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Parashat Bo 5777 — 02/04/2017

Parashat Bo 5777 — 02/04/2017

Shemot 10:1-13:16

Our parashah opens with the plague of darkness. The darkness in Egypt was “palpable,” while there was light for B’nei Yisrael in all their dwellings (10:23). Light is a universal metaphor for goodness and purity, while darkness is a universal metaphor for the opposite. Ramchal elaborates:

Moshe needed to initiate the plague of darkness upon the Egyptians while at the same time bringing light to B’nei Yisroel. To accomplish this he would need to draw upon a spiritual strength that could facilitate bringing judgment upon the Egyptians while at the same time showering chesed upon B’nei Yisroel. The pasuk therefore states that Moshe stretched his hand upon the shamayim [Heavens], alluding to the specific Divine Attribute called shamayim which was the source of this plague. Shamayim is a conjunction of two words, aish and mayim, fire and water. Fire is representative of Hashem’s Attribute of Din, Judgment, while water is representative of His Attribute of Chesed, Kindness. Shamayim, containing aspects of both din and chesed was needed to initiate the plague of darkness.

I think shamayim here represents the transcendent, in which opposite qualities are harmonized and reconciled. It didn’t take Moshe separate actions to bring darkness on the Egyptians and light to the Israelites. In fact, the Midrash indicates that the “darkness” that the Egyptians experienced was the same light that the Israelites experienced – the difference was in their reaction to it. The Egyptians were steeped in a gross materiality, which is impervious to Divine, spiritual light. Therefore, when this Divine light was revealed, the Egyptians were blinded by it – it was in such contrast to their natures. Think of sitting for some time in a completely dark room, and then suddenly switching on a very bright light – you are blinded. The Israelites, who by this time, 8 plagues in, were no longer subject to backbreaking labor, had begun their climb from a crude material existence to the purely spiritual existence they would experience in the 40 years in the wilderness. For them, the light was illuminating.

Ramchal continues:

To understand the plague of darkness on a deeper level, we need to explore the true meaning of darkness and light. The Torah writes when Hashem created the world He saw the light was good and separated between the light and the darkness (Bereishit 1:4). The light is associated with that which is holy and good, while darkness is associated with tum’ah. Ideally, as at the time of creation, these two must remain distinct and separate and there should be no spiritual light mixed with darkness or vice versa. The removal of the spiritual light of kedusha from tum’ah and darkness resulted in the total darkness that enveloped the entire land of Egypt, while at the same time there was light for B’nei Yisroel in all of their dwellings (Shemot 10:23).

Our Sages tell us that prior to eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Good and Evil were completely separate from one another. By eating the fruit, Adam and Eve ingested and mixed them together, as we find in human life to this day. There are virtually no actions we can take, at least from the ordinary waking state of consciousness, that are not at least a little bit morally ambiguous. I am writing this on the day before the US election. If you think Hillary Clinton is corrupt, and that Jill Stein is not, should you vote for Jill Stein, knowing that it makes a Trump presidency more likely? I am not expressing my opinion here, just pointing out that there are inherent contradictions in every decision we make.

Ramchal continues by quoting the Sages’ teaching that two things happened during the plague of darkness. First, the Israelites were able to move freely through the homes of the Egyptians and could locate all the valuables that they would later “borrow” on their way out of the country. Second, those Israelites who were too sunk into Egyptian culture to be redeemed, died and were buried without the Egyptians’ knowledge. (I have always wondered what the Egyptians thought after the darkness lifted and 80% of the Israelite population had disappeared!)

In both these cases we see a separation of kedusha and tum’ah – in the former the kedusha (“gold and silver”) is removed from the tum’ah (the Egyptians) and in the other case the tum’ah (assimilated Israelites) is removed from kedusha (the community of Israel). This separation is the beginning of a process which culminates in the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, where, according to our tradition, Israel is returned to a state equivalent to that of Adam and Eve before they ate of the forbidden fruit. Unfortunately, it was temporary then as it was in the original case.

Note that the separation of kedusha and tum’ah appears to violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that a closed system tends to homogeneity – that is, differences are evened out by a process of mixing. Thus, if part of a system is hot and another part is cold, the heat will flow from the hot part to the cold part (more or less quickly, depending on whether there is a poor or a good insulator between them) until both parts are lukewarm. It takes energy and intelligence to reverse this process (e.g. a refrigerator or an air conditioner, which moves heat from a cooler place to a hotter one). Of course the universe is not a closed system – it is open to Gd’s energy and intelligence. At those times when it is most open to Gd, as during the plagues and at Mt. Sinai, the separation is most effective.

Each one of us is fighting the same battle. We must separate out the impurities inside us, the stresses and strains lodged in our minds and bodies that prevent us from seeing clearly and acting properly. The way to accomplish this seemingly superhuman task is to contact the transcendent and establish it in our awareness. In this way we begin to identify in ourselves the boundless source of kedusha, and we see ourselves as separate from all the boundaries and activity of the world – all the tum’ah. From this vantage point, we can apply the energy and intelligence necessary to purify the world.

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Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Bo

The final three of the plagues occur in this parshah, as does the commandment to celebrate the passing over by the Lrd of the firstborn of the Israelites, the redeeming of every first born male and the borrowing of silver, gold and clothing from the Egyptians.

Where we see “10 plagues” it is natural to compare them to the 10 sayings  with which Gd created/revealed all the details of existence, to the 10 Utterances (Commandments) on Mt Sinai, to the 10 fingers  as well as to the 10 toes and to the 10 Sephirot—expressions or veils of Gd the One, The Total, The Only.

Rabbi Yehudah Berg in the Chumash he edited quotes the Zohar as seeing the 10 plagues as each corresponding to one of the sayings, restoring the openness to Gd that is natural to all life but becomes closed when people begin to stop being grateful to Gd for all they are and have – becomes closed when people (in this case, the Egyptians, led by Pharoah) begin to think that all their success is due to their own efforts (or to gods rather than Gd) and not to Gd’s blessings.

Rabbi Berg gives us the lesson that reading this parshah helps us to restore our openness and to free us from our exile, estrangement from Gd to whatever extent we have become lost in our feelings that we alone are responsible for our success.

I agree with Rabbi Berg that the parshah has a freeing effect when we read it, listen to it, in Hebrew or English (or both, if our Hebrew is not fluent). It has a freeing effect on the level of sound especially but also on the level of meaning, and also when we think and discuss the parshah, its symbolism and its relevance to us today.

chabad.org has the parshah in an audio recording, in Hebrew, in English and with Rashi’s commentary – a good collection of resources to dip into, to enjoy, feel, think about as we have time.

Why did Gd command Moses to command His people to borrow silver, gold and garments from the Egyptians?

Mrs. Dinka Kumer on askmoses.com quotes a Midrash as saying that Gd told Moses He had promised Abraham that after the exile Abraham’s descendants would have great riches and so this promise needed to be fulfilled.

Mrs Kumer also says that the “wealth”, according to Jewish mysticism, included not only the silver, gold and garments but the “sparks of spirituality” that flourished amid the idolatry, greed, negativity, restrictions of Egypt.  So the Israelites left with not only material wealth but spiritual wealth, emptying Egypt (symbolically, limitations) of all its power.

Extending Rabbi Berg’s views on the value of the parshah, we can see that it can help to move the wealth from our material life to our spiritual life and raise us to a life of joyful freedom, walking with Gd.

Baruch HaShem