Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Bo

Parashat Bo

January 21, 2015

by Cantor Sandy Horowitz

The recitation of the ten plagues at the Passover Seder table is one of the rituals used to retell the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. This ritual is often done hastily, as we dip our finger in wine and name each plague. As we consider this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, let us slow down this ritual in order to examine the significance of last three of these plagues. All three relate to darkness.

In continuation from last week’s Torah reading, a pattern has been established in which Moses asks Pharaoh to free the Israelite slaves and let them leave Egypt, Pharaoh refuses, and God casts plagues upon the Egyptians. Of this week’s final three, the first is the plague of locusts. In Exodus 10:15 we read, “They obscured the view of the earth, and the earth became darkened [vatehshakh ha-aretz].” Pharaoh asks Moses’ forgiveness, and the plague is removed. But once again Pharaoh refuses to let Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

Next comes the plague of darkness:

“The Lord said to Moses, stretch forth your hand toward the heavens, and there will be darkness over the land of Egypt, and the darkness will become darker. So Moses stretched forth his hand toward the heavens, and there was thick darkness over the entire land of Egypt. They did not see each other, and no one rose from his place for three days but for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings.” (Exodus 10:21-23).

In these verses alone, the word for darkness, hoshekh, is repeated three times.

Hoshekh is one of the first words to appear in the Bible. In Genesis 1:2 we read that “Darkness was on the face of the deep.” In the following verse God pronounces “Let there be light”, and there is light. These are not the darkness and light of night and day, as that separation won’t appear until the fourth day of creation. These rather, are fundamental states.

When the plague of darkness is cast over Egypt (a darkness darker than night, according to Rashi), we’re told that there is light in the Israelite dwellings. Just as light was separated from darkness on the first day of creation, the Israelites are beginning to separate from the existential and spiritual darkness of slavery; it is their metaphorical first day of freedom.

Further separation is seen in the description of the final and worst plague of all, the slaying of the Egyptian first-born, while Israelite homes are spared. Here, darkness is two-fold for the Egyptians, as they witness the slaying of their first-born children in the middle of the night. This is the final plague, as Pharaoh finally agrees to allow Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

The Israelites meanwhile, are receiving instructions regarding the commemoration of the very events they are experiencing: “This day shall be for you as a memorial…throughout your generations” (Exodus 12:14). Passover observances for generations to come are being laid out, before Israelite feet have even left Egypt.

The transition from slavery to freedom is part of the fundamental story of the Jewish people–many Jews today who have no other religious practice will nonetheless partake in a Passover Seder and its reenactment of the liberation story. Participants retell the ancient story and often discuss its ongoing modern implications. Having an understanding of the passage from the darkness of oppression into the light of freedom, it is for us to consider those who remain oppressed. Whether it is the darkness of societal oppression, racism or poverty, or the private darkness of isolation or depression, we who have been given light, must work for the liberation of others, that they too may have light.

It is still many weeks before we will gather around our Seder tables at Passover and recount the liberation story once again. Let us consider what we can do between now and then on behalf of those around us who suffer in societal or personal darkness. When we dip our fingers into the wine and recite the ancient plagues of Egypt, let us also consider the modern plagues of our time; and may our discussions include a recounting of what we are doing to bring light where light is needed.


Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.