SALT - Parashat Bo 5781 / 2021
Parashat Bo tells of Benei Yisrael’s departure from Egypt after the tenth and final plague – the plague of the firstborn – convinced Pharaoh to release the enslaved nation. Addressing the nation after their departure, Moshe instructed them to forever remember that momentous day (13:3), adding, “Today you are leaving – in the month of spring” (13:4). Moshe found it worthwhile to emphasize to the people that they left Egypt “be-chodesh ha-aviv” – “during the month of spring,” referring to the month of Nissan, which marks the onset of the spring season.
The Mekhilta, commenting on this verse, cites a verse in Tehillim (68:30) which speaks of how the Almighty “motzi asirim ba-kosharot” – “releases prisoners at the right times.” According to the Mekhilta, this refers to the Exodus from Egypt, when Benei Yisrael were released from bondage in the season which was, in the Mekhilta’s words, “kasher” – most suitable for travel. The springtime is a period of year when conditions are, generally, neither uncomfortably hot nor uncomfortably cold and wet. The Mekhilta explains that Moshe emphasized to the people the season of the Exodus to underscore the fact that God led them from Egypt at the time of year when traveling is easiest and most comfortable. (Rashi cites this remark of the Mekhilta in his commentary to this verse in Tehillim.)
What might be the significance of this detail of the Exodus? Would it have really mattered to Benei Yisrael if they had left during the hot summer or cold winter?
Rav Yechezkel of Shinova, in Divrei Yechezkel, offers a symbolic understanding of the Midrash’s comment. The Exodus occurred in the springtime, he explains, to teach about the need for moderation in religious life. Heat is often used as a metaphor for intense zeal and passion, whereas the experience of cold is commonly associated with apathy and disinterest. Our nation left the service of Pharaoh and entered the service of the Almighty specifically during the springtime, which is neither exceedingly hot nor exceedingly cold, because we must avoid both extremes in our service of God. Of course, we must not approach our religious duties dispassionately, and certainly not begrudgingly, but rather with energy and enthusiasm. At the same time, however, we must beware of excessive fervor, which could lead us to try lunging to spiritual heights for which we are as yet unsuited. Overly passionate religious fervor leads to unrealistic goals and expectations, which in turn leads to failure and disappointment. Religious growth must be approached with a delicate balance between excitement and patience. We must, certainly, feel enthusiastic and passionate about our commitment to God and our desire to serve Him, but these emotions must be tempered by a humble, honest recognition of our limits and of the realities of human life. Like our ancestors at the time of the Exodus, we are to embark on our journey in a manner that is neither “cold” and dispassionate, nor “blazing” with ecstatic fervor, but rather with a genuinely passionate but realistic drive to serve our Creator to the best of our ability.
In the final section of Parashat Bo, we read the series of commands which Moshe conveyed to Benei Yisrael immediately after the Exodus from Egypt. These include the law of peter chamor, the special status assigned to a male firstborn donkey (13:2). The Torah requires the owner to redeem the donkey by paying a sheep to a kohein, and if not, then he must kill the donkey.
The Gemara in Masekhet Bekhorot (5b) offers an explanation for why the donkey should be singled out from among all non-kosher species of animal for a special status of sanctity. It explains that, as the Torah relates (12:35-36), Benei Yisrael left Egypt with immense wealth, as they asked the Egyptians for their belongings before their departure, and the Egyptians happily complied. Donkeys were used to haul this precious cargo out of Egypt, and this role served by the donkeys resulted in God’s assigning them a special status of sanctity.
Rav Yosef Chaim Sonenfeld (cited and discussed by Rav Yissachar Frand) remarked that the Gemara here teaches that we become “sacred” by extending ourselves and working hard for our fellow. The notion of donkeys achieving a certain status of sanctity by transporting huge quantities of cargo shows that we become holy people through the efforts we expend on behalf of other people.
Elsewhere, Chazal famously point to the work of a donkey as an apt metaphor for intensive Torah learning. Yaakov, before his passing, compares the tribe of Yissakhar to a “chamor garem” – “strong-boned donkey,” which has been understood as a reference to the scholars produced by this tribe. The donkey’s strength, durability and consistency represent the diligence and discipline of Torah scholars who exert immense efforts and devote great amounts of time to acquire Torah knowledge. Significantly, in regard to the command of peter chamor, Chazal see the donkey as symbolizing not the investment of hard work in Torah study, but rather the investment of hard work for the sake of another person’s mundane, physical needs. In this context, at least according to Rav Sonenfeld’s understanding, the donkey’s work and effort characterize the work and effort people exert to help others transport their belongings. The point being made is that we attain sanctity not only through inherently spiritual pursuits such as Torah learning, but also through the seemingly routine, everyday favors we do for our fellow. As Rav Yisrael Salanter famously quipped, “Another person’s gashmiyut [physical needs] is your ruchaniyut [spirituality].” There is nothing mundane about simple favors such as helping somebody carry his belongings. To the contrary, these deeds, like intensive Torah study, elevate us and make us sacred.
The ninth plague which God brought upon the Egyptians was the plague of darkness, during which the Egyptians were unable to see or even move, whereas Benei Yisrael enjoyed ordinary light (10:22-23). Rashi cites a famous passage in the Midrash (Shemot Rabba 14:3) explaining that God brought this plague to give Benei Yisrael the opportunity to search through the Egyptians’ homes and take stock of their possessions. As we read later (11:2, 12:35), God commanded Benei Yisrael in preparation for the Exodus to ask their Egyptian neighbors for their belongings to take with them as they left, and Benei Yisrael complied. In anticipation of the people’s asking the Egyptians for their belongings, the Midrash writes, God brought darkness upon the Egyptians so that Benei Yisrael could freely search their homes and see all they had, in case the Egyptians would later deny having what to give to Benei Yisrael.
Chizkuni cites Rashi’s comments, and then notes the verse later in the parasha (12:36) which tells that at the time of the Exodus, when Benei Yisrael asked the Egyptians for their belongings, “…the Lord placed the people’s favor in their eyes…” The Torah there states that God saw to it that Benei Yisrael found favor in the Egyptians’ eyes, such that the Egyptians happily gave them their possessions. It seems that Chizkuni here questions the Midrash’s account which Rashi brings, describing how the Egyptians tried denying owning riches, and Benei Yisrael responding by listing the items they found during the plague of darkness. The Torah states explicitly that the Egyptians gave Benei Yisrael their possessions because they looked upon them favorably, not because of their failed attempt to dishonestly deny having possessions.
One possible answer to this question, as suggested by Rav Chaim Elazary in his Netivei Chaim, is that Rash did not mean that Benei Yisrael ultimately needed to resort to the lists they compiled during the plague of darkness. Perhaps, Rashi’s intent is that Benei Yisrael prepared for the possibility that the Egyptians would deny having riches by scouring the Egyptians’ homes during the plague, but in the end, this proved unnecessary, because the Egyptians happily gave them their belongings. (This explanation seems difficult to accept, however, in light of the fact that Rashi speaks of Benei Yisrael searching through the Egyptians’ homes to answer the question, “Why did He [God] bring upon them [the Egyptians] darkness.” According to the Midrash, God brought the plague of darkness for this purpose – to allow Benei Yisrael the opportunity to see what the Egyptians had in their homes, indicating that this was necessary in order for Benei Yisrael to obtain the Egyptians’ riches at the time of the Exodus.)
Alternatively, Rav Elazary writes, Rashi may have understood that although the Egyptians graciously parted with some possessions at the time of the Exodus, they tried keeping for themselves possessions with the false claim of not having more to give. Indeed, as the Torah tells, Benei Yisrael found favor in the Egyptians’ eyes and the Egyptians happily gave them some of their belongings. However, they then claimed to have given all they had, and so Benei Yisrael named their remaining possessions which they had seen during the plague of darkness.
Even if we are gracious and generous, we have not necessarily given or done all we could. Sometimes, although we help and give to those in need, we falsely deny being able to help more. The Midrash’s account of the plague of darkness perhaps is meant to teach us to be honest about our “possessions,” about our means and our capabilities. If we have resources or talents that can be used to help and contribute, then we must avoid the tendency to deny having them, and instead commit to give and achieve all that we can, to the very best of our ability.
(We should note that the Midrash itself appears to answer this question. It explains that at the time of the Exodus, when Benei Yisrael approached the Egyptians and named the possessions which they had seen during the plague of darkness, they earned favor in the Egyptians’ eyes by proving their ethical standards. The Egyptians were shown that Benei Yisrael had free access to their homes, and yet, they did not take anything. It is precisely in this way that Benei Yisrael found favor in the Egyptians’ eyes, and they gave them their belongings to take with them out of Egypt.)
The Torah tells in Parashat Bo that during the ninth plague, the plague of darkness, while the Egyptians were unable to see or move about, “there was light for all the Israelites in their residences” (10:23). The simple meaning of the verse is that in contrast to the Egyptians, who were plunged into darkness, the areas where Benei Yisrael lived were sunlit as usual.
Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer (19), however, as well as the Midrash Lekach Tov, comment that throughout this plague, Benei Yisrael enjoyed sunlight even during the nighttime. The miracle of this plague, according to these sources, was not only that the Egyptians were in darkness even by day, but also that Benei Yisrael had sunlight even at night, and this is then is the intent of the verse, “there was light for all the Israelites in their residences.” Rabbeinu Efrayim, in his commentary, finds an allusion to this miracle in the final letters of the words “u-l-khol Benei Yisrael haya” (“and for all the Israelites there was”), which spell the word “layla” – “night,” indicating that Benei Yisrael had light even during the nighttime.
Some have suggested explaining on this basis Targum Yonatan ben Uziel’s comment to this verse, stating that during the plague of darkness, when Benei Yisrael enjoyed light, “they were privileged to involve themselves in mitzvot in their residences.” According to Targum Yonatan, it seems, the Torah emphasizes that Benei Yisrael enjoyed light during this period to indicate that they had the opportunity to perform mitzvot. While the Egyptians were engulfed by darkness, unable to engage in constructive activity, Benei Yisrael had sunlight which enabled them to pursue spiritual achievement. If we apply Targum Yonatan’s reading to the Midrashic tradition that Benei Yisrael had light even at nighttime during the plague of darkness, then it emerges that Benei Yisrael were given extra time for performing mitzvot. During this plague, they were given additional hours of illumination, and they seized those hours as a precious opportunity to serve the Almighty. Targum Yonatan draws our attention to the fact that Benei Yisrael did not simply enjoy the extra light they were miraculously given, but utilized it for the lofty purpose of performing mitzvot.
All of us, in one way or another, have received special “light,” unique opportunities and capabilities. We all have singular talents, skills, resources or circumstances that allow us to achieve in a distinct way. Targum Yonatan’s interpretation of this verse – “there was light for all the Israelites in their residences” – teaches us to utilize all our special “light” for the right purpose, to capitalize on all opportunities we have been given to perform mitzvot and serve God. The “light” and blessings we have been given are to be not just enjoyed, but utilized in the service of the Almighty and for the sake of making the greatest contribution that we can make.
Before the tenth and final plague that God brought upon Egypt – the plague of the firstborn – Moshe warned Pharaoh that God would kill every firstborn in Egypt, “from Pharaoh’s firstborn…until the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the mill…” (11:5). Indeed, later (12:29), we read that when the plague struck, God killed even the firstborn of the slaves in captivity.
Rashi (11:5), citing the Mekhilta, raises the question of why even the maidservants were included in this plague, and he explains, “They, too, would subjugate them [Benei Yisrael] and rejoiced in their distress.” The Taz, in Divrei David, understands that Rashi here presents two different reasons for why even the maidservants were deserving of punishment – because they also took part in the oppression of Benei Yisrael; or, alternatively, they did not actually oppress Benei Yisrael, as they themselves were lowly slaves, but nevertheless, they celebrated Benei Yisrael’s suffering, and for this they were punished.
Maharal of Prague, by contrast, in Gur Aryeh, explains that Rashi here gives but a single reason for why the maidservants deserved to be punished. He writes that the maidservants were ordered by their masters to force Benei Yisrael to perform slave labor. For this they would not have deserved to be punished, as they were under coercion. However, these maidservants followed their orders gleefully, relishing the opportunity to fill the role of oppressor, rather than the oppressed. And so they were included with the rest of Egypt in the deadly plague which God unleashed to punish the country for their cruelty to Benei Yisrael, because they happily complied with the commands they received to oppress Benei Yisrael.
This comment of the Mekhilta perhaps warns that victimhood should not lead one to celebrate the suffering of others. When God set out to punish the Egyptians for enslaving Benei Yisrael, He did not make an exception for those who were themselves enslaved, because their having suffered the pain and humiliation of slavery did not entitle them to enslave others, or even to celebrate the slavery of others. We are expected to deal kindly with other people even if we were not always dealt kindly with, and we are expected to wish for their wellbeing of other people even if we have suffered harm. The maidservants who celebrated Benei Yisrael’s suffering were not absolved from punishment despite their own misfortune, because a person’s misfortune does not allow him to wish misfortune upon others.
We read in Parashat Bo that after Moshe warned Pharaoh of the eighth plague, the plague of locusts, Pharaoh’s servants implored the king to yield, and to allow Benei Yisrael to leave the country. Pharaoh summoned Moshe and Aharon back to the palace and informed them that he was prepared to let the people go, asking, “Who are those who are going?” (10:8). Moshe replied, “We shall go with our youth and with our elderly; with our sons and with our daughters, with our sheep and with our cattle we shall go, for we have a festival for the Lord” (10:9). Pharaoh refused, demanding that only the adult males leave, and he drove Moshe and Aharon from the palace.
Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch comments that Moshe’s demand expresses the notion that there are no agents in the service of God. Each and every individual bears personal religious responsibility, and one cannot discharge his duty through an agent acting on his behalf. Rav Hirsch writes:
We have no intermediary, no priests, no representative before our God. If we are to go, we must all go; the tiniest baby in the cradle, the last sheep of our possessions. Each and all are integral parts of our community. None and nothing may remain… God calls us together around Him, and when God calls us, He wants to see us with every member of our family and with all our possessions, about Him.
Rav Nachum Mordechai of Novominsk, in his Pe’er Nachum, adds further insight into Moshe’s demand that the transition from the service of Pharaoh to the service of God must include both young and old. Youthfulness has the advantage of excitement and enthusiasm, the energetic, passionate and idealistic pursuit of one’s goals. In our older years, we generally lose this excitement, at least to some extent, but on the other hand, our experience gives us greater wisdom and understanding, enabling us to do what we do at a higher standard. When it comes to religious observance, the Rebbe of Novominsk remarks, we must endeavor to combine youthful energy and enthusiasm with the patience and wisdom of adulthood. We are to strive to serve God “with our youth and with our elderly” – combining youthful idealism with maturity and sophistication. We should see these two qualities not as conflicting with one another, but rather as complementing one another, merging together and enabling us to serve the Almighty in the most complete manner possible, with both passion and wisdom.
The ninth plague that God brought upon Egypt, as we read in Parashat Bo, was the plague of darkness, during which time the Egyptians were engulfed in darkness and could not see each other or move from their place (10:23).
The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 14:2) cites an intriguing debate among the Tannaim regarding the “origin” of the darkness that descended upon Egypt. Posing the question, “From where was that darkness,” the Midrash proceeds to cite two opinions. Rabbi Nechemia answered that this darkness came from gehinnom – the underworld, where the souls of the evil are punished. Naturally, this darkness, which thrust the Egyptians into a long, painful period of solitude, is associated – in Rabbi Nechemia’s view – with the suffering of gehinnom. Rabbi Yehuda, however, surprisingly, stated that this darkness descended from the “choshekh shel ma’ala” – the darkness of the uppermost heavenly realms. According to Rabbi Yehuda, this darkness originated not from gehinnom, but from heaven.
Rav Dr. Norman Lamm suggested that these two views reflect the dual nature of the experience of solitude. On the one hand, of course, solitude is an experience from “gehinnom,” one that can create great angst, fear and depression. However, solitude can also be “from the heavens,” allowing us the opportunity to connect with our innermost beings and with God, by freeing us from the noise, commotion and distractions all around us. Rav Lamm writes:
Darkness or solitude can become the curse of loneliness, as it did when it plagued the Egyptians and separated every man from his brother, a loneliness that prevented one from feeling with the other, from sharing his grief and his joy, his dreams and his fears. Darkness can indeed be a plague. But the same darkness can be a blessing, it can be worthy of the closest presence of G-d Himself. For solitude means privacy, it means not only a devastating loneliness but also that precious opportunity when a man escapes from the loud brawl of life and the constant claims of society and in the intimate seclusion of his own soul and heart he gets to know himself and realize that he is made in the image of G-d. Loneliness can be painful – but it can also be precious. The same CHOSHECH that can spell plague for a man if it seals him off from others by making him blind to the needs of his fellows, this same CHOSHECH becomes G-dly when it enables a man to become more than just a social animal, more than just a member of a group, but also a full, mature, unique individual in his own right.
Rabbi Yehuda teaches us that “darkness” is not, intrinsically, a plague. Solitude, at the right times and in the right doses, can be a “heavenly” experience, a valuable means of exploring our innermost thoughts, feelings, fears, aspirations and hopes, of assessing and reassessing our lives and our conduct, and of enhancing our relationship with our Creator.
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