Torah portion “Bo”
3rd Chapter of Shemot
I’ve been wanting to write something Torah related for a long time and haven’t found enough time to do so, so in this post I hope to do a mash-up of the most recent readings of the Torah related to Egypt.
In “bo” we learn of how Moshe and Aharon seek to release the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. They are both sent to Pharaoh at G-d’s request and as a punishment for not letting the Hebrews go, Egypt is punished with a series of plagues. Pharaoh receives warnings for two plagues, but every third plagues comes without warning. For the middle plague of each 3-plague set, Turim points out that when G-d sends Moshe to Pharaoh at the Royal Palace, he uses the term “bo” (come) and when he sends him to Pharaoh at the river he uses the term “lech”. We also find through this portion that G-d hardens Pharaoh’s heart. In previous learning I’ve heard it mentioned that maybe Pharaoh’s heart was such that it could be hardened (insinuating that Pharaoh was of poor character). I’ve also read commentary that states that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened in order for him to be stubborn enough for extra punishment to be meted out to Egypt in order to make the Hebrew’s believe in the miracles and return them from their decline.
One of the things we learn in this portion are the 12 plagues. 1 Dam (turning water into blood) 2. Tz’far’da (frogs) 3. C’nim (Lice) 4. Arov (flies/pestilence) 5. Dever (diseased livestock) 6. Sh’cin (boils) 7. Barad (hail) 8. Arbe (locusts) 9. Chosech (darkness) 10. Macat B’corot (firstborn). We see here a phenomenon of HaShem attacking the Egyptians from the bottom up, starting with the water (beneath the level of the land) and frogs and then moving up to lowly landed creatures, moving up onto the land, into the sky and into the Shamayim (heavens). If this is true then why do we end with the first born as the final plague? Because each baby contains something we can only receive from our creator; the Neshama and that is higher than the physical universe which was attacked in the previous plagues. In our morning prayers we say thank you for this with the phrase “Elohai N’shama Sh’natat bi T’horah”. The Neshama is our connection to the creator on a personal level and the city of Chevron is our connection on the national level .Chevron from the word Chever ‘friend’ and the word for ‘to connect’ is L’Chitchaber’ are from the same root. Chevron, the alleged gateway to the Garden of Eden, is our connection to the Shamayim. Chevron is the burial place of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and we learn that Yosef’s bones rise from their burial place in the Nile ready to be returned for rightful burial in Israel where he buried his own father Yaakov.
It’s said that 80% of the Hebrews in Egypt did not want to leave despite the miracles and despite the promise of the release from slavery. Under the cover of darkness, they were killed in plague number 9. Rashi say’s that the darkness was double the regular darkness and was so heavy that it could be felt. There is commentary that contradicts this however that say’s that whilst darkness lingered over the Egyptians, the places of the Hebrews remained with light. The water was one of the idols of Egypt and Pharaoh, being head of country was permitted to bath there . It is said that he never went to the toilet in front of people to make it seem that he had supernatural powers, but would secretly do this in the Nile. The Hebrews of Egypt were said to have been so assimilated that all that remained of their culture was their language, their names and their clothes. Out of 50 levels of degradation that could have been reached, they attained 49 of those levels. At the same time, Egypt was considered to be the cultural capital of the world and as a result the Hebrews didn’t wish to leave. This has played out in history when the King of Persia allowed the Jews to return from exile to Israel, led by Ezra, with most deciding not to return. Ezra and Nechemia went out to bring them in, visiting communities around the world, and found in Gilrad in Iran that they did not want to return; they were comfortable with all they had there. Within two generations they were gone. One Rabbi say’s that turning to face Jerusalem in prayer is fine as long as we don’t have access to it, but when the time comes that we do, then the act is synthetic.
We also read about how on the night prior to exiting Egypt, the Jews in Egypt slaughtered a lamb for each household, spread blood from the lamb on the lintels and doorposts and ate the lamb. However, earlier on in the reading we read about how Moshe and Aharon refused to sacrifice a lamb on Pharaoh’s request as the lamb was a symbol of idolatry in Egypt and they were worried that the Egyptians would rebel against them, and instead they slaughtered it in the desert where they couldn’t be seen. By the end of the plagues, the people of Israel were so exalted that they were sacrificing and eating the idol of Egypt on their way out of the country. So distressed they were by the plagues, the Egyptians wanted the Jews to leave early, but they stayed until the morning. On their way out they asked for the clothes and Jewelry of the Egyptians as this was allegedly a tradition from Moshe. Why? Today prior to festivals, it’s common to buy new clothes to help celebrate and beautify the mitzvah of celebrating the festivals and in Israel it’s common to receive vouchers from employers to buy new clothes and food in stores. We learn that the clothes and jewelry were to help celebrate the freedom and what was to become the new year of months (Nissan). From this we also get the festival of Pesach and the Mitzvot to not eat or own Chametz during this time and to commemorate the event for generations to come.
In contrast to this history, award winning Israeli author Aaron Appelfeld in his novel Baddenheim 1939 gives a portrait of life in Nazi Germany for a group of seemingly respectable middle class Jews staying in the summer resort town of Baddenheim in 1939 where they sample the delicious cream cakes and enjoy the music of Dr. Pappenheim’s band. During their stay in the hotel, the sanitation department introduce and enforce more laws. Their inspectors keep a cupboard of documents where anything can be found out; residents go and register with them and chapter 12 of the book describes how there are ‘no more forests, walks, picnics….. life is now confined to the hotel, the pastry shop and the swimming pool’. We’re not given any explanation to what is happening here, but the story tells us that the vacationers are becoming more and more confined to where they can go. Between the two Torah portions of Vayigash and Vayechi (also in Shemot and read just a number of weeks ago) there is no space between the portions; the 9 spaces that normally separate each weeks reading are missing. I’ve heard this described as “the Jewish people were becoming increasingly enslaved by the Egyptians and they could feel the heat on them, they felt like they were being strangled” and “they wanted to be good citizens in their host country so went along with their gradual enslavement, except for the tribe of Levi who refused (and as a result they became a small tribe, the blessing for many children went to the other tribes who were supposed to have had as many as six children a time)”. Appelfeld (a holocaust survivor himself) describes how the vacationers, constantly strangled by the rules of the sanitation department are required to register their religion. One character, Helena, is described as ‘no longer a Jew’, another, Trude, is described as having ‘hallucinations’ (but is probably the only who realizes what is happening), Mandelbaum asks “Are we all Jews?”. Gradually, the non Jewish hotel staff disappear, the mail is controlled, the pastry shop closes and the ‘shadows of the forest return to Baddenheim’ possibly hinting that summer is over and a later season is falling, yet the vacationers remain. By chapter 27, the vacationers are having to queue for their food- of barley soup and dry bread. The old Rabbi reappears in the town, the Christian woman who looked after him, having abandoned him. People are unable to leave the hotel or the town, suitcases pile up; the towns mayor shoots himself, strange people arrive at the gates. People question whether they are ‘going back to Poland’. Many proudly describe their adopted nationalities ‘Hungarian, German and Polish’. Baddenheim is not all that distant from Goshen, the Nile delta area of Egypt gifted to the Hebrews by the Pharaoh of Joseph and the home they left at the time of the Exodus. One person seems to ‘leave’ Baddenheim, but we don’t know how; she’s soon returned however. Dog’s appear, the day’s darken and the band play music on the steps of the hotel, like the band on the sinking Titanic, as the residents are preparing for their ’emigration’. Like the people of Goshen, the vacationers of Baddenheim are highly assimilated. We here of the half Jew, the convert to Christianity, the characters who proudly describe themselves as Europeans. The book gives the impression that Europe is as highly civilized and cultured as Egypt was in it’s day. Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern day Zionism is vaguely mentioned.
In Baddenheim 1939,which is a short novel, I wonder whether Appelfeld is describing a physical resort or a mentality. In Goshen the Hebrews were happy to assimilate and then engage in their eventual enslavement which they probably didn’t believe would happen considering their success in helping Pharaoh to save Egypt from destitution during the seven years of famine. If the Levites could refuse the hard labor, then clearly the Hebrews had some awareness of what was happening.
The concept of handing over stories from generation to generation is essential to identity. I was once told of a piece of Gemara text that state’s ‘never sit down when drunk or angry’, What does this mean? In the our daily prayer books there is a traveler’s prayer, said when moving from one city to another or going on a long or dangerous journey. I was taught that this Gemara was insinuating that travel is connected to losing our way (with anger and drunkenness being the examples). From the travelling down to Egypt from Israel, we learn that the Hebrews ‘lost their way’. There was once a Rabbi called Eliezer Ben Aruch who became intoxicated and lost his memory from drinking from a stream of water. We also hear of Eliezer Ben Hyrcanus of Lod who would sit on a stone to remind him of Sinai (where Torah was given). The water, moving from one location to another is being associated with loss of memory (or identity?) whilst the stone in it’s fixed location is being associated with memory. When we sit in the Synagogue, we’re supposed to sit in the same place each time, so the shecinah can find us and we say blessings over food sat down in a fixed position and there is a clearly an association with being in a settled place in order to retain what we know and who we are. This makes me recall something Rabbi Akiva said: “water wears away stone”.