Parashat Bo – The power of foreknowedge

Image by Yael Shahar

In our parashah, the plagues in Egypt reach their horrific conclusion, resulting in the freedom for the Israelite slaves (and presumably many others as well) and their expulsion from the country.

The escalating plagues have gradually reduced Egypt from a land of plenty to a land of scarcity. Where before, Egypt was the place where the people of nearby lands went to find food, now Egypt loses its status as the regional supplier. Hail, disease, and finally, locusts decimate the land. And with each new plague, the stature of Moshe and the Children of Israel grows among the Egyptians.

The advantage of foreknowledge

It seems from the text that the Egyptians themselves do not blame the Israelites or even Moshe for the plagues. After all, Moshe and Aharon made no secret of their meetings with Pharaoh. Word would spread quickly each time Pharaoh again dug in his heels. The Egyptians knew who was to blame for the calamity even before it happened!

And this is the key to much of what happens in this parashah: advance knowledge of what is going to happen. God tells Moshe in advance that He will stiffen Pharaoh’s resolve until the next plague; there is a script to follow. Once Moshe understands this, he no longer complains to God: “why did you send me? I’ve only made things worse!” Once he has faith in God’s plan, he’s able to take the seeming failures in stride.

This is something that Pharaoh himself never learns. Rather than learning to see the pattern, he repeats the same mistake. And yes, we are told that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” in our parashah. But at the very beginning, it was Pharaoh himself who “hardened his heart”. Psychologists have a name for Pharaoh’s problem: confirmation bias. Or, in the words of our sages: “In the way in which a person wishes to go, he is led.” Essentially, Pharaoh became invested in his mistakes, too much so, eventually to change course.

The predictive power of confirmation bias

And so we find Moshe and Aharon once more standing before Pharaoh, this time winning his agreement for the Israelites to leave Egypt, but without their livestock. Pharaoh knows well enough that without their herds, the people cannot survive on their own in the desert; they will have to return to Egypt before long. Moshe knows it too and refuses to deal.

And here, Pharaoh once more falls into the trap. He angrily tells Moshe and Aharon: “Get out! If you see me again, you will die!” To which Moshe answers: “You’re right! You won’t see us again!”

And here, in the midst of this tense scene, suddenly the narrative flashes back to an earlier time, leaving us with a cliffhanger:

The Eternal said to Moses, “I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you out of here one and all. Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” The Eternal disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people. וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה ע֣וֹד נֶ֤גַע אֶחָד֙ אָבִ֤יא עַל־פַּרְעֹה֙ וְעַל־מִצְרַ֔יִם אַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֕ן יְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִזֶּ֑ה כְּשַׁ֨לְּח֔וֹ כָּלָ֕ה גָּרֵ֛שׁ יְגָרֵ֥שׁ אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִזֶּֽה׃ דַּבֶּר־נָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וְיִשְׁאֲל֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ ׀ מֵאֵ֣ת רֵעֵ֗הוּ וְאִשָּׁה֙ מֵאֵ֣ת רְעוּתָ֔הּ כְּלֵי־כֶ֖סֶף וּכְלֵ֥י זָהָֽב׃ וַיִּתֵּ֧ן ה’ אֶת־חֵ֥ן הָעָ֖ם בְּעֵינֵ֣י מִצְרָ֑יִם גַּ֣ם ׀ הָאִ֣ישׁ מֹשֶׁ֗ה גָּד֤וֹל מְאֹד֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּעֵינֵ֥י עַבְדֵֽי־פַרְעֹ֖ה וּבְעֵינֵ֥י הָעָֽם׃

Only now, having filled us readers in on what Moshe himself already knows, does the text bring us back to Pharaoh’s throne room. There, Moshe tells Pharaoh outright what is to happen that night: At around midnight, every firstborn in Egypt will be struck dead! Moshe accurately predicts that the Pharaoh’s servants will themselves plead with the Israelites to leave. What a difference foreknowledge means!

The script for Jewish peoplehood

And of course, the rest is—well not exactly history—more like cultural memory. Because God’s next command to Moshe is again a piece of foreknowledge. This time, Moshe is told how to ensure this night of fear and miracles becomes part of the DNA of the nation. The detailed instructions of the Passover ritual are meant to make sure that in every generation we should see ourselves as having left Egypt. Each year, we are to relive, through symbolic foods and an ever-growing store of traditions, the night we became a people.

Moreover, Moshe is told that this observance will itself determine who will be counted among the nation of Israel in generations to come:

This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Eternal throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.

וְהָיָה֩ הַיּ֨וֹם הַזֶּ֤ה לָכֶם֙ לְזִכָּר֔וֹן וְחַגֹּתֶ֥ם אֹת֖וֹ חַ֣ג לַֽה’ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם חֻקַּ֥ת עוֹלָ֖ם תְּחָגֻּֽהוּ׃ שִׁבְעַ֤ת יָמִים֙ מַצּ֣וֹת תֹּאכֵ֔לוּ אַ֚ךְ בַּיּ֣וֹם הָרִאשׁ֔וֹן תַּשְׁבִּ֥יתוּ שְּׂאֹ֖ר מִבָּתֵּיכֶ֑ם כִּ֣י כָּל־אֹכֵ֣ל חָמֵ֗ץ וְנִכְרְתָ֞ה הַנֶּ֤פֶשׁ הַהִוא֙ מִיִּשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מִיּ֥וֹם הָרִאשֹׁ֖ן עַד־י֥וֹם הַשְּׁבִעִֽי׃

This is the first mention in the Torah of the fate known as “karet” (literally, cut off). Its meaning has been hotly debated down the ages, but the simplest meaning is one we can easily glean from this passage: one who eats leavened bread on Pesah will no longer be counted among the nation of Israel.

It’s common to say that “you’re Jewish if your grandchildren are Jewish”. As long as we are connected to our past and the value system of our people, we are also part of their future. Our children will be part of the People of Israel, and we will live on through them into that future. Once we take the final step in breaking the chain that binds us to our past, we have also broken the chain that binds us to that future. We may have a future, but it will not be with our people.

And if fact, we will see later in the Torah that all those actions which incur the penalty of karet are things that one does only if one has already cut oneself off from the national of Israel: eating on Yom Kippur (without a medical excuse), for example.

Thus, karet is not so much a punishment as a prediction of the future based on the present. Here too, God is giving Mosheand by extensionthe reader, foreknowledge of the script by which Jewish history will play out. By being made aware of the plan from the outset, we’re brought in on the secret of Jewish survival. Having seen how this blueprint has played out in the course of our history, we have an advantage over the Pharaoh’s of the world: we know the script.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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