The Torah portion “Bo” begins in Exodus 10:1 and includes the last three plagues that God brought on Pharaoh.
Pharaoh’s servant-advisors already understand that the plagues have become a clear and present danger to the land of Egypt – that the plagues are not an optical illusion or a harmless joke. They understand that Pharaoh must surrender and send these “persons” to worship their God.
And Pharaoh’s servants said unto him, “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the [‘persons’] … go that they may serve the LORD their God. Do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?” (Exodus 10:7)
It is interesting to read the Hebrew words these servants and Pharaoh choose when they describe the children of Israel.
“Let the ‘persons’ [Anashim] go” is different from sending a nation-group [Ahm].
Moses has come to Pharaoh with the request, “Let my nation-group [Ahm] go!” whereas the Egyptians talk of sending ‘persons’ [Anashim].
They are not willing to accept that there is a collective nation-group [Ahm] living among them. They don’t want to deal with the fact that there is a nation-group living among them whom they are treating brutally and enslaving. They are not willing to give legitimacy to the existence of this group among them.
“No,” Pharoah replies to Moses, “Go now, you men, and serve the LORD, for that is what you desired; and he drove them out from Pharaoh’s presence.” (Exodus 10:11)
Pharaoh views them as just a number of men who want to go on some short adventure.
For Pharaoh and much of the ancient world, the prevailing opinion was that the service or worship of God belongs to men, to masculinity!
And Moses came to him with the demand to free the whole nation of Israel.
And Moses said, “We will go with our young men and with our old men; with our sons and our daughters with our flocks and with our herds we will go. For we must hold a feast to the LORD.” (Exodus 10:9)
In the eyes of Moses, freedom and serving God belong to all, not just males. This is a great difference between the two leaders: the dictator Pharaoh with his dark opinions; and enlightened Moses who seeks and believes in freedom for every person. Freedom and worship of God is something that belongs to everyone.
And now comes the seventh plague – a swarm of locusts. This plague darkens the sky, physically blocks light and thus brings consciousness of darkness into the story. Darkness is not just physical, but also in opinions and thinking. Darkness leads Egypt to believe that they can enslave an entire nation, a darkness of morality and values. One nation does not see the suffering of the other and is unwilling to wake up even when severe plagues come. The Egyptian nation is blind to the discrimination taking place under its nose as they exploit and oppress others.
In the Bible, we see that the punishment for evil is just rewards that match the deeds. A nation behaves in a disgraceful way. It does not see either physically or emotionally the suffering of others. It then suffers plagues of darkness, of fogginess and inability to see physically, emotionally and mentally.
The two plagues of darkness were the locusts and the plague of darkness. The harm is external and internal. The plague of locusts impairs the physical ability of the eye to see, whereas the plague of darkness emphasizes the loneliness of each and every one:
“No man saw his brother, neither did anyone rise from his place for three days.” (Exodus 10:23)
Loneliness and inaction come when darkness takes over. We see here in these two severe plagues the War of Light and Darkness. The Egyptians are in complete darkness, whereas the children of Israel live in the light.
“And all the children of Israel had light in their dwelling place.” (Exodus 10:23)
And the light that opens the eyes of Israel, opens their heart to see – to see that there is hope, to see that there is salvation, to see that there is redemption and to want to get out of slavery. To emotionally move on from the place of anguish and impatience where they were when Moses came to them at the beginning and offered them freedom.
”So Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel; but they did not heed Moses because of anguish of spirit, and cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6:9)
The light that illuminated the dwelling places of the children of Israel enlightened their hearts to want to leave the mindset of darkness, slavery and suffering – and embrace consciousness of light, of faith and of serving God. This change sends them to their freedom.
In order for Pharaoh to set Israel free, he had to be brought to the end, to the most difficult place a person can reach, to the death of his eldest son, the death of his heir, perhaps the death of his dynasty.
The children of Israel being set free involved pain and suffering for someone else. And I admit it’s never easy for me to read it, to understand that in order for my people to be liberated, the lives of so many others had to be ruined. It is written regarding the plague of the firstborn, “There was no house without someone dead.” (Exodus 12:30) Every household suffered death. Pharaoh was stubborn. He was unwilling to change his views. He saw no one else. He was unable to compromise or give up ideas that had already ceased to serve him, and certainly did not serve his people. This stubbornness led to self and national destruction.
So what can we learn from this difficult Torah portion?
In order to be free, we must condemn the things that try to keep us in bondage, and give up ideas and perhaps idols we have embraced.
The passage shows how much suffering and how much pain there is when we listen to prejudices. In this biblical story we see the way Pharaoh responded, but we can all take inventory in our own lives. Are we holding on to prejudices and opinions that cause us suffering? What are they? Where are we stuck?
A deep examination is needed. I invite all of us to examine ourselves.
How much are we really attentive to our conscience? How flexible are we? How much do we hold on and cling to what is no longer good for us? How much are we willing to accept different opinions? How often are we open to change, if ever? Are we willing to see that there might be another way?
A way in which we give up the destructive tendencies we have, in order to go out into freedom. We can take pre-emptive action, preventative medicine. We can release things even without experiencing plagues. There is no need for a plague of the firstborn. Wake up. Expel the plague of darkness, and let the light shine into you.