7 + 3 = 10 — Parshat Bo — Rav Yonatan Horovitz
There is a famous “gematriya” (numeric value of letters) which enables one to recall the division of the ten plagues between the two parshiot, Bo and Va’era. The first two letters of Va’era combine to create a numerical value of seven signifying the number of plagues which take place therein. The numerical value of the word Bo is three and, not surprisingly, we find three plagues described in this parsha.
That’s all very cute but it gives rise to a more poignant question. Is the break between the parshiot of Va’era and Bo merely one of convenience? Is there some significance to the fact that there are seven plagues in the previous parsha and three in the parsha of Bo? Let us frame this question a little differently. We are familiar with the division of the plagues, as formulated by the tanaitic scholar Rabbi Yehudah, to which we refer in the haggadah. He lists the ten plagues in three groups of three with the final plague, makat bechorot, attached onto the third group although it really constitutes a category of its’ own. The significance of this division is discussed by Malbim, Kli Yakar and many contemporary scholars. However, we could suggest that this is not the only way to divide up the plagues. There is much evidence to suggest that there is a change in the narrative and thus in the nature of the exchange between Paro and Moshe as we begin this week’s parsha, Bo.
We note that on several occasions during the last parsha, Moshe and Aharon performed the signs and miracles in front of both Paro and his counselors (see Shemot 7:10, 7:20, 8:5). It would appear that as Hashem states prior to the onset of the plagues, (Shemot 7:5) the intention was to convince Paro and the people to recognize God. This was the reason for involving Paro’s counselors and advisors in the negotiation process. The first group to capitulate is the “chartumim”, sorcerers. Following the plague of Kinim, which they were unable to duplicate, they declare “It is the finger of God” (Shemot 8:15), thereby indicating their recognition in powers of The Almighty.
At the beginning of this week’s parsha we note a lengthy discussion between Paro and Moshe which precedes the plague of locusts. At one point Paro’s counselors try to convince their leader that the battle is over – Paro should surrender to Moshe’s demands as his stubbornness will eventually cause the destruction of the Egyptian empire (Shemot 10:7). This conversation demonstrates that the second group of people, probably Paro’s closest advisors, has also now capitulated. They too see that they cannot overcome the great powers of God Himself. This means that the final three plagues, those found in the parsha of Bo, deal with the ultimate showdown, that between Paro and God. No longer are the Egyptian people an active participant in the resistance to Moshe’s demands. Now it is just one ruler who thinks he has divine powers against the true God, Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
But we find a further change evident in the opening two verses of the parsha:
“Then the Lord said to Moshe, ‘Go to Paro for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers (servants), in order that I may display My signs among them. And that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am Hashem'” (Shemot 10: 1-2).
As stated above, the first part of this injunction to Moshe is hardly surprising. Throughout the previous parsha, we notice God telling both Moshe and Paro that He intends to demonstrate His greatness and power to the Egyptians. This appears at the opening sequence which introduces the plagues (Shemot 7:1-7) and at several junctures along the way. The issue of the hardening of Paro’s heart is also not new; it is mentioned a number of times over the last few chapters. The philosophical ramifications of such a move by God have puzzled commentators over the ages and were summarized in last week’s shiur by my esteemed colleague Rav Michael Susman (seehttp://harova.org/torah/view.asp?id=1419).
The second verse requires closer scrutiny. Whilst we are again familiar with the notion of recounting the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim to our children as we do every year at the Seder, the formal commandment is formulated only later in this week’s parsha. The above quoted verse is the first time this notion is mentioned and it’s context forces us to contemplate the nature of this requirement to retell the story to our children.
The passuk begins with the word “ulema’an”, ‘and in order’ that we may relate to our children of the wonders God performed in Egypt. This implies that one of aims of hardening Paro’s heart was in order to create a story which will be told to the children of Am Yisrael. Secondly, the passuk concludes with the words “v’yidatem ki Ani Hashem – you may know that I am God”. In what way will the retelling of the story to our descendants cause us to know God?
We have already discovered that the unfolding Exodus was not merely executed for the purpose of freeing the Israelites from enslavement at the hands of the Egyptians. We have become aware that Hashem aimed to teach Paro and the Egyptian people of His Omnipotence. We now hear that there is a further purpose to the plagues and Yetziat Mitzrayim, namely that the children of Israel too marvel at God’s powers and at this outward demonstration of Divine providence.
The centrality of the story of our deliverance from Egypt to our entire system of belief is summarized by Sefer Hachinuch in his comments on the mitzvah of Pesach Sheini. Explaining why one is given a second opportunity to bring the Pesach sacrifice, something which is not afforded to one who misses any other mitzvah, The Chinuch writes that Pesach is “a clear and strong sign for all who see the sun in the renewal of the world”. He goes on to postulate how the events of Yetziat Mitzrayim represented a change in the natural order and thereby demonstrated that Hashem did more than just create the world; He controls the world. This notion must be constantly recalled and internalized as it is one of the cornerstones of our faith. (Rav Yehuda Halevi in the Kuzari makes similar comments to explain why the first of the Asseret Hadibrot refers to God who delivered us from Egypt as opposed to God who created the heavens and the earth.)
Let us return to the pesukim quoted above. From the words of the Sefer Hachinuch we can understand how all the events surrounding Yetziat Mitzrayim were to affect the Israelite nation and thereby they “will know that I am Hashem”.
However, there are commentators who read these verses a little differently. Ibn Ezra states that the phrase “ulema’an tesaper” refers to God’s command to Moshe. He was to retell the account of God’s miracles to Bnei Yisrael whom, upon hearing this tale, will believe in God. According to this idea, there is no corollary between educating our children about the Exodus and our connection to The Almighty. Seforno, on the other hand, explains the phrase as we have done above. The plagues and the wonders performed by God must be recounted to future generations of Am Yisrael. He does not comment on the connection between this concept and “knowledge (or belief in) of God”.
The Chief Rabbi of the UK, Lord Jonathan Sacks (Covenant and Conversation) writes:
Three times in the course of two chapters, Moses tells the Israelites about their duties to their children. Even before they have left Egypt, he instructs them to hand on the future generations the story of the events though which they were living.
There has never been a more profound understanding of freedom. It is not difficult, Moses was saying, to gain liberty, but to sustain it is the work of a hundred generations. Forget it and you lose it.
In other words, the plagues and the exodus were not merely to free Am Yisrael from the trials and tribulations that befell them in Egypt. They were an investment in the future of Am Yisrael, and that would require the children of Israel to pass on this legacy from generation to generation.
In a different essay, Rabbi Sacks adds:
About to gain their freedom, the Israelites were told that they had to become a nation of educators. That is what made Moses not just a great leader, but a unique one. What the Torah is teaching is that freedom is won, not on the battlefield, nor in the political arena, nor in the courts, national or international, but in the human imagination and will. To defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need schools. You need families and an educational system in which ideals are passed on from one generation to the next, and never lost, or despaired of, or obscured. So Jews became the people whose passion was education, whose citadels were schools and whose heroes were teachers.
How true are Rabbi Sacks’ words as we look back at centuries of Jewish history. Time and again, the Jewish people have been attacked, killed, expelled and have suffered all types of hardships and suffering. On many occasions the nature of the persecution was religiously based; attempts to wrest the Torah from the Jewish people. Whilst we have lost many lives and suffered unimaginable anguish across the generations, the Torah has remained with us. Our ability to connect to the very commandments that we were given at Har Sinai and to continue to tell the story of our forefathers’ exodus from Egypt is what makes us a truly free nation.