Parashat Bo Erev Shabbat 19 January 2024 (5784)

Week of 14-20 January 2024

Torah portion: Exodus 10:1-13:16   Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28

Theme: “There was no house where there was not someone dead”

This portion covers the last three plagues inflicted on the Egyptians: locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn. The locusts “covered the surface of the whole land, so that the land was black, and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left; nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field in all the land of Egypt”. (Ex 10:15) The darkness lasted for three days: “People could not see one another, and … they could not move from where they were; but all the Israelites had light where they lived.” (Ex 10:23) The final plague is the death of the firstborn “from the first-born of Pharoah who sits on his throne to the first-born of the female slave who is behind the hand mill, and all the first-born of the livestock.” (Ex 11:5)

That only the firstborn perish is proof that the plague was of divine origin, that the lord did indeed “go forth among the Egyptians” (Ex 11:4). We may think this was unjust, since very few Egyptian people had any say in affairs of state. Certainly an enslaved young woman did not. Nor did “the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon” (Ex 12:29) We read in Ellen Frankel’s The Five Books of Miriam (pp.106-107) that slave girls and captives “typically performed the repetitive task of grinding grain between two heavy stones.  Both occupied the lowest stratum of Egyptian society….With the final plague, all of Egypt feels what it’s like to be a slave girl, who has no control over her own fate. And with the death of every firstborn, every Egyptian family knows what it’s like to be crushed like dry grain between millstones. Poor Egypt! That so many should suffer because of one man’s hardened heart.”

The suffering of the survivors was unbearable and the sound of their grieving was so loud that “Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—because there was no house where there was not someone dead.” (Ex 12:30) In our time there are many examples of such widespread suffering. All too often, the cause is either war or climate change.   War arises from our failure to live peaceably with our fellow men and women; climate change arises from our failure to live with respect and concern for the Earth, our common home. Those who suffer the most are often those who have done the least to cause the situation and who have the fewest resources to help them deal with it.  (As a Canadian, I note the widespread impact of Canada’s 2023 wildfires.)

For Reflection and Discussion: (1) Consider the relationship you and/or your nation have with the Earth.  In what ways might you be like Pharaoh and think that everything and everybody exist for your benefit? (2) How does your nation treat the people whose lives resemble that of the girl working at the handmill? 3.See  for  Canada’s 2023 wildfire season.

Bibliography: Frankel, Ellen, The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah (New York:1996); 

This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Anne Morton, Canada, Bat Kol Alumna: 2010


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