Parashat Bo gives us the climax of the plagues leading to the Exodus from Egypt. Pharaoh seems ready to let the people go; The expectation is that the Egyptians will give up. But, hardened of heart, he again refuses permission for the people to leave so God sends the plagues of locusts and of darkness, but still Pharaoh refuses to free the Israelite slaves. God tells Moses that the tenth plague will mean all the firstborn will die, and God commands that each Israelite home must keep then slaughter a lamb, spreading the blood on their doorposts, or their firstborns too will be vulnerable to the Angel of Death.
After the death of the firstborn, the defeated Pharaoh demands that the Israelites leave immediately. The rest of the parashah tells of the Israelites preparing for their departure from Egypt, and reminds us that this fundamental experience will be recorded and remembered forever in the collective memory of the Jewish people as it details the Pesach.
Pharaoh is remembered for his certainty that he is the supreme power, for the battle between him and God that he is drawn into, for God’s deliberately manipulating him so as to make sure he keep his resolve in the battle – the famous hardening of his heart.
But along with this absolute dictator, the early stages of the Book of Exodus gives us little hints of people not accepting his power unquestioningly, sometimes with some civil disobedience, sometimes with some actions or remarks that don’t take him on face to face but clearly demonstrate other viewpoints.
So we have the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who choose to fear God over Pharaoh and who do not follow his orders to destroy the male Hebrew babies at birth. We have the female relative of Pharaoh who must certainly know that the baby she is rescuing and keeping alive is supposed to be killed as an enemy of the state. We have the ordinary Egyptians who are forced to dig around the Nile for fresh water after it has been turned into blood and Pharaoh has returned to his Palace- a picture the bible gives us that surely reflects some of the anger of the people, and finally in chapter 8 with the arrival of the fourth plague, that of the lice, we have the magicians who give voice to their frustration: “And the magicians did so with their secret arts to bring forth lice, but they could not; and there were lice upon man, and upon beast. Then the magicians said to Pharaoh: 'This is the finger of God'; but Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he listened not to them; as the Eternal had spoken.” (8:14-15)
A little while later we get yet another insight into the people’s refusal to follow Pharaoh’s dictatorial stubbornness – the plague of hail is announced 24 hours earlier when Moses says “Behold, tomorrow about this time I will cause it to rain a very grievous hail, such as has not been in Egypt since the day it was founded even until now. Now therefore send, hasten in your cattle and all that you have in the field; for every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die.' He that feared the word of the Eternal among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses; and he that regarded not the word of the Eternal left his servants and his cattle in the field.(Exodus 9:18-21). The same description that applied to the midwives – Yirat Adonai, the fear or reverence or awe of God – is now applied to the ordinary Egyptians, some of whom are clearly transferring their feelings from Pharaoh to God.
And now here, at the beginning of the sidra Bo, after seven terrible plagues, they are able to challenge Pharaoh directly. As Moses brings the warning of the eighth plague, the bible records that the servants of Pharaoh say to him “How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve the Eternal their God, do you not understand yet that Egypt is destroyed?” (Exodus 10:7)
At the very beginning of the story the disobedience is shown by the families who stand to lose a child to Pharaoh’s decree (in particular the family of Moses) and also by the brave women who are themselves described as Yirei Adonai – people who revere God. But when challenged of course they do not say so, instead they hide behind a stereotype of the foreign Hebrew women who, they say, are not like Egyptian women – with the implication that they are somehow less human than the Egyptian women. Only one person with no obvious motive is prepared to disobey the Pharaoh, and that is his unnamed young relative.
The magicians only mutter their disobedience when they are unable to replicate the plagues with their own enchantments. Almost as if to save themselves they attribute the more powerful magic to a more powerful magician. And the ordinary Egyptians who are described as Yirei Adonai become so only in order to protect their material goods. No one actually took on the Pharaoh until after the seventh plague, when Egypt is already, in their words, destroyed. Finally there are courtiers and advisors who are willing to put their heads above the parapet and challenge Pharaoh. Finally the people who have been in a position of some kind of power are able to dare to use it. It is, sadly, too late though for many Egyptians and others who live in the land, and by now Pharaoh is unstoppable – the complete destruction of the place is assured. They have found the courage to speak up too late.
There is a lesson for us in this – a lesson that Pastor Martin Niemoller most famously gave expression to:
First they came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me
and by that time there was no one left to speak up.
When we see injustice it is our obligation to speak out against it, however powerful the forces around the injustice seem to be – be they our own community asking us to keep shtum or the forces of oppression themselves. The British Jewish community is currently debating just how public any criticism of Israel should be. Mick Davies, the Chief Executive of the Jewish Leadership council was one of the first ‘establishment’ figures to worry publicly that Israel is losing its way and our communal support because of the behaviour of its politicians and religious establishment. All hell broke loose around him, but I believe he was doing what he should have done much earlier, and others have still not found the courage to do yet – speaking out against the injustice and the legal limitations done to the non Jewish residents and citizens of the State. It is an obligation on us too – and my question is, at what point are we going to challenge the wrongs and inequalities done by a State which was founded on Jewish values and the principle of “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex” (from the Declaration of Independence). ?
And if not now, when?
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild