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Parashat Bo

Le'ilui Nishmat Mildred "Millie" Marcus – Malka bat Gerez A’H

7 Shevat

By The Marcus Family

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 tzefardeah—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 arbeh—locusts. Next came choshech—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 firstborn and who had a firstborn 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!

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 chazaka—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 matzah and 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, on 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 to redeem us were intended to show the world that 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, chas 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: 3,000,000 x 86 = 258,000,000 and 600,000 x 430 = 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 facts.

The Mitzvah of Ve’higgadeta Le’bincha

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’bincha—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.

Jews Are Responsible For 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 lazehall Jews are responsible for one another!”

Rabbi Yisrael Brog told a great story about a rabbi from Israel who was struggling to make ends meet. He tried going door to door to collect, but it was the beginning of Covid, and no one was answering their doors. He wanted to travel to America, but he knew the pandemic was detrimental to collectors, as people were afraid to welcome strangers into their homes, plus they were struggling financially, much less likely to donate. The rabbi went to Rav Chaim Kanievsky to ask for advice, “I need to marry off my daughter. Should I go to America to collect? They’ll throw me out of their homes.” Rav Kanievsky calmly reassured him, “Just do your hishtadlut—effort,” he said in Yiddish. “Hashem and your fellow Jews will help you.”

The rabbi went to New York. He knocked on door after door, finding that houses and shuls were quiet, and no one was answering. He knew that people were really struggling with money and their fear of the pandemic. He was distraught, but he kept going, because he had faith in the Rav’s words. He believed someone would come along and help him if he made a true effort. On his last day in the country, he heard loud music and singing coming from a house with a mezuzah, so he approached. He waited for a break in the song to knock on the door. A man answered, and he appeared thrilled to see him! “Come in!! I’ve been waiting for you! Please come in, sit, and eat. I have your check ready for you!” The rabbi was stunned, but he appreciated the warm welcome. The host pulled out his checkbook, “Look. See? It’s already written out.” He tore the check out and handed it to the rabbi.

The rabbi looked at the check made to cash, and shocked, noted the amount. “$50,000? I’m sorry. There has to be a mistake. Please take this back, it’s not mine. You must have me confused with someone else.” The host said, “Ah, now I know I have the right man. This money is yours. You see, before the pandemic, I made a big business deal. I’ve been trying to find someone to give my maaser to, but no one has been knocking because of Coronavirus. I asked Hashem to send me a worthy, honest person to give my charity to. I put on loud music to encourage visitors, and right when I turned it on, you knocked! And then you tried to give me back the money, even though we both know how much this amount could mean to you during this time? Ah, I knew Hashem sent me a good one.”

The rabbi was touched. He couldn’t believe how his prayers were answered! Just then, the man started to write in his checkbook again. “And I want you to know, I’m so impressed with your honesty, and I would love to help you even more.” He handed him another check for $50,000! The rabbi could not believe his eyes. He was so incredibly thankful to this man. Of course HaRav Chaim Kanievsky was right. If one makes his hishtadlut, Hashem and his fellow Jews will pull through and take care of him.

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, written by Jack Rahmey

Discussion Points:

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

Etz Haim

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