekly chapter and in the Torah.
About the Author:
Rabbi Grisha Abramovich is a member of the Religious Union For Progressive Judaism in the Republic of Belarus, and Rabbi of the Sandy Breslauer Beit Simcha Center for Progressive Judaism, Minsk, Belarus
The above was previously published as Torah from Around the World #99