Dedicated Leilui Nishmat Malka bat Geraz, Millie Marcus A’h by Her Sons
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 86 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 86 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 86. 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 86 years, which is exactly the same as 600,000 people working for 430 years: 600,000 x 430 = 258,000,000 and 3,000,000 x 86 = 258,000,000. 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 abovementioned 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 parasha focuses on “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 Yoel Gold about the importance of telling stories to inspire. It was February of 2011 when Rabbi Yotav Eliach led a trip to Israel for a group of 50 American high school students. The last stop of the trip before they went to the airport was the cemetery in Har Herzl. As you can imagine, walking through the cemetery and looking at the graves of the young soldiers who gave up their lives and hearing their heroic stories can be a very emotional and moving experience. “The most difficult place to visit,” said Rabbi Eliach, “is Har Herzl. And that is because instead of the young burying the old, the old are burying the young.” As Rabbi Eliach explained to the students the sacrifice that these young soldiers and their families had made, he suddenly noticed an elderly couple standing just a few feet away crying over a grave. Rabbi Eliach noted, “Everything I had been describing about what it means to parents and families was right there. It was very clear that this was a mother and father visiting their child’s grave.” The tombstone included a picture of a young Israeli soldier named Erez Deri. One of the students leaned over and gently asked the mother, “Could you tell us a little bit about your son?” Mrs. Deri began relating how Erez was a paratrooper in the Israeli army and was tragically killed in 2006. But then Mrs. Deri told the group of students something which left them speechless. “Last night I had a dream. Erez came to me and said, ‘You didn’t merit to lead me to down to my hupah in marriage. Instead, I would like you to dedicate a Sefer Torah in my name. If a Torah is written in my memory, it will be as if you are sending me to my hupah.’” But that was not all Erez relayed to his mother. He had something even more surprising to say. “Go to Har Herzl. There you will find good people who will help you write a Sefer Torah.” Those ‘good people’ who Mrs. Deri would meet the next day were these group of students. One student remarked, “Something about this woman just sparked a connection with us, and we decided to take on this project to fundraise for a Sefer Torah and dedicate it in memory of Erez. We told Mrs. Deri we would be back next year with a Sefer Torah to fulfill her dream.” This group was a mix of secular kids and religious kids, kids from both yeshivot and public schools. They all felt so passionate about taking on this momentous project. Exactly one year later, the same group of students returned with a brand-new Torah and headed to Ma’ale Adumim to write the final letters. They gathered in Erez’s room, noticing his uniform hanging pressed against the wall. On his desk, the Sefer Torah was laid down as the last few letters were written. “I was in tears,” Erez’s mother later said. “I was so emotionally moved. I felt as if all of Am Yisrael was with us.” Everyone felt the excitement as they concluded adding the last letters and began parading down the street. All types of Jews from all walks of life were there, dancing and singing in unison. Am Yisrael was there. A story like this ought to make us feel proud to be a part of the Jewish people. Jews can meet anywhere in the world, whether it be in a cemetery in Israel, or in an airport in Beijing. It makes no difference where, but there is an immediate feeling of connection, regardless of how different we look on the outside. Even if our homes are thousands of miles away, our hearts are so close. We are all interconnected and inextricably bound to one another. Rabbi Baruch Rosenblum brings down a beautiful chiddush from the Sfat Emet about the famous passuk in Parashat Shemot. The passuk says, “And B’nei Yisrael cried out, and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to G-d.” The Sfat Emet says it wasn’t the whole Jewish Nation crying out to Hashem. When people are enslaved and doing brutal labor, they have no time or strength to cry about their pain. Pharaoh did not let them have that luxury. Rather, it was the tribe of Levi that cried on behalf of their brothers who were working until they were broken. The Leviim were not forced to work, but they empathized for their fellow Jews, and they cried out to Hashem as if it were their own pain. Therefore, they were rewarded to serve Hashem in the Bet Hamikdash. “Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh — all Jews are responsible for one another!” May we 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 all utilize the power of tefillah and cry out to Hashem on behalf of others. May we tell our children the story of yetziat mitzrayim and other inspiring stories to instill in them a love of Hashem, Torah and the Jewish Nation, 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.
“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.
The Leviim were not forced to work, but they empathized for their fellow Jews, and they cried out to Hashem on behalf of B’nei Yisrael. Therefore, they were rewarded to serve Hashem in the Bet Hamikdash.
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