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Parashat Bo

Dedicated Le'ilui Nishmat Rachel Levy A'h by Her Grandson Alan Fallas

Parashat Bo

Low to High

In this week’s parasha we encounter the last of the Ten Plagues that Hashem brought upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. If we look back at the sequence of the plagues, we can see a very interesting pattern that conveys the ways in which Hashem works. The pattern they follow is “low to high.” The plagues begin at the lowest point on earth and continuously rise from there.

The first plague is dam—blood, in which water turned to blood. Water is at the lowest point on earth. This was followed by tzefardea—frogs. Frogs are amphibians, who partly live in water and partly on land. The third plague was kinim—lice. Lice are wingless insects that emerge from the ground. Next came arov—wild animals, who live above ground. The fifth plague was dever—pestilence, disease that affects animals. Shechin—boils, affected people. Barad—hail fell from the sky onto the ground. The wind brought arbe—locusts. Next came hoshech—darkness so thick it held the Egyptians motionless. Last was makat bechorot—the killing of the firstborn, when Hashem decided exactly who would die and at what time. These Ten Plagues that Hashem brought in order to break Pharaoh’s will and persuade him to free the slaves ultimately brought about the exodus of B’nei Yisrael from Egypt, so they could become a free people and prepare to accept the Torah at Har Sinai.

Sweet Dreams

It may seem odd that we are told how Pharaoh prepared himself for the final plague of makat bechorot, the plague that finally broke Pharaoh’s will and forced him to let B’nei Yisrael leave Egypt. The passuk says, “Vayakam Pharaoh layla — Pharaoh got up at night (12:30).” Rashi comments just one word: “Mimitato — from his bed.”

What Rashi is saying here is simply that Pharaoh, who was a first-born and who had a first-born son, was so brazen that he was actually able to fall asleep even though he’d been told that he or his son might not live through the night! So after Moshe had approached him nine times, and each of the nine warnings had come to pass, Pharaoh’s yetzer hara was so strong that he still didn’t believe Moshe. Did he think that Hashem was bluffing after everything that Egypt had gone through? This just goes to show us how strong the yetzer hara can be, and how it can fool a person. Even when something should be totally obvious, the yetzer hara can blind a person beyond reason!

G-d’s Diploma

The Ramban has a very famous and remarkable commentary at the end of this parasha. He says that there are three ways that the yetzer hara tries to turn us away from belief in Hashem. It presents us with three levels of denial. The first level is there’s no G-d. The second, there is a G-d, but He doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on in the world. He leaves the world on autopilot. The third level of denial is there is a G-d who’s aware of what’s going on, but He has no control over what happens on a day-to-day basis. The world is in a free-fall, and there is no system of reward and punishment.

The Ramban writes that Hashem saved B’nei Yisrael through the Ten Plagues, which powerfully altered the forces of nature to prove these things one time, and one time only. Hashem is present; He does run the world; there is a system of reward and punishment! The reason that we have so many commandments and that so many of them focus on yetziat mitzrayim—the Exodus from Egypt is to remind us of Hashem’s power and His involvement in our lives. The Ten Plagues and the parting of the sea appear in our daily prayers, and we are reminded each time how Hashem saved us beyad hazaka—with a strong hand! Ramban explains that the holidays we celebrate — Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot — were all given to us as reminders of the Exodus from Egypt.

Pesach teaches us about Hashem through all the rituals of the holiday, such as eating the matza and the gathering around the seder table with different foods that prompt the children to ask questions. We want to engage our children in conversation about yetziat mitzrayim and all the wonders that Hashem performed for B’nei Yisrael to save them from Pharaoh and the Egyptians.

Similarly, in the holiday of Shavuot, we celebrate receiving our holy Torah at Har Sinai. There, Hashem gave us the greatest gift of all, so that we can live by the Torah and pass its precepts and teachings down through the generations from father to son and Rabbi to student.

Finally, there is the celebration of Sukkot, which commemorates the forty years that we traveled through the desert, during which time Hashem fed us with the maan and protected us with the Clouds of Glory. On Sukkot we sit outside of our homes in huts and try to feel what B’nei Yisrael felt when they were traveling through the desert.

Ramban’s main point is that there’s no difference between Hashem’s miracles and nature because it’s all the same! All the miracles that Hashem performed in order to redeem us were intended to show the world that, lehavdil, this is Hashem’s “certification” for the rest of time! To use an analogy, it’s like a doctor who hangs his diplomas on the wall of his office in order to prove or demonstrate that he is qualified in his chosen field of medicine. If anyone ever comes along and questions his credibility, he can just point to the diploma. Similarly, if anyone should ever come along and question G-d, has veshalom, He can “point” to the miracles that He performed for us in Egypt. We are constantly reminded of these miracles through our daily prayers, Shabbat prayers, and our holidays.

Underpaid wages

In the book “Classics and Beyond,” Rabbi Avraham Bukspan discusses the legal claim that the Egyptians brought before Alexander the Great (Sanhedrin 91a). They were trying to recover the vast fortune that the Jews had taken from their ancestors at Moshe’s request. Their argument was that the Jews had only borrowed this great wealth, and now it needed to be returned.

Geviha ben Pesisa advocated on behalf of the Jews. His counterclaim was that 600,000 people left Egypt who had been enslaved by the Egyptians for 430 years. Geviha demanded they be compensated for their labor. After thinking it over for three days, the Egyptians realized that whatever was taken from their country was not even close to adequate compensation for all those years of servitude. So the case was dismissed!

However, the Maharsha asks an obvious question. We did not work in Egypt for 430 years. We weren’t even there that long; we were only in the country for 210 years, and most of those years were not spent as slaves. When we first descended to Egypt, we were treated royally. We were the family of Yosef, the savior of Egypt. Only after all the shevatim died did the mistreatment begin.

In fact, the midrash writes that there were only eighty-six years of hard labor. These years began from the birth of Miriam, Moshe’s older sister. She was called Miriam, which comes from the root of mar—bitter, since that was when the Egyptians began to embitter the lives of the Jews, as it is written, “Vayemareru et chayeihem ba’avodah kashah – They embittered their lives with hard work (Shemot 1:14).”

So how could Geviha ben Pesisa state that we were there for 430 years and claim wages for all those years? The Maharsha says that the eighty-six years were so harsh that it was like 430 years.

Rav Marcus Lehmann, in his Haggadah Shel Pesach, explains it differently. It’s true that we did not work for 430 years, but only eighty-six. However, although 600,000 people left Egypt, five times that amount did the actual work. The Torah tells us, “Va’chamushim alu Bnei Yisrael me’eretz Mitzrayim—The Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt (Shemot 13:18).” Rashi gives an alternative definition for the word chamushim—armed. Chamushim can come from the word chamesh—five. Meaning, one-fifth of B’nei Yisrael ascended from Egypt, while four-fifths died during the Plagues.

Therefore, three million people had worked for eighty-six years, which is the same as 600,000 people working for 430 years: 600,000 x 5 = 3,000,000, and 86 x 5 = 430.

Geviha ben Pesisa did not have to fear that the Egyptians would question the validity of his claim, even though he said that the Jews had been in Egypt for 430 years. If they would have countered that this was not the case, he could have brought up the above mentioned fact.

The Mitzvah of Ve’higgadeta Le’binha

The very last passuk of the parasha reads, “And it shall be a sign upon your arm and an ornament between your eyes, for with a strong hand Hashem removed us from Egypt!” This passuk is the origin of the mitzvah of tefillin. There are four passages written inside the tefillin. The first two are from the Shema and express the concepts that Hashem is One. We accept His Kingship, there is reward and punishment, and we are responsible to observe all the commandments. The second two passages are from this parasha and are basic to Judaism in that they speak of the Exodus, which is central to our awareness of our responsibilities to Hashem, Who liberated us and made us a nation.

The main theme of this parasha is “Ve’higgadeta le’binha—and you shall tell your children (Shemot 13:8).” We are commanded to tell our youth the story of yetziat mitzrayim, to stress how Hashem is intertwined in all parts of our daily lives. It is important to tell over stories that inspire us to do better, to live a life of Torah, so that we may encourage others to do the same.

There is an incredible story that was told over by Rabbi Shlomo Farhi about the importance of telling stories to inspire. Rabbi Mordechai Shapiro once walked down Alenbi Street in Tel Aviv and saw an elderly man selling newsstand items like candy, chips, and drinks. Immediately after someone purchased something, the elderly man turned his head to continue to learn from his open sefer. Rabbi Shapiro walked up to him and asked him what his name was. “My name is Yankel Ochsenkrug, why?” the man said. Rabbi Shapiro said to him, “You don’t seem like the typical storekeeper. You are a pious man, treating your customers with respect, and taking your learning very seriously. Where are you from?” The man thanked him, told him Minsk, and asked where the Rabbi is from. Rabbi Shapiro answered America.

Yankel asked the Rabbi if he was familiar with a person named Arike Sislovitzer. He explained when he was living in Minsk, he worked as a shochet and he would set aside some pennies every day with the intention of supporting Torah learning. When the money grew, he found two young boys and paid for them to be sent to Slabodka Yeshiva, where they could further their Torah education. One of those boys was Arike Sislovitzer, and the other he had forgotten. He had heard over the years that the boy had made it to America. “You probably wouldn’t know him,” Yankel mumbled.

Shocked, Rabbi Shapiro said, “Of course I know him! He is known in America as Rav Aharon Kotler. He founded one of the biggest Torah institutions in America, BMG in Lakewood. He was responsible for bringing Torah to America and led an entire generation of scholars to greatness!” Rabbi Shapiro was so inspired by this man’s story, he told him everything, and traveled back to America to tell the incredible tale over to many rabbis at a Torah U’Mesorah Convention.

Suddenly, there was a big commotion at the head table. Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky stood up in the middle of Rabbi Shapiro’s speech, walked to the podium, and said in Yiddish, “I was the second child.”

After learning with his dear friend Rav Kotler in Slabodka and then travelling to America, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky went on to head the Yeshiva Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn, a center for learning that now has over 2,000 students in attendance! Reb Yaakov provided the American Jewish community halachic and spiritual guidance along with Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky and Rav Aharon Kotler remained close from childhood until Rav Kotler passed away.

Yankel, an elderly man who slowly set aside mere pennies, did what he could, and later only owned a small kiosk in Tel Aviv, was singlehandedly responsible for paving the way for two of the greatest Talmidei Hachamim of 20th century America. He saved his pennies so two precocious teens could have the chance to fulfill and exceed their greatest potential in this world. The true nature of Yankel Ochsenkrug’s impact on the world was only known from recounting this inspiring story.

May we all understand that our tefillot, our mitzvot, and keeping Shabbat and all of our holidays are all meant to be reminders of Hashem’s greatness. He delivered us from the bondage of Egypt so that we could receive the Torah as a free people, become His nation, and observe His mitzvot. May we tell our children the story of yetziat mitzrayim and other inspiring stories to instill in them a love of Hashem and Torah, Amen!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Amram Sananes as written by Jack Rahmey

Discussion Points:

  • Do we concentrate on remembering the miracles of yetziat mitzrayim during our daily prayers?


  • The Ten Plagues have a theme of “low to high;” they begin at the lowest point on earth and continuously rise from there.

  • Pharaoh, who was a first-born and who had a first-born son, was so brazen that he was able to fall asleep even though he’d been told that he or his son might not live through the night! We learn how strong the yetzer hara can be, and how it can blind a person beyond reason.

  • Ramban explains that the reason that we have so many commandments, and that so many of our commandments focus on yetziat mitzrayim—the Exodus from Egypt is to remind us of Hashem’s power and His involvement in our daily lives. The very nature of our daily prayers, Shabbat prayers, and the holidays is centered around our redemption.

  • The main theme of this parasha is “Ve’higgadeta le’binha—and you shall tell your children.” We are commanded to tell our youth the story of yetziat mitzrayim, to tell over stories that inspire us to do better, to live a life of Torah, so that we may encourage others to do the same.

Le’ilui Nishmat....

Eliyahu Ben Rachel

Rabbi Shimon Chay Ben Yaasher

Avraham Ben Garaz

Sarah Bat Chanah

Esther Bat Sarah

Avraham Ben Mazal

Shulamit Bat Helaina

Rabbi Meyer Ben Chana

Rahamim Ben Mazal

Batsheva Bat Sarah Esther

Rafael Ben Miriam

Ovadia Ben Esther

Rav Haim Ben Rivka

Moshe Ben Mazal

Moshe Ben Yael

Yitzchak Ben Adele

Avraham Ben Mazal

Meir Ben Latifa

Chanah Bat Esther

Yaakov Ben Rachel

Malka Bat Garaz

Moshe Ben Garaz

Avraham Ben Kami

Yaakov Ben Leah

Mordechai Ben Rachel

Chacham Shaul Rachamim Ben Mazal

Natan Ben Rachel

Saadia Ben Miriam

Eliyah Ben Latifa Simhon

Margalit Bat Mazal

Ovadia Haim Ben Malaky

Rabbi Aharon Chaim Ben Ruchama

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