Yonatan Udren

Parshat Bo: The Transformation of a Nation

God gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians. Moreover, Moshe himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s advisors and among the people,” (Shemot 11:3).

After 430 bitter years of oppression, Am Yisrael will finally be freed from Pharaoh and their Egyptian captors.  With Egypt in ruin and each house a house of mourning, the time for Am Yisrael’s redemption has arrived. 

But how do we imagine the Israelites as they left Egypt in the middle of the night? How do they look physically? In what emotional and spiritual state do we find them in as they make the preparations to walk out of Egypt? 

Additionally, how did the Egyptians look at this nation of slaves as they head towards the Promised Land?

For the majority of the last two week’s Torah portions, the text has focused on the damage of the plagues and the interactions between Moshe and Aharon and Pharaoh. The last we heard anything about Am Yisrael was all the way back in Chapter 6, when they could not even hear Moshe’s promise of salvation, so crushed were their spirits by cruel bondage.

But in Chapter 11, after the first 9 plagues, the nation is again listening with ears wide open, and the moment of salvation is nearly upon them. God tells Moshe that they will leave after this one last plague. 

Oh, and by the way, God adds, on the way out tell the people to make the following request from their Egyptian neighbors:

“Tell the people to request, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold,” (Shemot 11:2) 

What a strange request! Why would the Egyptians willingly hand over their valuables? 

And indeed, we see that their requests are granted, and Am Yisrael leaves Egypt with great wealth. These were lowly slaves, the dregs of society! Why would the Egyptians willingly give over their most prized possessions to Am Yisrael as they walked out of town?

Both in Chapters 11 and 12, when the request for valuables is mentioned, the text uses the same phrase: “God gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians.”

These once-lowly slaves have now gained a sense of status in the eyes of the Egyptian public. They see that God is fighting for Am Yisrael, and it changes their perception of them.

Additionally, the text adds: “Moshe himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s advisors and among the people,” (Shemot 11:3).

The unimaginable damage and destruction brought on by the plagues came at a political cost to Pharaoh as well. His advisors as well as his own people turned against him as they saw the power that the God of the Israelites wielded. Instead of spite and loathing for Am Yisrael, the Egyptians actually desired to please them and draw close to them, even if it meant a great financial loss. Why? Because they too wanted to be close to the God of Israel.

This shift in status for Am Yisrael is critical. As they see their status rise in the eyes  of the Egyptians, they can start to see themselves in a different light. They can take a moment, wash the dirt off their faces, and feel a sense of human dignity for the first time in hundreds of years. 

It is not for naught that immediately after God’s request for the riches of Egypt that God then tells them that before eating the Korban Pesach, the Passover Sacrifice, which is the representation of their freedom from slavery, they must first buckle their belts and put on their shoes. Why? Because slaves don’t need to put on shoes or tuck in their shirts, but free people do. This is, of course, a physical preparation, but also, and equally important, a necessary spiritual and emotional preparation for true freedom. God wants to return their human dignity. Only after that is returned can they start to understand their greater mission as a people.

So how did Am Yisrael walk out of Egypt? With beautiful clothes and great wealth, with a straight back and a deep sense of their humanity. They left Egypt, as we see in the beginning of next week’s parsha, b’yad ramah, with honor and dignity. They have arrived as a nation, but not any nation. Look at the end of the parsha:

At the end of the four hundred and thirtieth year, to the very day, all the ranks of the Lord departed from the land of Egypt,” (Shemot 12:31).

Not a broken gathering of slaves. Not even as Am Yisrael. The ranks of the Lord. God’s nation. 

And so we see that the transformation of the nation from a despised group of slaves to the Nation of God has come to fruition. There are more stages to come, but the initial stages of the birth of Am Yisrael have now taken place not only on the physical plane, but inside each and every one of their hearts as well.

So here are a few questions to leave you with. To what extent do other’s opinions shape our perspective of ourselves? And how much should those opinions affect us?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash, which offers a Jewish home away from home for English-speaking olim and overseas students in Jerusalem.
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