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Parashat Bo 5780 — 02/01/2020

Parashat Bo 5780 — 02/01/2020

Shemot 10:1-13:16

… At about midnight I will go out into Egypt. And all firstborns in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the millstones, and all the firstborn animals (11:4-5)

Or haChaim analyzes this verse, continuing his theme that evil does not come from Gd, a theme we discussed last week:

[Hashem] did not say, “I shall kill every firstborn…” because Hashem, blessed is He, performs good with His own Hand, but [for] a bad action He issues a command to His servants who do His bidding [i.e. the angels], and they do it. That is why He did not say, “I shall kill…” but rather, “…every firstborn shall die,” meaning, “by way of a messenger.” What Hashem did was to identify the firstborns [because this is something only Hashem knew, especially given the promiscuity prevalent in Egyptian society]. This would cause the destroying angel to destroy [that person], and he would die. What emerges from this is the meaning of [Hashem] saying, and I shall strike every firstborn (12:12) is that this striking would be by means of a messenger.

Of course, in the Haggadah we read find Gd declaring that “Not by means of an angel, and not by means of a seraph, and not by means of a messenger….” According to Or haChaim we can explain the apparent contradiction by saying that Gd came to Egypt along with the destroying angel but just pointed out the firstborns (excluding Jewish firstborns of course), allowing the angel to then do its thing on the unsuspecting Egyptians.

I think this is reading the Midrash a bit too literally. First, what difference does it make whether Gd kills directly or sends an angel? Since angels can only do Gd’s Will exactly as specified, how is the angel’s action substantially different from Gd’s? There is a principle in halachah that “a person’s agent is like himself.” Therefore the angel, who is Gd’s agent, should be like Gd in the sense that the responsibility for the action devolves back onto Gd Himself. This would go even more so if Gd were specifically pointing out to the angel exactly whom to kill. Even if Gd only selectively withdrew His protection from the firstborns and turned the angel loose, that withdrawal is an act, and the angel is still Gd’s agent to do the actual killing.

I think our question returns – why does Torah say the firstborns will die rather than attributing action to Gd? And what does it mean that Gd “went out into Egypt”? We know that Gd is the transcendent reality at the core of all of creation. Egypt is Mitzraim in Hebrew, from the root meaning “narrowness” or “boundaries.” In some way, it appears that Torah is describing a situation where the transcendent enters into the boundaries to purify them of any life-damaging influences. The Torah further describes that this purification process was quite difficult for Egypt. I suppose it is to be expected that when the unbounded tries to squeeze itself into narrow boundaries that the pressure for the boundaries to break is irresistible. Perhaps it is in this sense that we don’t ascribe the death of the firstborn to Gd – it was simply the natural consequence of the purity of the transcendent breaking through.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parshat Bo

With the plague of the death of the first born and the death of his first-born son Pharaoh finally drives the Children of Israel out of Egypt to worship the Lrd, along with their children, flocks and wealth they have borrowed from their Egyptian friends – wealth borrowed from Mitzrayim, Restrictions, which will never be returned to the restricted value and will remain with the Children of Israel, dedicated to Wholeness. Unlimited.

Literally, “first born” refers to the first-born child; symbolically, it is whatever is our most precious desire, our link between our present status and the future status we hope to achieve.

Our religion guides us to cherish most a first-born that can never die, making our most precious desire the desire to be restored to full awareness of Oneness, One with the One, One with Gd Who Is All There Is, the Unborn and Undying.

And our religion guides us to “worship Gd with all our heart and all our soul” and “love our neighbor as our Self,” and thus to free ourselves from enslavement to limited values of life, which were the values of Pharaoh’s Egypt/Mitzraim/ Restrictions, and to gently become fully aware of the Wholeness within which all limits are no longer experienced as limits but are experienced as Expressions of the Wholeness within which they Exist, Flow, Flourish.

This parshah reminds us to keep our priorities in order and to free ourselves from restrictions so we have time to worship the Lrd, and thus to transform restrictions into Expressions of the Lrd, of Wholeness – and that includes restoring our experience of our restricted self to Full Awareness, One with the One.

Baruch HaShem