This is dedicated to Boys Town Jerusalem for its exemplary work since 1948
in providing boys from economically disadvantaged backgrounds with a technological and academic education; and imbuing its students with traditional Jewish values and ideals and pride in their Jewish heritage…and to my son Rabbi Ezra Berenholz, Director of Development, and his associates for their tireless efforts to assure the financial viability of this unique institution.
“bo el pharaoh”
The three final plagues
“We shall leave with our young and with our old”
Blood on the doorpost and on the lintel
On Chametz and Matzo
The seder meal as an anti-Egyptian-culture celebration
Parting gifts from the Egyptians
Matzo represents both slavery and freedom
Killing of the first born
Telling the children
Final three plagues: locust; darkness; death of firstborn Egyptians
Rules for preparing, offering, and eating the Korban Pesach
First mitzvah: establishing the month of Nisan as the first one in the lunar calendar
Setting aside an unblemished male lamb in its first year for the Passover offering
Rules for eating the Passover offering
Seven-day Passover holiday during which leaven is not to be found or owned and only non-leavened bread (matzo) may be eaten
Israelites to dip a bunch of hyssop into the blood of the slaughtered Passover offering and smear it on lintel and two doorposts of their houses
Death of firstborn prompts Pharaoh to chase the Hebrews out of Egypt
Exodus from Egypt and obligation to remember this historic event
Additional laws of the Passover offering
Teaching our children about God’s wondrous redemption of the Hebrew nation
Obligation to wear four Torah sections (T’phillin) on our forehead and on our arm to serve as a reminder of our redemption
First born of Man and animal belong to God
Establishing New Month
Ritual slaughter of Pesach offering
Eating flesh of Pesach offering
Not to eat under-roasted or boiled Pesach offering
Not to leave Pesach flesh overnight
Removal of chametz (leavened bread) from one’s possession
Eating matzo on first night of Passover
No chametz to be found in one’s possession during Passover
Not eating anything during Passover that has chametz in it
Apostate Israelite not to be given any part of Pesach offering to eat
Partial proselyte and resident heathen who has rejected idolatry not to eat from Pesach offering
No flesh of Pesach offering is to be carried outside the house
No bone of Pesach offering may be broken
No uncircumcised person may eat of the Pesach offering
Sanctifying the firstborn in land of Israel
Not to eat chamatz during Passover
No chametz is to be seen on Israelite property during Pesach
Recounting the Exodus from Egypt
Redeeming a firstborn donkey
Beheading an unredeemed firstborn donkey
“Bo el Pharaoh”
In instructing Moshe to go to Pharaoh, God uses the term “bo” [which literally means “come”], rather than the word “layc”h, which He had used until now. Rabbi Marc Angel notes the subtle difference in the terms. Initially, Moshe needed to be told forcefully to do God’s bidding. “Laych” communicates this command to overcome inertia, to rally his strength and energy to move in a new direction. Once he began his assignment, Moshe was confronted with unpleasantness, complaints and ran the risk of losing heart. To prevent this, God encourages him and reminds him that He would be there with him, utilizing the much softer term “bo”. Rabbi Angel concludes that there is a subtle message contained for us all. “‘Lekh’ challenges us to break from the status quo, to move in new directions, to undertake great challenges. ‘Bo’ reminds us to stay the course, not to lose heart, not to surrender to frustration and setbacks.”
The Three Final Plagues
Perhaps the Torah elected to separate these from the first seven to underscore their commonality of profound severity. The three plagues in this Parsha involve both physical and emotional darkness:
The locust filled the sky and “darkened” (blocked) the sun
The plague of darkness began when Moshe “held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon the land of Egypt…but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings”. The darkness was unusually intense and heavy. The Hebrew words to describe the plague, “yamaysh choshech”, mean palpable darkness or intense darkness. Furthermore, no one could “rise from his place”. There was a terrifying paralysis of dread of the dark; confusion; and an incomplete understanding (“darkness”) of the significance of events. By contrast, the Israelites “experienced light in their dwellings”—not just physical light but “a light went on” and they experienced a clarity and understanding of the Divine nature of unfolding events. [Note: Rabbi J. H. Hertz cites a Professor Mahler who identifies this plague with the solar eclipse on March 13,1335 BCE that darkened Egypt proper but did not extend as a total eclipse to Goshen, where the Israelites lived. Other scholars think the Exodus took place around 1230 BCE.]
Death of the firstborn Egyptians was a “darkening of their lives” (i.e., death) as well as a darkening of the souls and spirits of those remaining alive, causing them untold emotional suffering and deep, dark depression.
Ra, the sun god, was the chief of the Egyptian pantheon. Were the sun light to be removed or challenged, the foremost tenet of Egyptian beliefs would be undermined. Egyptians could not tolerate this. Interestingly, it is only after Moshe’s warning about the impending swarm of locusts that would also block the sun (which Ra, the sun-god, would be helpless in preventing) that Pharaoh’s servants finally dare to speak up and challenge Pharaoh: “How long will this be a stumbling block to us. Let the people go and they will worship their God. Don’t you know yet that Egypt is lost?”
Ra, and its imagined influence, is alluded to in several places:
“Ra’ah neged pnaychem” refers to Ra: Pharaoh says the power of his chief deity will oppose Hebrews in the desert. (Cassuto; Rendsburg)
Parting of red sea at dawn when Ra begins to shine
“Lamah youmru metzrayim b’ra-ah hotzeam may mean” “why Egyptians should conclude that Exodus came about via Ra”
… “Ki b’rah who” in the Golden Calf incident suggests that the Hebrews turned to Ra, who is depicted as a bull. The golden calf represented a return to Egyptian idolatry
“Va’yhe ha’am kmisonanim, ra b’eynay Hashem” may refer to Ra, chief of Egyptian Pantheon located in the center of the Ra cult, On.
Ra is referred to “the one who is who he is” like God’s self-identification to Moshe, Ehyeh asher ehyeh
“Karan ohr pnai Moshe” may be understood as at least some of the Israelites’ perceiving Moshe as Ra’s replacement
“We Shall Leave with Our Young and With Our Old” [“Binareinu uvizkeinanu nelech”]
This is Moshe’s response to Pharaoh after the plague of locusts when Pharaoh agrees to allow the Hebrews to leave Egypt for three days to worship God but insists on knowing who will be going. Pharaoh rejects this and says only the men will be permitted to leave.
Rabbi Angel cites a Hassidic translation for the word Binareinu meaning “with our youth”, instead of with our young. The idea is that even as one grows old, one needs to maintain one’s youth – retain the idealism and enthusiasm of our younger days. We need to be energized and to avoid the self-destructive thinking of being too old or fear of failure of something new. We need to rally the inner child within to take a chance, to attempt something challenging.
Uvizkeinanu might also be understood as a challenge to each of us to try to imagine how we would respond to a current situation if we had the wisdom, experience and maturity we expect to have later in our life. Employing both the enthusiasm of the past and the maturity of the future could help us live ethically and happily in the present.
This conversation between Moshe and Pharaoh also underscores the unique attitude of Judaism towards religious observance. Other religions insist on an intervening group (priests) to achieve a relationship with the deity. Pharaoh could not fathom how ordinary people could worship a deity. But Moshe underscores how in Judaism God is available to all, no matter what age. Moreover, there is a stress on the children – “our young” are mentioned before “our old”. Religious education is paramount in the Torah—v’hegadeta l’venecha (you shall tell your children) …v’shenntam l’venacha (you shall teach your children) …
Blood on the Doorposts and on the Lintel
God had announced his plan to slaughter all the firstborn Egyptians at Midnight. The Israelites were commanded to “take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin [collected from slaughtering of the Peasch offering] and reach the lintel and two side posts with the blood that is in the basin…the blood shall be for you a token upon the houses where you are and when I see the blood I will pass over [i.e., not cause death of the first born in that home]. Following are several approaches to understanding this ritual (cited by Nechama Leibowitz and Rabbi B.S. Jacobson).
• Isaac Arama dismisses the idea that it was necessary for God to require a sign to identify which houses were occupied by the Israelites. Rather, this was designed to be a sign for the Israelites themselves. The blood had no magical charm to guard against demons or destructive spirits that many believed in. It was a symbol, a token of belief in God.
• Some view the commandment as an educational tool to change the Israelites’ outlook. Rambam sees the slaughtering of the lamb (an Egyptian deity) and sprinkling the blood outside as acts of cleansing and demonstrating our rejection of Egyptian polytheism. God would not allow any harm to befall the Israelites for their courage in publicly rejecting Egyptian idolatry. Being able to slaughter the Egyptian deity and publicly display its blood, rehabilitated and emancipated the once-idol worshiping Hebrews. They had to abandon their past beliefs to prepare themselves to become a new nation.
• Haketav Veha-kabbalah stresses that it was the fulfillment of every detail of God’s commandment regarding the Pascal lamb that demonstrated the Israelites complete faith in God. The blood is a token acknowledgement of this faith
• Rav Hirsch notes that until now, the Hebrews were slaves and unable to participate in their own redemption. In the Bris Bayn Habesarim [Covenant Between the Pieces] God informed Avraham that his offspring would be strangers in a foreign land; would become slaves and would be oppressed—deprived of home, freedom and power of resistance. That these three stages of degradation prevailed is captured in the Passover ritual. Roasting the lamb over an open fire conveys homelessness and total exposure to the scorching surroundings. Eating the unleavened bread Matzo is a reminder of slavish dependence and lack of freedom. Marror, bitter herbs, is about oppression and brute force against the defenseless.
God’s stated aim was to transform the people into a nation, a socially integrated entity. The Hebrews, commanded to bring the Pascal lamb, did so as free agents, with ownership rights and all equal before God. Unity of purpose is manifest in the appointment of an agent to slaughter the lamb. Social cohesiveness is evident in that neighbors were invited to share the lamb of each household, if there was too much meat to be eaten by the family itself. Strong and affluent are dependent on neighbors as well as vice versa. Consumption and enjoyment with family and with neighbors are acts of emancipation through fulfilling God’s will. Both social and physical inclusion defines the nation. One’s home provides insulation from foreign society as well as insulation against the forces of Nature. The Israelite slaves liberated from Egyptian bondage were rewarded with lintel and door posts i.e., a home with Divine protection against human and natural forces. By putting blood on the doorpost and lintel, the newly freed man and family assert in symbolic language that “his social and physical security rests with God, to Whom his home and sacrifice are dedicated”. [Note: The use of blood links circumcision, which was to be in the flesh as a covenant sign, with the Passover ritual, which represents fulfillment of this divine Covenant.]
On Chametz and Matzo
The Torah commands us to remove Chametz (leavened grain products) from our midst for the seven days of Pesach before we eat matzo.
Chametz = Egypt and its fancy well-known breads and its societal arrogance (inflated self-view). It is this representation of Egyptian culture and behavior that we reject and distance ourselves from during the holiday. Some see Chametz as representative of the evil inclinations that exist in Man. The spring rebirthing period provides us with the opportunity to “clean (our internal) house”.
In Hebrew, both words contain the letters Mem and Tzadi. But Chametz begins with a Chet and Matzo ends with a Hey. Hey represents God and His Ethics. If a person decides to add even a little of his own to God’s law he is adding to the Hey’s “leg” and converting the letter into a Chet. By giving his new addition prominence -- by making the Chet the first letter of the word instead of the last-- he has changed the word matzo to the word chametz. By declaring that his change to God’s word is both necessary and correct, he has morphed from the simplicity and goodness of a matzo-like personality into an inflated, egotistical Chametz temperament.
In the frenetic cleaning of our homes of even the tiniest traces of chametz, it is easy to lose sight of the purpose of our efforts. Pesach is the opportunity to stop, face and then eradicate the chametz/evil inclination/negativity/foreign culture that we may have absorbed from our surroundings.
The Seder Meal as an Anti-Egyptian-Culture Celebration
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag likens the Passover Seder to a formal meal…
Celebrating our miraculous emergence from slavery
Held in an upscale restaurant…
Specializing in well-prepared fine, tasty “anti-Egyptian culture” foods
Focusing on our salvation and our rejection of Egyptian (and other pagan) culture
Reservations are needed (s’eh l’bayis). It is a family affair that includes invited friends, family and neighbors in the community who do not have enough people to bring their own Pesach offering. We need to be dressed in our finest clothing (“shoes on your feet”) and behave like free men using a “walking stick (a sign of importance) in your hand”. The main course consists of the best cut of meat: well roasted (not boiled and not raw) tasty and succulent lamb, which happens to be the Egyptian deity. We eat until we are full and are prohibited from leaving leftovers to try and lose the slave mentality of squirreling away food for the next day. We eat with enthusiasm, excitement and zest but not with haste, lest the animal bones be broken.
Green salad is served, not with a sweet dressing but with one of bitter herbs to remind us of the bitterness of our Egyptian experience. We eat only simple unleavened matzo with our meal— displaying our disdain for the fancy breads for which Egypt was famous. Like nobility, we lean on our sides and relax and we make use of finger bowls to rinse our hands.
Parting Gifts from the Egyptians
God informs Moshe that it will be necessary for Him to display his wonders for Pharaoh to agree to the let the Israelites journey three days in the wilderness where they will bring offerings to Him. Furthermore, the Israelites will not leave empty-handed. Each woman shall V’sha’alaw (ask) her neighbor for jewels of silver and of gold and raiment thereby v’netzaltem Egypt.
When a slave is freed, the Torah directs his master to send him off with liberal gifts from the flock, the threshing floor and the winepress as a way of expressing gratitude for the servant’s faithful service. God announces to Moshe that the Israelites will experience a similar farewell from their Egyptian slave masters.
The word V’sha’alaw means to ask as a gift, not to borrow. Benno Jacob (cited by Rabbi Hertz) notes that the Hebrew root word “ntzal” (nun-tzade-lamed) occurs some 212 times in the Scripture and that in 210 of these times it means to rescue an object (from danger) or to recover (an object of property). Therefore, the phrase is more correctly translated to mean “you will save the Egyptians”—not that you will pillage them! By providing you with generous gifts the Egyptians will clear their name; will banish the bad feeling associated with them; and will vindicate their honor and their humanity.
Matzo on Passover is About Both Slavery and Freedom
Immediately before the tenth plague, God instructs Moshe about the rules relating to the Passover offering and then introduces a commandment to eat matzo for seven days. The Passover offering, brought on the eve of the 15th day of the month of Nissan, was to be eaten with matzo and marror, and is in gratitude for the nation’s being saved from the “death of first born” plague. When God smote the Egyptians he “passed over” the homes of the Hebrews that had blood from the Passover offering that was placed on their lintels and door posts. We are obligated to share this explanation with our children.
Regarding chametz (leavened bread) we are instructed later in the Parsha to…
o Remove it
o Not eat it
o Not see it
o Not own it
-- and to eat only matzo (unleavened bread) -- during the seven-day period from the fifteenth of Nisan to the twenty first. These actions are designed to remind ourselves of God’s miraculous and speedy salvation. Rabbi Leibtag’s supposition is that the Hebrews had plenty of time to prepare for the Exodus. They had earlier been alerted to the imminent tenth plague and they had been advised to ask the Egyptians for their gold and silver belongings. They most probably prepared large amounts of dough, with the intention of baking it in the morning of the fifteenth before leaving Egypt. But once the reality of the tenth plague began, the Egyptians rushed the Israelites out of their country. The Hebrews were expelled with no food, only their dough wrapped on their shoulders. The speed of the Exodus was such that the dough did not have time to rise when they finally did their baking. This is cited in the Haggadah as the reason for eating Matzo.
The primary reason for the Seder meal was to assure a memorable meal in a family setting. The simple style of bread called matzo is eaten by the poor and its being eaten with the Passover offering was a way of remembering the suffering experienced in Egypt. Also, it represents rejection of the Egyptian cuisine. (Egypt was known for its fancy breads; the lamb was an Egyptian deity.) Chametz represents Egyptian culture that needs to be rejected and is, therefore, prohibited on Passover.
Killing of the First Born
This final and devastating punishment was unique in that it appears to have been aimed at educating the Israelites and not the Egyptians: “…you will then realize that God is making a miraculous distinction between Egypt and Israel”. It is a reaffirmation to them of God’s omnipotence. Unlike earlier plagues, it was irreversible.
A first born is the actualization of the parent’s potential creative ability. The parent, feeling that it is he who has become the creator, may become dismissive of God’s role as the Creator. Earlier, God had referred to the Israelites as “my son, my first born, Israel” underscoring the nation’s unique role in transmitting His values and ethics. It was Pharaoh’s decision to kill the Israelite first born that brought on him the “measure for measure” killing of all first born in Egypt.
Rabbi David Fohrman’s interpretation is that this killing was meant to communicate to Pharaoh and to the world that Pharaoh is not the life originator that he thought he was. It is God who creates and God who is the life source for procreation. The first born is the manifestation of this creative force. The ceremonies associated with the birth of first children and first animals described later in the pasha are designed to sensitize us to this truth.
In ancient societies, the first born occupied a unique position of power and prestige. He was destined to head the clan upon the death of the father, the then-leader of the family. Perhaps it was the failure of the first born to explain the danger and punishment that continued oppression of the Israelites would bring. Perhaps they were unwilling to use their influence to sway their families that made them partners with Pharaoh in his Holocaust—and resulted in their being sentenced to death.
“In the future when your son asks you”…Tell the Children…
Three times in this Pasha the Torah references children questioning and parents telling them about the rituals associated with commemorating the Exodus from Egypt. This, concludes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is evidence of the enormous importance of education in Judaism. The Torah urgently wants us to explain to our children who we are as a nation and to describe what happened to our ancestors. Parents are given the responsibility to pass on the story to the next generation so that our children become “guardians of the past for the sake of the future”.
It is urgent to cultivate the spirituality of a child and to develop a strong family narrative that connects children to something larger than themselves. Rabbi Sacks cites compelling research that concludes that “spirituality plays a part in a child’s resilience, physical and mental health and healing”. The spiritual quest characteristic of children (especially of teenagers) can create enormous inner strength if parents and children share a connection. It is the interactive process of children asking and parents answering that create the bond that builds on the past and lays the groundwork for the future. And the emphasis is on questioning as a prime educational tool-- “When your child asks you saying…”