Bo, the third parshah of Sh'mot and the fifteenth of the Torah, presents the final three signs from the Eternal: locust, touchable darkness, and death of the firstborn. Several themes emerge in this reading: the magnificence and unquestionable power of the Eternal; our need to remember our experiences in Egypt (enslavement, being strangers, Divine wonders, and redemption); and our obligation to recall the stories with one another and our children. We leave Egypt, with all its constraints and misery and unprepared for the ways in which those miseries and constraints live within us. We leave with flocks, herds, and personal possessions; items borrowed from or asked of our Egyptian neighbors; and as a gam ereiv rav, a mixed multitude. Our exiting Egypt is the event from which this book takes its English title, Exodus (Latin: Exodos).
The Eternal tells Moshe "Go (bo) to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants... to display my signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your (children) and your (children's children) that I mocked the Egyptians... that you may know I am יהוה (The Eternal)." (10.1-2) The Eternal chooses to warn Pharaoh of the next devastating sign. The statement makes clear that all of the displays of the Eternal's magnificent power is as much for us – to experience, witness, and to be awed by so that we may recall and tell the story with each other and to future generations – as it is for the Egyptians.
Moshe tells Pharaoh that locust will cover the land, devouring the remnant of any remaining greenery. Still Pharaoh resists. The news alarms Pharaoh's courtiers. They plead with him to consider their plight. Pharaoh recalls Moshe and Aharon, and attempts to negotiate with Moshe to only take the important men, and fails. Moshe retorts: "We will all go, regardless of social station... our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds." Pharaoh rejects that idea. (10.3-11)
The Eternal drives an east wind, gathering it and moving it until the locusts arrive in Egypt. The horrid mass hides the land from view, eating up everything that was not destroyed by the previous swarms, thunder, fire, and hail. Nothing green was left anywhere in Pharaoh's Egypt. Pharaoh summons Moshe and Aharon. He acts contrite, saying what needs to be said to have "this death removed" from him. Moshe leaves without speaking to Pharaoh, and pleads to יהוה Who causes the wind to shift and come strongly from the west to hurl all the locusts into the Sea of Reeds. Again, Pharaoh reneges (10.12-20)
Without warning the Eternal brings a "darkness that can be touched" to Egypt that lasts for three days. In Goshen, we are sheltered from the storm of darkness with light in our skies and in our dwellings as it envelops the rest of the land. Three days of darkness can do a lot of harm to animals and plants as well as humans. Pharaoh tells Moshe and Aharon that all the people can go, but the livestock must stay. Moshe makes clear that not a hoof will remain. The Eternal stiffens Pharaoh's heart. Pharaoh dismisses Moshe and Aharon with an ominous warning that they will die, should they again see Pharaoh. Of course, they will see each other again, and death will have occurred since this parting. (10.21-29)
This sweeping proclamation introduces an unexpected tension for us.
Preceding the 10th sign, the Eternal instructs Moshe to prepare us to leave. Among the things we are to do is borrow from/ask of (וישאלו/v'yish'alu) our neighbors' objects of silver and gold. The Eternal has already assured us that our Egyptian neighbors will be inclined to give to us (3.22). The conversations we have with our neighbors give us the opportunity to hear the high regard many Egyptians have for Moshe. (11.2-3) We slaughter lambs and use the blood to bless/protect our homes; making a distinction between the deaths that will occur among the Egyptians and the Israelite lives within our homes. We pack and have a feast.
Moshe warns Pharaoh that the Eternal plans to go among the Egyptians, killing all the firstborns "from Pharaoh. . . to the slave girl." Egypt's firstborn animals will also die. Moshe also tells Pharaoh that our families and our animals will be safe precisely because God wants him and us to know that God makes a distinction between the Israelites and the Egyptians. (11.4-8)
This sweeping proclamation introduces an unexpected tension for us. The 10th wonder is the first that will more than inconvenience Pharaoh; he will lose his firstborn children. Why, however, are those who also suffer at the hands of Pharaoh being punished alongside Pharaoh? What did they do? Many of the peoples were also tricked into servitude. Others were sold into servitude as was our Yoseif. They work alongside us in construction and in the fields. Others have married (converted) into our families. We have adopted children and raised them as our own. Our proximity and empathy may well be why we will welcome those who want to join us as we leave.
As the Eternal predicted, Pharaoh arises in the night "because there is a loud cry in Egypt." He joins the cry as his firstborn is dead. He summons Moshe and Aharon and demands that we leave immediately. And so, we leave, with the others ready to leave alongside us. Their losses have proven to them the power and compassion of The Eternal. We welcome them, as we always have welcomed those willing to take on our ways. Our new adventure begins. We are elated, and we will soon discover that we are completely under prepared.
Shining Light on Our Time
Our Jewish ancestors were elated to finally leave the external trappings of slavery with its humiliations, pains, constraints, and other miseries that limited and controlled the shape of their collective and individual worlds. They did not, and could not have, known or anticipated all the different ways in which they individually and collectively internalized constraints, generational trauma, or the spiritual and physical pains they suffered were also embodied. As they leave, I can imagine that many believed they were leaving ALL the sufferings and pains of Egypt behind.
We, who have felt our people and, by extension, ourselves under attack – and/or more pointedly under attack – may be able to identify with our ancestors. When Donald Trump was inaugurated four years, I was stunned by the tone of his speech. “American carnage” was such a startling phrase as well as his assertion that “only he” – a man who had never held any kind of public office or any other position in support of the public good – could solve all our problems.
For over 400 years, it has been stressful to be a Black person in our country. Yet, it became more stressful during the previous administration. It was as if White and other light skinned people, had lost their minds and had to call the police because we were barbecuing in parks, moving items into or out of our own homes, waiting for business associates at coffee houses or restaurants, being with our children who appeared to be White, sleeping in our dorm lounge, walking across a college campus – the list is way too long. Yet, I must mention the most famous incident: birdwatching in Central Park. That’s a long way of saying the election results were a relief. The lies about the outcome, and the long list of actions seeking to overturn the results, were stunning; culminating with the attack on the Capitol.
Tuesday, January 19, as the sun was setting, our new President and Vice President honored the more than 400,000 people who have died from COVID19. It was my first time seeing Wilton Gregory - family friend,now Archbishop - since he came to Washington, DC. Eyes watering, we soaked in the comfort from the songs and prayers, then the beauty of lanterns as they were lit, and weeping - the beginning of release.
More release came on Wednesday, mixed with the ache of not being able to be there in person with friends and family. I loved how the day changed. It was probably still chilly after that short flurry of snow. Yet, the sun was shining bright and fluffy white clouds dotted the sky. It caused me to recall two lines from Psalm 85: Lovingkindness and truth have met; righteousness and peace kissed. Truth from the land will flow; justice from heaven is seen. (11-12) There is much more work that needs to be done, including the work of holistic healing.
In the coming weeks we will see how our ancestors struggled to be in relationship with what it means to be free and what it means to be in relationship to The Eternal. In many ways they are as children learning to be on their own. In other ways, they are adults setting about having a new life with new rules and customs. The Eternal will repeatedly be a compassionate parent and healer, and an impatient husband demanding a level of perfection that is not possible for human beings! Just as children approaching adulthood and new brides are challenged by the sudden changes in their circumstances, so too are these wonderfully flawed and loving families in their transformation to become a nation.
This Week’s Lessons, Reflections, and Practices
1. Preparing for Change, Transformation: A question that sometimes arises is why the Israelites were not ready to leave Egypt, "nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves." (12.39) Afterall, the Eternal has been telling them for some time that their redemption was coming; and the time was finally "now." The experience, however, was that Pharaoh continued to change his mind. Though we are told what will happen in Egypt after our feast, and though most of us marked our doors, for many it could have been difficult to hope, dream, or anticipate that the next act would finally break Pharaoh. Our own experiences say that there was a spectrum of responses to the possibility of freedom arriving shortly. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about these phenomena in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” They are: complacency as a result weariness and/or hopelessness, complacency as a result of security and economic benefit, impatience for change, bitterness and hatred may erupt into violence, and contemporary frustration.
Preparing is not the same as being ready. We prepare for rituals and ceremonies. The preparation readies us and does not tell us how we will feel about participating in the ritual or ceremony. We discover how we feel as we move through the transformative act and come to know what has transformed as we move with our new self. We may not be prepared for what arises and we can be ready to welcome it.
Reflection A: Not all transformations are accomplished through rituals and ceremonies. Consider a few of the ways you have transformed. Pick one or two and, without judgement, uncover the path/process/experience that led to who you are now. Some of our transformations are the result of pain. What is the gift you have uncovered? Have you found it yet? When you are ready to look, it's waiting for you. Even Pharaoh, in the wake of disaster, asked for a blessing.
2. "...every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die...": One of the cosmological notions that has always stuck with me is the idea that the Eternal, in taking us as God's people, is learning what it means to be Elohim, an all-things-God to all-of creation. I believe that's what makes the death of all the firstborns "from Pharaoh. . . to the slave girl" so heartbreaking and unbearable. The lack of distinction between the mighty and the oppressed gives me and others pause. Aviva Zornberg offers a teaching from Rashi to explain that more gods are involved than just Pharaoh and the Egyptian pantheon. There are the gods of the non-Israelite prisoners and enslaved. If they were to go unscathed by the plague, they could claim that their gods were also powerful. By including all non-Israelites in the plague, the Sovereignty of יהוה is unmatched.
Reflection B: Think about a time when you decided on a plan of action that had unintended, unfavorable consequences to people for whom you care. How did you handle the fallout? What, if any, relationships were you able to repair? What, if any, relationships remain broken? If you are unhappy with the brokenness that remains, who would you have to be to be a mender?
Reflection C: Maybe you were among the unintended consequences of another's decision. How have you moved forward? What places within you, if any, still need healing? How can you tend to yourself and your desire to heal?
Reflection D: Maybe you were part of a push for systemic change within an entity, institution, or governmental body that had consequences you did not expect or feared. How do you relate to your role in the change? What, if any, regrets do you have? How can you aid your need for healing?
3. Tell Your Children: Much is made in the Torah about remembering. In this parashah, we are given great detail about telling this story to our children.
Reflection E: What other important stories do you have to share with your children? Others that you teach/mentor/love? Family stories/legends? Personal stories/legends? What is the past that you believe could serve them as they move into their lives?
 Ruakh haqadim רוח הקדים (10.13), generally the hot, dry, withering wind known as…sirocco. This is the same wind that withers the stalks in Pharaohs dream (Genesis 41.6). JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus; Commentary by Nahum M. Sarna.  Ruakh-yam רוח-ים (10.19), sea-wind, ibid.
© Sabrina Sojourner 2021