This week, we read Parsha BO, and the content of this Parsha is probably some of the most familiar that we read in the Torah. Here we see the continuation of the plagues, from eight through ten, when Pharaoh finally relents and releases the Israelites. Not just the “menfolk,” as he once promised, but everyone. Not just all the people, but the people and all their animals. And, finally, not just the people and the animals but also an incredible supply of gold and silver.
I’d focus a little on those well-known plagues. We recite the list at the Pesach seder, and we probably know them by heart. This is all so familiar, isn’t it? Maybe even too familiar . . . I’m sure you know that there are even kids’ toys that are supposed to represent each of the ten plagues. Like anything very familiar, there may be ways that we are missing some questions that don’t occur to us because we take this narrative for granted.
So let me see if I can raise some questions about this list that might not be so obvious to everyone.
First question: why are the plagues in the order that they’re in? In other words, why are frogs TWO and locusts eight? Why is “Bloody water” the first plague? Well, the sages tell us that these plagues go from least bad to the worst. That makes sense, if we think about the last plague, the deaths of the first-born sons. It’s hard to know what makes locusts almost the worst, except that we know from Eytz Hayyim that a swarm of locusts can contain as many as 50 MILLION insects and that they can consume 100,000 TONS of vegetation. That had to be far more devastating than some bloody water and some frogs, however tough that must have been. Rashi tells us that it was one particularly destructive species of locusts that was never seen before in Egypt and will never be seen again. If we imagine an agrarian economy like Egypt’s, that plague could have spelled famine for years to come.
Second question: what changes with the eighth plague? Well, we read that, for the first time, Pharaoh’s courtiers begin to challenge him. As they say, “How long shall this be a snare to us? . . . Are you not aware that Egypt is lost?” Those words pose a real challenge to Pharaoh’s power, and it must have taken courage for these minions to argue against Pharaoh’s might. We can only imagine how frustrated and terrified they must have been, and how Pharaoh’s stubbornness had to seem completely irrational and likely to doom the country. Sidebar here: this moment reminds me of Hitler’s completely irrational attempts to destroy all the Jews, even when it was clear that Germany could not win the war. In fact, his hatred of the Jews was so consuming that he took scarce resources that could have gone to the military and used them to try to wipe out the remnants of our people.
Third question: how is the last plague—the deaths of the firstborns—different from all the other plagues? I know that the answer might seem obvious: people die in the last plague. But I’m guessing that people died from hail or from diseases carried by vermin or from the swarming locusts or even from falling in the dark. So that answer doesn’t seem to work. Thoughts? Well, according to some scholars, the last plague was significantly different because it was the ONLY PLAGUE THAT COULD NOT HAVE OCCURRED THROUGH SOME NATURAL MEANS. In other words, perhaps an eclipse caused the darkness. Perhaps the frogs appeared because the Nile overflowed its banks. But there’s NO explanation for the inexplicable deaths, not only of a large group of people, but a very purposeful group, namely the first-born. It’s possible that Pharaoh, with all of his sorcerers and magicians on staff, could have believed that any of them could have cast a spell to make the waters bloody; but there was no way any of them could possibly have caused such a divine act of retribution.
Final question: Why is the darkness the next-to-last plague? Remember that I mentioned that the plagues get worse as we go from one to ten. Wouldn’t you think that, after vermin and bloody water and locusts and boils (sh’chin), that a little darkness couldn’t have been so awful? Couldn’t they have just lit candles? Couldn’t the Egyptians simply sit tight until the plague ran its course? And this plague, unlike the others, doesn’t seem to cause any tangible harm.
I think we could think about this in a couple of ways. The first is very practice—without light, everything around us is reduced to an obstacle. Anything, even vast riches, can trip up a person who walks in darkness. In other words, the very objects that might have helped us to improve our lives become dangerous threats to us.
And another reason: light motivates us to action. Darkness breeds depression and passivity. Think about how happy we all are to add a minute or two of light to each of these days! When we are “in the light,” can raise about ourselves and move beyond our own immediate needs. The Egyptians were in a state of total spiritual darkness. They couldn’t even see their “brother,” meaning that they couldn’t care about anyone but themselves. And even candles couldn’t save them. The Israelites didn't suffer from the plague, because their light was provided for by Torah and mitzvot—As Proverbs tells us, "A mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light". When we have the illumination of the Torah and its mitzvoth, a whole new world comes to light. Obstacles are no longer obstacles; instead, they become God’s creations meant to assist us on our spiritual journey.
The ninth plague teaches us that it is in our hands to brighten our lives; we have all the tools we need to do so. And when we manage to live in light despite the darkness that surrounds us, we are able to see our brothers and sisters, to rise above our own immediate needs and instincts to become a community, a true people.
This week, we read of Moshe’s trials and the challenges he faces in trying, with God’s help, to liberate B’Nai Yisrael. There was the stubbornness of Pharaoh, of course, and his unwillingness to obey his upstart step-son. But even before dealing with the King, Moshe must convince his own people that there was hope, there was redemption on the very near horizon. Moshe has grave doubts about whether he can do it. Why?
The Torah tells us that God spoke to Moshe saying that he would bring the people out of Egypt. The exact wording is:
וְלָֽקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם
Now, Sivlot is generally translated as “burdens”, but it has another meaning in Hebrew, “patience”, Savlanut. If we use this alternate translation, the verse would read, “I will deliver you from being patient with Egypt. Last week in SHEMOT B’Nai Yisrael criticized Moshe and Aharon for having agitated Pharaoh by calling for their freedom. They had become so used to slavery that they were not willing to make any sacrifice for freedom. Slavery had become an acceptable way of life for them. This is similar to people who are incarcerated and begin to define their lives as inmates. They are said to have an institutional mentality. We even hear of some inmates who get in fights just before they’re going to be released; it’s their way of trying to remain in their familiar prison setting. The Jews certainly qualified for this sort of “institutionalized” thinking. And this is not the last time they beg to stay slaves. Because we have seen a few cycles of the Torah, we know that in a few weeks, we will be recounting the people’s reminiscences of their days of servitude, remembering the good old days, when we had fish, squash, melons, leeks, cucumbers, onions and garlic!
Moshe’s first challenge, then, was to overcome the tolerance of enslavement. We, as Americans raised in a country where liberty is most highly prized, can understand how tragic it is when people who have been deprived of basic human rights do not even perceive a problem.
Moshe was a leader who went forth to the people, among the people, inspiring them to reject slavery as a way of life. He first had to have them feel their deprivation before he could, with God’s help, effect a change. So this tells us that strong leadership really means three things: first, helping people to realize that their lives are not what they should be; second, showing those same people that they can have a better life and what that might look like; AND, finally, convincing the people that they are strong enough to accomplish that. When the people are especially “stiff-necked,” like b’nai Yisreal, that’s not an easy thing to do!
I’m sure that we all have our ideas about who are the heroes of the Torah. And we are about to begin the narrative of one of our greatest heroes—Moshe. But tonight I want to focus on another hero, someone who is not even named in the parsha.
We know the story well. The new Pharaoh, who has forgotten Joseph, has decided that the Jews are becoming a threat. So he orders all Jewish male babies killed. The mother of baby Moses can no longer hide him, so, when he is three months old, she puts him into a basket which she then sets on the Nile. I’m sure that she hoped that some compassionate person would come along and take pity on her son.
Well, that’s exactly what happens, but I’m sure that Jocheved, mother of Moshe, couldn’t have imagined the actual rescuer of her son: she is Pharaoh’s daughter. She saves Moshe from death, and she is the hero of this story. Without her intervention, Moshe might have died and perhaps we would not have been freed from bondage.
Yet this person is not given a name by the Torah. Now I know that the Torah doesn’t always give women a fair shake, but in this parsha, we have names for the midwives who rebel against pharaoh’s order. We have Moshe’s sister Miriam, who also is a key part of the story. And I’ve already mentioned Jocheved. But we don’t have a name for Pharaoh’s daughter. Who was she?
According to Chronicles, Pharaoh had a daughter named BITYA. Some have called her BATYA or BITTHIAH. Whatever her name, she knew that this was a Hebrew child. And that knowledge does not keep her from rescuing the baby and bringing him home to raise him as her own. And all that is obviously in defiance of Pharaoh’s direct orders.
Jonathon Sacks makes a very interesting observation about the importance of Batya. He points out that many of our patriarchs and matriarchs are named by God—for example, Jacob becomes Israel after his encounter with the angel; God renames Avram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah. And, obviously, God named Adam and Eve. But it is Pharaoh’s daughter who names Moshe, which is an Egyptian name. God does not change the name, and to this day we identify the savior of our people with a name that was part of the culture that enslaved us. BUT Sacks hypothesizes that God was so moved by Batya’s rescue that He allowed her name to remain. He deferred to her decision. That’s pretty remarkable.
And there are other testaments to Batya’s righteousness: according to our tradition, she survived the plague of the first-born. In the blockbuster film of 1956 Batya even joins the exodus in leaving Egypt. And one other: according to the sages, there were nine people so righteous that they entered heaven directly while they were alive. In other words, they didn’t have to die at all. Batya was one of them. (If you’re curious about who were the others, they are:
· Elijah (Kings II Chapter 2, Verse 11)
· Serach, the daughter of Asher - one of the sons of Jacob
· Enoch (Genesis 5:22-24)
· Eliezer, the servant of Abraham
· Hiram, king of Tyre
· Ebed-Melech, an Ethiopian, AND
· Jaabez, the son of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi)
These are certainly not big names, but the idea is that they did something so righteous that God favored them with direct entrance to Paradise. Their physical bodies never died.
If you’ve been to Yad Vashem in Israel, then you know that there is an area called the Hall of Righteous Gentiles. In a way, Batya/Bitya/Bithiah is the first righteous Gentile. She risked her own safety and comfort because she took pity not simply on an innocent baby but on an innocent JEWISH baby. Let us pray that she may serve as an example for all of us.
We read in our Parsha this week, Vayechi, about the blessings and rebukes that Jacob metes out to his sons. The Torah tells us that he “bade them farewell,” and leaves each of them with a parting message “appropriate to him.” Jacob knows that he is about to die, and he wants to leave them with his own summary of their strengths and weaknesses. He calls to them, and what we hear in this portion is not only a description of the individual son but also a more global description of the tribe that each of them leads. The picture he paints is often not flattering, sometimes referring—as he does with Reuben, Shimon and Levi--to sins they have committed in the past.
We have no idea how each son reacted to his father’s final words to him, but we can imagine that, in some cases, this message was not easy to hear. Jacob distills each of their characters—often through animal metaphors—Judah is the lion’s whelp, Benjamin is a ‘ravenous wolf,’ and Naphtali is a ‘hind let loose which yields lovely fawns.” For Reuben, he reserves a different kind of metaphor; he tells him that he is as “unstable as water.” I don’t know how I would feel if those were the last words that my father said to me.
In some cases, Jacob refers to the past, in other cases he signals the future. We know that here he makes clear that Judah will lead the people, and we can’t help but wonder if he’s learned anything from all of his family misery because—yet again—he makes clear that Joseph is the favored son. STILL. He calls him “the elect of his brothers,” and though Joseph is not meant to lead the people, he nevertheless gets blessings that, in Jacob’s words, surpass “the blessings of my ancestors.”
Eytz Hayyim tells us that this portion is poetic, and it is full of metaphors. I’ve mentioned animals and water, for example. And there’s another important metaphor in Vayechi, a metaphor that Jacob has used in the earlier section of this Parsha. It has just come up when Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasheh, and Jacob uses exactly the same metaphor when he blesses their father, Joseph. But it’s not a metaphor that refers to THEM, but rather a metaphor that refers to GOD. The word is “shepherd.” For Ephraim and Manasseh, he invokes “THE GOD WHO HAS BEEN MY SHEPHERD FROM MY BIRTH TO THIS DAY.” (48:15)
And to Joseph, he calls upon the “shepherd, THE ROCK OF ISRAEL.” (49:24)
Though we are used to this metaphor, we may not realize that this is the first time that we read in the Torah of God being referred to as a shepherd. Fast forward to King David. To the most famous of his many psalms. And what do we read there?: THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD. It is our patriarch Jacob to whom we are indebted for this metaphor.
So many people mistakenly think of the first five books of Moses as portraying a so-called vengeful, wrathful God. But here in Vayechi, in just a few little verses, we see that the God of our patriarchs is a loving God. A God who cares and protects and blesses and watches over us. A SHEPHERD.