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Thinking Big and Failing Fast

In Parashat Bo, the plagues continue with increasing intensity. As the Egyptians and the Israelites learn to recognize God’s power, is it possible that God, too, is learning to make each successive plague more effective?

D'var Torah By: 
How the Plagues Recall Creation
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Lydia Medwin

With the increasing severity of the ten plagues in Bo, God is teaching the Egyptians, the Israelites, and us, an important lesson. Through an understanding of God’s power, we can see the inextricable link between nature and collective morality. As our planet and so many people all over the world suffer from the weight of our collective decisions as humankind to consume without regard to consequences, we are called in this parashah to reexamine our own relationship with God and our humble place in the cosmos, and to realign ourselves with goodness and life for the sake of all Creation.

Why Firstborns Are Such a Big Deal in the Torah

The research abounds: birth order has an impact on development. The Internet teems with articles on expected personality traits for firstborn and later-born children and, in a rare moment of consensus, experts agree that birth order matters.1 It influences a child’s need for attention, interest in interacting with adults versus peers, reactions to challenge and pressure, and relationship with parents. As the mother of two young sons (and a firstborn myself), I see evidence of this research daily and often wonder how birth order will affect my children’s lives.

Birth order matters in Parashat Botoo. Bo begins with the final four plagues, culminating in that infamous, horrifying last plague: makat b’chorot, the killing of the firstborn. God takes this concept to its extreme, condemning every single firstborn — whether human or animal — to perish. The Israelite firstborns were saved by placing lambs’ blood on their doors.

D'var Torah By: 
What It Means to Be the Firstborn
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Amanda Greene

This week’s Torah portion forces us to consider the following: Is being the oldest child, the firstborn, really a reward? Or is it an obligation?

Indeed, as Rabbi Bonnheim suggests, symbolically, we all have the opportunity to be the firstborn as the Torah teaches, “Israel is My first-born son” (Exodus 4:22). But wasn’t Esau the firstborn? What then is the meaning of the verse? Our ancient tradition offers the following response: “It refers to Jacob, their ancestor, who purchased the birthright in order that he might serve God” (Sh’mot Rabbah 5:7).

Matzah in the Realm of Paradox

The Torah reading for the first day of Pesach, which falls on Shabbat this year, comes from chapters 12 and 13 of the Book of Exodus, and discusses one of the most well-known topics of the holiday — matzah. We find the multiple commandments to both refrain from all chametz (leavened foods) and to eat matzah, in verses 15-20 of chapter 12. Then, we hear the familiar "historical" reason why the Israelites "baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt . . . since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves" (Exodus 12:39).

D'var Torah By: 
How a Matzah Sandwich Can Teach about Oppression and Injustice
Davar Acher By: 
Leah Doberne-Schor

This Passover, I will help my son pack a matzah sandwich to take to elementary school in our Southern city. Although he may be one of the only children to pack a matzah sandwich in his school, he is sharing in a common, powerful American Jewish experience. Whenever I talk about matzah sandwiches, heads nod and stories emerge: the colleagues who wonder at the strange flat cracker; the classmate who exclaimed, "even cardboard is kosher!"; the roommate who loved matzah so much she wanted her own box.

Pharaoh’s Final Request

In the middle of the night, in Parashat Bo, Pharaoh and his whole court wake up to the horror of the 10th plague: as the firstborn sons are slain, every Egyptian household is suddenly in mourning. Under the weight of this tragedy, the king who fancies himself a god is finally humbled. In desperation, he gives in to Moses' demands of freedom for the Israelite slaves. Pharaoh declares, "Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Eternal as you said!" (Exodus 12:31).

But at the end of this middle-of-night surrender, as Moses must have already been heading out the door, Pharaoh tags on a surprising request. "Uveirach'tem gam oti," he calls after Moses, "and may you bring a blessing upon me also!" (Exodus 12:32).

I'd often read this line as a bit of a throwaway, hardly worthy of consideration, but when I stopped to think about it, Pharaoh's request seemed incredibly galling. What chutzpah for a tyrant who had until this point been mocking Moses and refusing God's demands, to suddenly ask for a blessing! For the entire narrative in Exodus so far, Pharaoh has refused to acknowledge God's power. And now, in the moment when he finally does humble himself before God, he wants to benefit from God's power to receive a blessing. Even as Pharaoh finally acknowledges the limits of his own power, he still unabashedly focuses on himself.

Traditional commentators interpret Pharaoh's request in several different ways. Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, thinks Pharaoh is being cynically practical. What Pharaoh means, Rashi suggests, is that Moses should ask his God not to let Pharaoh die – because Pharaoh himself is a firstborn son. Because the 10th plague threatens his own life, Pharaoh is suddenly ready to seek God's blessing. Nachmanides, the 13 th century Spanish sage, reads Pharaoh's words slightly more generously, arguing that Pharaoh is seeking a blessing not just for himself, but for the entire kingdom of Egypt.

D'var Torah By: 
The Little Things that Tug on Our Souls
Davar Acher By: 
Daniel Gropper

It is certainly hard to think of Pharaoh as one with even a hint of remorse. Our Haggadah paints him as evil incarnate; yet, with her close read of Parashat Bo, Rabbi Kalisch cracks open the door towards Pharaoh's redemption. Another midrash goes further, making Pharaoh into king of Nineveh.1 When Jonah comes calling, that Pharaoh is only happy to repent.

This latter midrash demonstrates how t'shuvah – returning to God – is a constant practice. Like exercise, it has no end. What, then, can we institute in our lives to help us along our journeys of turning and returning to God?

The end of Parashat Bo gives a hint. In both verses 9 and 16 of chapter 13, the text says, "And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead." The text refers to tefillin, those little black boxes that Jews traditionally wear in prayer. And Torah gives a reason, "in order that the Teaching of the Eternal may be in your mouth" (Exodus 13:9).

In the Middle of the Night

As Moses and Aaron struggle to convince Pharaoh to release the Israelites, the plagues sent by God increase in severity getting darker and darker.

D'var Torah By: 
Saving Pharaoh’s Daughter
Davar Acher By: 
Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik

Rabbi Dreyfus taught above, "There was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead." There is a midrash that teaches that both firstborn sons and daughters were equ

All I Need Is a Miracle

It was the winter of 1999 in Israel, and my sister had come to visit me while I lived there.

D'var Torah By: 
The Responsibility of Freedom
Davar Acher By: 
Allison Berry

Our Torah portion, Parashat Bo, teaches an important lesson about the meaning of freedom.

All Life Is Sacred

ALL LIFE IS SACRED

D'var Torah By: 
The Tenth Plague -- A Test of Whose Faith
Davar Acher By: 
Roberta Louis Goodman

 

Parshat Bo completes the narrative of the plagues that begun in Va'era.

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