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Parashat Bo 5783

January 24, 2023

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Moses Gone Rogue
A D’var Torah for Parashat Bo
By Cantor Robin Anne Joseph (’96)

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, Moses goes rogue.

True, he has already been known to have “acted out,” shall we say. There was the incident of Moses killing an Egyptian taskmaster upon seeing him beating a Hebrew slave, so we know Moses has a temper, but that was before Moses was under the tutelage of ‘ה. Doesn’t Moses now have an obligation to adhere to the directives of this Higher Power?

It seems to start out that way. ‘ה has given Moses the task of administering the plagues and Moses has been faithfully carrying out that task. Up to this point, between the efforts of ‘ה, and Aaron and Moses as directed by ‘ה, the plagues seem to be going according to plan.

But tensions are high and, as we begin this week’s parashah, nerves are fraying. Plague after plague, even when Pharaoh momentarily caves to Moses’s demands, he ultimately resists releasing the Israelites. While the fate of the Israelites continues to rest largely on the yo-yo-like whims of a tyrant losing control, it’s no wonder that Moses has had it by Plague Number 10.

So, ‘ה seems to take back the reins. “I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt…” ‘ה tells Moses (Shemot 11:1). But what is that plague? We don’t know. At least not yet, not from this proclamation. We know that it’s going to be the last one…we know that the Israelites are to borrow silver and gold objects from their neighbors…we also know that ‘ה says, “I will bring [it]…” It’s as if ‘ה is saying, “This one is mine, Moses. I got this.”

But Moses goes rogue; he loses the message. In fact, he relays his own message in the name of ‘ה saying: “Thus says ‘ה: Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians, and every [male] first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again; but not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites, at human or beast—in order that you may know that ‘ה makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. Then all these courtiers of yours shall come down to me and bow low to me, saying, ‘Depart, you and all the people who follow you!’ After that I will depart. And he left Pharaoh’s presence in hot anger.” (Shemot 11:4-8)

Thus says ‘ה ? ה didn’t say any of that. Where does this come from? Moses’s “hot anger?” Not even back a few chapters ago, when ‘ה predicts that Moses will have to threaten Pharaoh with the death of his first-born son (Shemot 4:22-23), does this ultimatum rise to the level that Moses takes it.

This departure from the injunction that Moses receives from ‘ה really strikes me as on par with the striking-of-the-rock incident, when Moses is told to speak to the rock in order to get water and—one could say, in “hot anger”—strikes it instead. That failure to follow the command of ‘ה earns Moses and Aaron the rebuke, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (BeMidbar 20:12)

Does not Moses deserve a similar reprimand here for his impudence?… for not trusting ‘ה enough to take care of the situation and thereby throwing the Lord’s sanctity into question? True, this outburst does not happen directly in front of the Israelite people, but the outcome does—not only in front of all the Israelites, but the Egyptians, too.

Ramban seems to address the response from ‘ה by saying, “It was to be expected that Pharaoh and his servants should dread the plague of the firstborn… more so than for anything that had happened to them — indeed they had previously seen all the words of Moses fulfilled. God therefore informed Moses that it is He who is hardening his [Pharaoh’s] heart, so that His wonders would be multiplied through the plague of the firstborn in both man and beast and the judgments He will execute against their gods.”

“…that it is He who is hardening his [Pharaoh’s] heart…” The italics are mine, but I think that Ramban may also be thinking that Moses overstepped his bounds and that ‘ה had to step in and say, “OK, Moses, but the death of every Egyptian first-born will not happen because you said so—Pharaoh is not going to heed you—but only because of ‘My marvels,’; only because I’m in charge, not you.”

Maybe Moses got confused. ‘ה did say to Moses early on, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh…” (Shemot 7:1) Maybe Moses thought that by being a god to Pharaoh it gave him the right to call the shots. Maybe he forgot that ‘ה had bookended that gift by saying “I am ‘ה; speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I will tell you” (Shemot 6:29) and “You shall repeat all that I command you…” (Shemot 7:2).

Maybe this was all part of the Master Plan. Maybe ‘ה does not issue a rebuke and lets Moses slide because this was the intent all along and the only way in which Pharaoh would have truly given in. But I wonder whether in Moses’s zeal—or anger or frustration—to obtain the release of the Israelites, he loses the message, and contributes to an even greater, more destructive plague than even ‘ה had in mind.
Cantor Robin Anne Joseph (’96) teaches cantillation as part of the faculty at AJR. A musician and composer, Robin’s liturgical and folk-rock compositions can be found through Transcontinental Music Publications and OySongs and sung at a synagogues world-wide. Past-president of ARC (the Association of Rabbis and Cantors), past-president of the Women Cantors’ Network, and the current president of Kol Hazzanim—the Westchester Community of Cantors, Robin has served the congregation of Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY for the last 42 years.