Shevat 6, 5980 – February 1, 2020
Torah Reading: Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28
Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Bo, which is Hebrew for “come.” In the beginning of the parashah, G-d says to Moshe: “Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn so that I can put these signs of Mine in his midst.” (10:1). I’d like to highlight the phrase (אֹֽתֹתַ֥י אֵ֖לֶּה) – these signs of mine, or my signs – to emphasize a point about the coming plagues. As we discussed in last week’s parashah, G-d inflicted upon Egypt a series of seven disasters, and we are about to see the final three – of the entire ten – unfold. Colloquially, in English, we refer to these events as ‘The Ten Plagues,’ but the Hebrew text refers to them mainly as “signs” (otot, see 8:19), “marvels” (mof’tim, see 11:10), or “wonders” (nifla’ot, see 3:20). The term “plague” (Heb: nega), of course, does appear but only in relation to the killing of the first-born and the hail, which involve a loss of human life. Carol Meyers, a feminist biblical scholar, points out that “whenever G-d or the narrator describes what these calamities are intended to mean to the story’s Israelite characters – and to its Israelite audience – the term used is signs.” This is not to say that the Egyptians are not experiencing the events as plagues, or afflictions – I only wish to highlight the main purpose of the events within the biblical narrative, which are to prove G-d’s ultimate authority. While recognizing the nuance to the phraseology of the Torah, as it relates to the extraordinary events that have transpired, these signs are embedded in the narrative to serve as cautionary guides for our actions and a demonstration of G-d’s providence in earthly and material affairs.
Last week, I discussed how it took a full month for a plague to run its course, but that the actual duration of each plague lasted a week. I mentioned this point to indicate that there was a time between each plague – 3 weeks, or 21 days – that was to serve as a warning period for Pharaoh. I also discussed how the plagues came in sets – three sets of three plagues each – which demonstrated a general pattern meant to establish certain principles. But commentators note that only the first two plagues of each set were preceded by a warning to Pharaoh – by the time the third plague came, the warning had been given and the point had been made. We see this in Parashat Bo, with the plague of darkness (the third plague of the third set), which is not preceded by a warning. When we consider the progression of events, and the pattern of the plagues, nature behaves in much the same way. As we inflict upon the earth varieties of living that cause imbalance, the earth communicates with us through warning signs. Our bodies do the same thing when we push too hard – we may feel pain, get tired, or feel sick. But eventually, if we do not heed to the warnings, if we remain obstinate and stubborn in our ways, then things happen without warning. Perhaps our bodies crash, or we enter into a state of disease, or maybe an unexplainable natural disaster happens that wasn’t predictable on the weather charts. The third plague of each set was to serve as Pharaoh’s punishment for ignoring Moshe and Aaron, and not yielding to signs delivered by G-d. A sign is an event that conveys a meaning and that has a message, and if we ignore that information, then there are consequences. And this is what happened to Pharaoh. In this way, the pattern of the plagues have much to teach us about how to listen to the messages contained within natural events, and how to act in accordance with that information.
The Rabbis explain that the name for Egypt (Heb. Mitzrayim) is derived from the word m’tzarim meaning “narrow straits.” Egypt, and the archetype of Pharaoh, typify the most severe variety of narrowness, narrow-mindedness, and limitation. The plague of darkness that envelops Egypt is the apex of that idea, which is what ultimately provides the conditions for the tenth (and final) calamity – the killing of the first-born. But before this occurs, the Jews are given a set of ritual preparations for the exodus from Egypt. It is at this moment in the Torah (12:2) where the first mitzvah is given to the Children of Israel, to sanctify the new moon and to establish a calendar based on the lunar cycle. The Israelites are also given instructions for the Passover sacrifice (Pesach) and regulations regarding the Feast of Unleavened Bread (matzot). Some scholars suggest that these were originally two separate festivals, but the point here is to emphasize that they are connected as rituals of remembrance to mark the onset of the hurried flight from Egypt. Being that the Torah is a book of law, there is much rabbinical commentary that questions why the Torah doesn’t begin at this point, with the sanctification of the new moon and laws of the Passover offering. In fact, Rashi brings this up as his first comment about the Torah, underlining that the commandment (the mitzvah) of the new moon – Rosh Chodesh – was the “first law that was addressed to all of Jewry as a nation.” According to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, the word mitzvah comes from the Aramaic root “tzavta” meaning “connection.” A mitzvah, or the mitzvot, are ritual technologies that tether us to G-d and connect us to a divine source of transformation. Performance of the mitzvot are a spiritual practice that are meant to transform the heart, ethically refine the mind, and reveal light. It is no coincidence that the first mitzvah is given after the plague of darkness, and before the exiting of “narrow straits.” In (13:3) Moshe says to the people, “Remember this day on which you departed from Egypt.” The Sages urge us to remember this daily with the recitation of the Shema and (for men) the donning of tefillin, the latter of which is a commandment given at the conclusion of this parashah.
“The original Jewish geography, according to the mystical tradition, has three components – place (olam), time (shannah), and soul (nefesh). These are the basic dimensions in which we exist and interact with out world.” So far, in this series Torah for the Earth, we have discussed place (such as with the story of Jacob and his encounter with “the place (ha-makom)” in Parashat Vayeitzei) and soul (such as with the story of Joseph’s beauty, and the garments of the soul – thought, speech, and action – as three forms of soulful expression). But in this parashah, Parashat Bo, we finally turn our attention to time with the sanctification of the new moon. The Jewish calendar is based on the moon, and months alternate between 29 and 30 days. Rosh Chodesh (lit. head of the month) commemorates the beginning of each month with the appearance of the new moon, and marks the first day of every month in the calendar. Traditionally, Rosh Chodesh is particularly special for women, and although it isn’t considered a full holiday, it is observed and celebrated in a sacred way. According to the Mishnah (JT Taanit 1:6), “women did not customarily work on the new moon,” which makes a lot of sense if you simply consider the effect of monthly cycles and the rest needed at the time of menstruation. In (12:1) G-d says: “This month shall be for you the beginning of months.” This is a reference to the month of Nisan, the month in which the commandment of Rosh Chodesh is given, and the month during which the calendar year begins. It is also significant because it is a crucial signpost needed for Pesach preparations (which occurs on the 15th of Nisan), and an awareness and internalization of a monumental moment of Jewish history – the Exodus from Egypt. Although it is understood that Nisan is the “beginning of months,” it is not the beginning of the year (which occurs with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah on the 1st of Tishrei, the seventh month), which points to a fascinating way that Judaism grapples with time and the cyclical evolution of nature.
One of the most beautiful aspects of Judaism is its grounding in the human lifecycle, and the link between various ritual observances to time and seasonality. This is, in and of itself, incredibly ecological as our actions are tied to the natural cycles of the earth. The month of Nissan, and the observance of Pesach, always occurs in the spring, when the natural world is coming alive again after being dormant during the winter months. The redemption of the Jewish people is linked to spring, to a new bursting forth of light, life, and energy. In this way, the concept of renewal is linked to redemption, and that is precisely what happens every year when the earth is revived every spring. It should also inspire us to renew ourselves, to pay attention to changes, and to the parallel between our own processes and that of the earth’s. Our awareness of time is a fundamental component to our own geography, and to our orientation within the natural world. Parashat Bo very much emphasizes the sacrality of time, through the sanctification of Rosh Chodesh, which is incredibly, environmentally significant. Every year, and every day – in fact – we are urged to remember the Exodus, so that we can leave behind our narrow-mindedness, and the actions that our preventing an expression of light. This could be applicable to something on a macro level (such as a worldview) or on a micro level (such as a bad habit). Either way, every day we must renew ourselves through our remembrance of narrow straits, and through our sacred relation to time.
Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now and catch you next week.
Topics Include: Leaving Egypt and our narrow-mindedness, Rosh Chodesh and time as a component of geography, Jewish lifecycle and a renewal during spring
Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, ed. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.
Judelman, Rabbi Shaul David. “Parashat Bo: Taking Notice in Our Time.” December 31, 2013 Available at: http://canfeinesharim.org/parshat-bo-taking-notice-in-our-time/ Accessed on January 27, 2020
Ross, Lesli Koppelman. “Liberating Ourselves from Narrowness: Passover teaches that it is possible to free ourselves from the pressures of modern society.” Available at: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/self-liberation/ Accessed on January 26, 2020
Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).
Scherman, Nosson, and Meir Zlotowitz. Complete Artscroll Siddur. Artscroll, 1990.
“Rabbi’s Message: What does the word ‘mitzvah’ mean?” Available at: https://www.tevb.org/2016/08/10/what-does-the-word-mitzvah-mean/
 Eskenazi, “The Torah: a women's commentary,” p.355 and p.361
 Eskenazi, “The Torah: a women's commentary,” p.361
 Eskenazi, “The Torah: a women's commentary,” p.361
 Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.326
 Ross, “Liberating Ourselves from Narrowness”
 Eskenazi, “The Torah: a women's commentary,” p.365
 Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.326
 Rabbi’s Message: What does the word “mitzvah” mean?
 Judelman, “Parashat Bo: Taking Notice in Our Time.”
 Eskenazi, “The Torah: a women's commentary,” p.373 – “Later rabbinic sources explain that the Rosh Chodesh holiday was given to women as a reward, since – according to midrashim on Exodus 32 – they refused to participate in the sin of the Golden Calf (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 45).”
 Eskenazi, “The Torah: a women's commentary,” p.373
 Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.349 – Rashi states that “the word ‘chodesh’ should be understood not as month, but as renewal.”
The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.