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January 19, 2018 – Parsha Bo
Last week, we learned of seven plagues that God imposed upon the Egyptians.
This week, in parsha Bo, God brings three more plagues upon Egypt. First is swarms of locusts: “It covered the surface of the entire land and the land was darkened.” (Exodus 10:15) Next comes three days of a foggy darkness, followed by another three days of a darkness so deep you could feel it, and it kept people from rising up. Notice that it keeps getting dark in Egypt.
Before bringing forth the tenth and last plague on Egypt, God turns to the Children of Israel to prepare them for the freedom that they are about to receive. As slaves, the Israelites had no control over their time, as their days and weeks were governed by the rules of the slavemasters. As free people, they will have to learn to organize their time themselves.
So God instructs them that Nissan (the month they are in) will become the first month of the year in the new Jewish calendar. God says that on the 15th of the month, they are to eat a lamb as part of a family observance of the day God gave the people their freedom. On this first year only, the night before the family feast, they are to take the blood of the lamb and spread it on the door posts and lintel of their houses.
At midnight on the 14th, the spiritual darkness the Israelites have suffered for centuries ends, and the darkness that has been encroaching Egypt for weeks comes to its climax. God kills the firstborn of every Egyptian household and their cattle. Those of the Children of Israel who have adopted Egyptian ways over Judaism do not mark their homes with lamb’s blood also lose their firstborn; those who have shown their faith with the sign of the lamb’s blood are saved from tragedy. The Egyptians felt the darkness of their sorrow, and “there was a great outcry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was no corpse.” (Exodus 12:30) Pharaoh is the only Egyptian firstborn left alive. He runs through the streets looking for Moses and Aaron, and tells them to rise up with the Children of Israel and leave.
The darkness of the last three plagues is symbolic of what happened to the Egyptians. The plague of darkness blinded the Egyptians, then kept them from moving. Pharaoh and his ancestors were blind and stuck from the start. Pharaoh was blind to Egypt’s debt to Joseph for saving the land during the famine. He did not recognize the rights of others when he enslaved the Israelites. He was stuck in his hate of the Children of Israel when he tried to kill their firstborn. He was unable to see God’s power so clearly exhibited by the plagues.
The Pharaohs knew right from wrong, and when they failed to let this knowledge illuminate their actions, they brought darkness to their decisions. Just like the next-to-last plague, this darkness was so all-consuming it kept the Pharaohs from rising up and doing the right thing.
Next week we start our journey of freedom.
January 11, 2018 – Va-Eira
This week, the name of our parsha, Va’Eira – “I appeared” – sets the stage for what happens throughout the rest of the portion, one of the most eventful and dramatic in all of the Torah.
Last week, Pharaoh became angry when Moses demanded that the Israelites be allowed to leave Egypt to worship God. Pharaoh punished the Children of Israel by decreeing that, in addition to making their usual number of bricks each day, they had to collect the straw for the bricks. Moses asks why God has allowed Pharaoh to make life even worse for the Israelites since sending Moses to deliver them.
Now, our parsha opens with God explaining that this is the way everyone – both the Israelites and the Egyptians – will know God’s power. The Israelites’ work exhausted them physically and spiritually, so they were not able to understand Moses and his mission. The Egyptians worshipped idols and did not believe in God. God tells Moses “I appeared” to the Patriarchs and promised them the land of Canaan. Now, God has appeared to the Children of Israel to redeem them from slavery and take them to Canaan. God will also do this by appearing to the Egyptians in ways to make them recognize God’s power and free the Israelites.
The things God does are the plagues. God says “I shall multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” so that Egypt will know God.
First, Moses has Aaron stretch forth his staff over the waters of Egypt and all the water – the Nile, the irrigation canals, lakes, ponds and pitchers of water in people’s houses – all turn to blood. Neither this plague nor any of the others take place in Goshen, where the Israelites live.
Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites leave, Moses tells Aaron to stretch forth his staff, and frogs come out of all the rivers and other bodies of water.
Pharaoh continues to refuse freedom to the Israelites, Moses has Aaron stretch forth his staff, and the dust of the Earth becomes lice.
Still Pharaoh refuses, and God tells Moses to meet Pharaoh in the morning, when he goes to the Nile, and tell him that wild beasts will swarm throughout Egypt. Pharaoh does not free the Israelites, and God sends the beasts to cover Egypt.
Again God has Moses warn Pharaoh, this time that the cattle, horses, donkeys, camels and sheep of Egypt will die. Pharaoh keeps the Israelites in slavery, and the animals die.
Then God tells Moses and Aaron to take handfuls of dirt and hurl it upward in front of Pharaoh, and it became boils and blisters on every Egyptian man and beast.
God has Moses tell Pharaoh that there will be hail that will kill people, animals and crops. When Pharaoh does not listen to the warning, Moses stretches out his staff to heaven and hail mixed with fire descends on Egypt, killing everything that has not taken shelter inside.
These are the first signs and wonders by which God “appears” to the Egyptians. God’s appearance is evident by a change in nature that is so great only the Creator of Nature could cause it.
God’s way of dealing with Pharaoh teaches us a valuable lesson about our own dealings with people. We “appear” to people by our acts. It does not matter how handsome we are, or how nice our clothes look, but how we treat people that determines how they feel about us. If we do what we say we are going to do – as God did with the plagues – people learn to believe what we say. We’re Trustworthy. If we say we will do something and then break our word – as Pharaoh did by saying he would let the Israelites go and then keeping them in slavery – people quickly learned we cannot be trusted.
It will take three more plagues for Pharaoh to learn this lesson. But that’s for next week.
January 4, 2018 – Parasha Shemot
This week, we start the book Shemot, with a parasha also called that. In English, Shemot is called Exodus, which is really a Greek word meaning “road out.”
In Hebrew, Shemot means “names”. The parsha is called “Names” because it opens by reciting the names of Jacob’s sons; the sons are the heads of the tribes of Israel at the time of Joseph’s death, when the period of physical slavery and hard labor began. You may recall the Torah counted these names before, as we went into Egypt. We count again with the start of this new period in our national life. It’s just like on a hike – at the start, you count the number of Scouts leaving camp and every so often you count again, to make sure you have everyone.
A new Pharaoh comes to power who did not know of Joseph. (Some rabbis say this means that the Pharaoh whom Joseph served decided it would suit him to forget about Joseph and how he saved Egypt from the famine.) Pharaoh sees how numerous and strong the Jews have become and fears that, if Egypt is attacked, the Jews will join the enemy. So Pharaoh tries to reduce the Jewish population by ordering the midwives to slay all the male children. The midwives refuse to do so. Pharaoh’s advisers warn him that a redeemer is coming to the Children of Israel, so Pharaoh orders that all male children (even the Egyptian boys) be thrown into the Nile River.
Jacob’s granddaughter, Jocheved, a daughter of Levi, and her husband Amram (who is also from the tribe of Levi and is her cousin) have a son. They hide him for three months, then put him in a basket and set him afloat on the river. Pharaoh’s daughter Bithia sees the basket floating, brings it to shore, and finds the baby. She adopts him, and calls him “Drawn from the Water” or, in ancient Egyptian, “Moses.”
Now we’re back to the title of the parsha, Shemot – “Names.” The hero of the story has a name with a water connection. And since we know we’re going on a hike (I told you we were taking the “road out” in the first paragraph) water might have an important place in our story for the next few weeks. After all, what’s the first thing on your hike list? A full water bottle!
Moses grows up in the royal palace. As an adult, he sees an Egyptian striking a Jew, and he strikes the Egyptian. Pharaoh finds out about this incident and wants to kill Moses, so Moses flees. He goes to the land of Midian, and is sitting by a well (you know, a hole in the ground with water). The daughters of Jethro, the priest of Midian, are trying to water their sheep, but other shepherds interfere – Moses drives them away. The girls take Moses to meet their father, Moses decides to stay, he marries one of the daughters – Zipporah – and they start a family.
While Moses is herding sheep, he encounters the Burning Bush, where an angel appears to him. He goes over to see it, and God calls out to him, saying that he should remove his shoes because the place is holy. God instructs Moses to return to Egypt to deliver the Jews from slavery. Moses tells God he does not think he is the right person for the job – he asks, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” He says the people will not believe him. He points out that he has a speech impediment.
God shows Moses that he will have divine help. God has Moses grasp a snake, and it becomes a staff. God has Moses bring his hand to his chest, and it becomes as if Moses has leprosy; when he brings his hand to his chest a second time, the disfigurement goes away. God says that if the people do not believe the first two signs, Moses will pour water (did someone say “water”?) from the Nile onto the land and it will become blood. As to Moses’s speech difficulties, God replies that his brother, Aaron, will be with him and can repeat Moses’s words to Pharaoh and the Children of Israel.
Moses returns to Egypt, where he tells Pharaoh and the Children of Israel that God orders Pharaoh to let the Children of Israel leave to worship God in the wilderness. This angers Pharaoh, who tells Moses to leave things alone, and orders that in addition to making bricks using straw they have been given, the Children of Israel will now have to gather their own straw and still make the same number of bricks as before.
Now the scene is set. God has given an order, but Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, and he refuses to obey. It’s like water over the dam.
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Derech Tzofeh, the Path of the Scout, is brought to you by the National Jewish Committee on Scouting. ©2017 Nelson R. Block. Prior Derech Tzofeh are available at the J-Scouts message repository on Yahoo! Groups.