The Egyptians suffer three more plagues and the Israelites finally leave
a.k.a Parashat Bo
God said to Moses: “Go again to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart so I may display my signs
to the people. By these signs you and your descendants will know me as the God who brought you out of
God instructed Moses to tell Pharaoh that a swarm of locusts would cover the whole land if he
did not let the people go. Pharaoh’s advisors urged him to let the people go yet Pharaoh agreed to let only
the men go. Then God sent so many locusts that the land was black with swarms.
Pharaoh summoned Moses. “I have sinned,” he said. “Please ask your God to remove this plague.”
Moses asked God to accede to Pharaoh’s request. God did indeed remove the plague of locusts, but He also
hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he yet again refused to let all the Jews leave Egypt.
Then God sent darkness to the Egyptians for three days, but the area where the Hebrews lived was
full of light. Again Pharaoh summoned Moses. This time he said, “Your people may leave but you may not take
your animals with you.” Moses did not accept these terms, and Pharaoh shouted that if he saw Moses again he
would kill him. Replied Moses: “I shall never see your face again.”
The Lord told Moses that his last plague would make Pharaoh insist that the people leave. At
midnight God would kill every Egyptian first-born. No Hebrew first-born would die if the people followed
Every household had to get a lamb and take part in a communal slaughter of these animals. Every
family should then paint each side of their doorposts with lamb’s blood. Then every family should feast, eat
roasted lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. This 14th day of the beginning of a series of important
months would be known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It should be celebrated for seven days, with no
leavened bread eaten. On the first night of this Feast of Unleavened Bread, every descendant of the children
of Israel would remember and retell the story of how God brought the Hebrew slaves out of bondage from Egypt.
This celebration and tradition would be passed from generation to generation.
In the middle of the night God killed all the first-born in Egypt – young and old, rich and
poor, human and animal. Throughout Egypt there was a loud wailing for there was no house where someone had
not died that night.
With no further hesitation, Pharaoh commanded that Moses and his people depart from Egypt. The
people hurried away, carrying their unleavened dough before it could rise into bread.
Moses reminded the people of their obligation to commemorate these
Commentary on the 15th parsha (portion of the Torah)
The Torah consists of the five
books of Moses, the first part of the Old Testament.
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are. He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: Why did Pharaoh need to
endure ten plagues before he finally allowed the Hebrews to go?
Could God not have hardened his heart a little less, and spared his people such terrible
Remember his power and credibility depended on his refusing to yield to the God of this
minority group. Remember, too, that the Egyptians thought of their Pharaoh as a God, an earthly
representative of the sky god Horus. There was therefore a lot at stake in this confrontation – the divine
status of the Egyptian Pharaoh was on the line.
We know, however, that Pharaoh was just a man and no match for the biblical
What’s the point of setting up
such unequal protagonists?
MS: You fail to understand
that God was teaching Pharaoh a decisive lesson. This arrogant man, filled with hubris, had to be shown that
he was totally powerless against the one true God, and so were all his deities too.
SAS: I think your story sets
out to show believers in many different gods that there is only one all-powerful supreme god and that is the
god of the Jews.
Yes, and I think I made the point well. That’s one message readers will get, even if
Pharaoh never really did.
So much for God’s lesson. All right, whether Pharaoh was persuaded or not, he conceded.
God, however, could simply have freed the people himself. This would have saved a lot of disease, carnage and
destruction. But what was this display of plagues supposed to demonstrate to the Israelites in
MS: You disappoint me,
Sigmund. You display so little understanding of the process of human development and the people’s growing
recognition of God’s power. The people needed to be convinced of God’s power. One miracle wasn’t enough. They
needed to develop trust and faith that God would always be with them – not that He’d simply perform a miracle
or send down a plague here and there. They needed to learn that the gift of freedom is not the consequence of
a single event, but that it requires faith and trust and endurance.
SAS: It sounds like nonsense
to me. As for the children of Israel, if you ask me they were slow to learn. And I bet lots of them thought
the Egyptians would hate them more for this. All these tricks identified them so clearly as enemies of the
MS: I’d prefer it if you
didn’t refer to the fearsome displays of God’s power as tricks, but you have, in your cynicism, made a very
profound point. The children of Israel did indeed identify themselves as a people when they painted their
doorposts with blood so that the angel of death could pass over their houses. This was an act of faith. Even
if the slaughter of the firstborn had not taken place, they would have been targeted as a group apart by
showing their commitment to Moses and his God. This is where the Israelites identified themselves to
themselves and to others. God chose them and they accepted.
SAS: It’s a mixed blessing as
we all know, to our cost. We are marked, and that draws attention to us. Then on top of it, we have outmoded
rituals, like eating unleavened bread for seven days. So the Hebrews left Egypt without waiting for the dough
to rise? I thought their faith had already been proved. What’s the point, Methuselah?
MS: This is the point: the
Jews show their faith in God and Moses his prophet by following Moses into the wilderness, unprepared and
uncertain. And Moses himself doesn’t know what’s going to happen. And it is here that the Jews start to see
themselves as a people who have, with help of God, been born anew, free from slavery and launched into their
new lives by a strong hand.
SAS: So this is our myth?
This is the story we must tell our children and ourselves, year after year, that God led us from bondage into
freedom? And to commemorate this, we eat unleavened bread, bitter herbs and roasted lamb. Shouldn’t we feel at all sorry for the Egyptians who lost their firstborn
children and were subjected to all those other terrible plagues?
MS: They stand as a lesson to
those who do not obey the word of God and who oppress His people. Their stubbornness and cruelty was
SAS: I can’t accept it,
Methuselah. You are a sage, a wise man. And yet you say these things.
MS: And you, my friend, are
still in the wilderness.
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know more about the real history of our
extended Jewish family, read on.
Anti-Semitism in the
16th to 18th Centuries
In 1519 Martin Luther spearheaded the Protestant
Reformation in what is now Germany. He started off by condemning the inhumane treatment of Jews, but became
progressively anti-Semitic in his views. In 1543 he produced a pamphlet, On the Jews and Their Lies,
in which he advocated getting rid of the Jews by setting fire to synagogues and houses, silencing rabbis,
seizing property and denying Jews safe passage. In 1573, due to the lobbying of Luther’s followers, Jews were
expelled from Germany. Some interpret Luther’s work as sanctioning the murder of
Meanwhile, the Italian Inquisition that had started
in 1267 and lost its impetus in 1299 ignited again under Pope Paul III in 1542. In 1553, 12,000 copies of the
Talmud were burnt in Italy. Pope Paul IV (1555-1559), who’d been the cardinal overseeing the burnings, took
the Inquisition further, ordering all Jewish refugees arriving from Portugal to be burnt at the stake. This
set a precedent for further public burnings. After the Inquisition’s power had been challenged by rioters in
Rome, Pope Pius V (1566-1572) and Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585) re-established it as an instrument of
The 17th century brought little respite
for the Jews in Europe, although Cromwell effectively allowed Jews back into England in 1656. However, 40
years before, King Louis XIII of France had ordered all Jews to leave that country, and in 1670 Jews were
evicted from Vienna. One of the worst-ever episodes in Jewish history took place between 1648 and 1655 when
the Cossacks slaughtered 100,000 Jews in the Ukraine – possibly many more.
In 1727 Catherine I of Russia ordered all Jews in
Russia and the Ukraine to leave, an edict not successfully enforced. Elizabeth of Russia then ordered all
Jews out of Russia in 1742. In 1745, Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria, expelled all Jews from Bohemia,
but let them return in 1748 if they paid “queen’s money”.
The climate for Jews in Europe improved slightly in
the latter half of the century, one reason being the immense literary reputation of Moses Mendelssohn
(1729-1786), who was suitably scornful of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II’s Toleranzpatent that
accommodated Judaism in only a very limited way. In Russia, where Jewish rights were recognized by Catherine
the Great (1762-1796), Jews were nevertheless confined to a region called The Pale of Settlement from
1791 and had to pay double taxes.
The first Russian pogrom was only 30 years away. If
things had been bad before, much worse was to come.
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment
by the Father, Chaya and Ben.
CHAYA: I’ve often heard it said that Martin Luther’s writings were anti-Semitic, but I don’t understand
how very devout and highly moral people, even today, follow his teachings.
BEN: How can they be regarded
as moral if they follow the teachings of someone who was clearly a racist and subscribed to ethnic religious
DAD: I think this one is hard
to take, but we should remember that most people are swept up by the massive tide of public sentiment. Martin
Luther, like many other leaders, was a creature of his time. His main target was the corruption in the
Catholic Church of the day. As a revolutionary, he burned with passion and zeal, and, as is often the case,
the Jews were visible and easy targets. Don’t forget, someone
had to have killed Christ, and in the Christian drama we played that role.
BEN: I don’t know. It seems
so crude and unthinking that all over Europe for centuries Jews were seen as Christ-killers, all evil, greedy
and a danger to civilisation.
CHAYA: Look, even today,
certain groups of people are demonised because of what we think they believe. We don’t know if the
accusations are true, but whole nations suspect and condemn the targeted groups. As it happens, the Jews are
off the hook this time, but we should be vigilant about this kind of madness.
DAD: You’re right, Chaya. But
as you can see, it’s not easy to stand up for a group of people whose beliefs are strange, and often unknown
to us. It seems that the majority of people find it easier to believe the clichés and not get beyond them.
And then it’s just a matter of time before whole civilisations engage in modern-day
BEN: If you look at the
history of the Jews in Europe it’s clear that this is what happened, over and over again. And yet you can
understand the way this works – if you believe what you are told, time and again, the same false evidence and
accusations continue to stick. The Jews have been blamed for so long, and for so much, people think there
must be something to it.
CHAYA: The question is, what
can be done to stop this kind of madness, no matter whom it’s directed against?
DAD: There’s no clear answer,
I’m afraid. But taking nothing for granted, and accepting no unsubstantiated claims about whole groups of
people would be a good start.
Every Shabbat we read five
short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and humour, insightful reflections on this life of
Here are tonight’s sayings:
- Not to teach your son a trade is like teaching him to steal. (Talmud)
- When your neighbour is in trouble, abstain from visible
- The longest road in the world is the one that leads from your
- Trees bend only when young.
- A good deed is most worthy when no one knows of it.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate
the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing to changing the world for the better and having an
extraordinary impact on those around them.
Rosa Luxembourg (1871-1919)
Rosa Luxembourg was born
in Russian Poland. From the age of 16 she participated in revolutionary activities. In 1889 Luxemburg moved to
Switzerland to continue her studies but she was forced to flee from her home country partly because of her
political activities. Luxemburg entered the University of Zürich where she studied natural sciences and political
economy and law. In 1898 Luxemburg completed her doctorate. She started her career as a journalist and became one
of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. Between the years 1892 and
1919 Luxemburg produced almost 700 articles, pamphlets, speeches, and books. She was a leader of several left-wing
political parties in both Poland and Germany and spent a lot of time in jail. She founded with Karl Liebknecht the
radical Spartacus League in 1916 and drafted the Spartacists’ program. Two years later the organisation became the
German Communist Party. She and Liebknecht were murdered in January 1919 by German Freikorps soldiers. Luxemburg
herself did not participate in the women’s rights movement; women’s liberation was for her part of the liberation
from the oppression of capitalism. However, she saw that socialist emancipation was incomplete without women’s
emancipation. She is still highly regarded in some circles of the Left
Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909- )
Rita Levi-Montalcini was born
in Turin in 1909. She had a twin sister who was a gifted artist. She was a student of the famous Italian
histologist Giuseppe Levi who gave her a superb training in biological science, and a rigorous approach to
scientific when such an approach was still unusual. In 1936 she graduated from medical school with a summa
cum laude degree in Medicine and Surgery, and embarked on a three-year specialization in neurology and
psychiatry. When the Fascists issued their racial laws, she decided to build a small research unit at home
and installed it in her bedroom. In the autumn of 1943, the invasion of Italy by the German army forced her
to abandon her now dangerous refuge in Piedmont and flee to Florence, where she lived underground until the
end of the war. She studied the effects of limb extirpation in chick embryos and continued her research at
Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri. Together with Stanley Cohen she studied mouse tumors
implanted in chicken embryos and isolated a nerve-growth factor, the first of many cell-growth factors found
in animals which helped understanding of disorders like cancer, birth defects, and Alzheimer’s. For this
discovery Levi-Montalcini and Cohen were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986.
We will now sing a traditional song to conclude our Shabbat celebration. You have a
copy of the words, so please join in as we sing.
The song is sung
Farewell and an Invitation
Thank you for joining together
to share our Shabbat. May you go out into the new week with renewed strength, confidence and
We now cordially invite you to
join us for some coffee and cake.