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David Curwin
David Curwin

Between Va’era and Bo

The Ten Plagues appear in two parashot. The first seven are in Va’era, and the last three are in Bo. This is actually a strange division. Why not put all of them in the same parasha? Or split them half and half? Or, if we follow the traditional division of the plagues into two groups of three, followed by one group of four (as noted in Rabbi Yehuda’s acronym in the Haggadah), why not have the last four be in Bo?

I propose that there’s a significant difference between what we read in Va’era and what we read in Bo, and the division does make sense. Let’s take a look.

The last plague mentioned in Va’era is the plague of hail. During that plague, Pharaoh for the first time acknowledges that he is wrong and God is right:

Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron and said to them, “I stand guilty this time. I have sinned this time: the Lord is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.” (Shemot 9:27)

However, after God caused the hail to stop, Pharaoh reversed course:

And when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunders had ceased, he sinned yet again, and hardened his heart, he and his servants. (Shemot 9:34)

This is a major transition. As Rashbam points out (on Shemot 9:34), up until now, Pharaoh’s actions could be viewed as not fully informed. He hadn’t yet recognized God. But after his acknowledgement that God was in the right, he is to be considered an intentional rebel, and punished as such.

This leads us into Parashat Bo. In the previous plagues, God needed to educate Pharaoh. That goal was achieved, even if the effects were short lived.

But now there’s a new aim – to educate Israel. This is made clear in God’s address to Moshe before the first plague in Bo – the locusts:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may tell in the ears of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the LORD.”  (Shemot 10:1-2)

In these verses, we have a new concept, the directive to tell our children how amazing this plague was. As Bechor Shor (on Shemot 10:2)  notes, the plague of locusts was appropriate for this instruction because this region regularly receives swarms of locusts, and future generations can recall how much more impressive it was at this time.

The instruction includes the phrase “you may tell in the ears of your sons and of your sons’ sons,” which echoes the commandment to tell over story of the Exodus later in the parasha:

And you shall explain to your son on that day, “It is because of what the LORD did for me when I went free from Egypt.“ (Shemot 13:8)

What we are seeing here is a transition from the narrative section of the Torah to a halakhic one.

In the book of Bereshit, we read that Pharaoh mistreated Abraham and Sarah, and as a result God afflicted the Egyptians with plagues. The story we read in Shemot seems very similar, and could have ended up the same way. A series of devastating plagues, followed by Israel’s redemption.

But in Parashat Bo, we enter a new realm – the realm of mitzva. The first mitzvot that Israel receives are to tell the story of how God redeemed them. And it’s not just a general recommendation, but a series of detailed laws about how and when to eat the meal that commemorates that event. This interweaving of narrative and laws will accompany us for the rest of the Torah. And as such, it deserves its own new parasha.

About the Author
David Curwin is a writer living in Efrat. He has been writing about the origin of Hebrew words and phrases, and their connection to other languages, on his website balashon.com since 2006. He has also published widely on topics relating to Bible and Jewish philosophy.
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