‘The Empire Strikes Back’ Parashat Bo 5781

G-d has already struck the Egyptians with seven plagues and Moshe has just warned Pharaoh that G-d is about to stick a dagger in the Egyptian economy in the form of the worst swarm of locusts Egypt has ever seen. Pharaoh, at the behest of his servants, calls Moshe and Aharon to the palace for emergency negotiations. Pharaoh asks Moshe who he wants to take along with him to the desert to worship G-d[1]. Moshe answers [Shemot 10:9] “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe G-d’s festival.” Pharaoh strikes back with a counter-offer [Shemot 10:10-11]: “May G-d be with you, just as I will let you and your young children out. See that evil is before your faces. Not so; let the men go now and worship G-d, for that is what you request”.  Neither side budges, Pharaoh blows up the negotiations, and Egypt is pummelled by locusts.

What does Pharaoh mean when he says, “See that evil is before your faces”? Many of the medieval commentators explain that Pharaoh was telling Moshe that he (correctly) suspected that a nation that takes its children on a three-day trip to worship G-d probably has no plans to return to Egypt. Pharaoh was telling Moshe that his actions revealed the evil that lurked in his heart. Rashi, the most prodigious of the medieval commentators, who lived in the eleventh century in France, quotes our Sages in the Midrash: “There is a star named Ra’ah [meaning ‘evil’]. Pharaoh said to [Moshe], ‘With my astrology, I see that star ascending toward you in the desert [where you would like to go] and that is a sign of blood and slaughter.’ When the Israelites sinned with the golden calf (egel ha’zahav) and G-d sought to kill them, Moshe beseeched G-d [Shemot 32:12], ‘Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With Ra’ah He took them out…?’ [Recall that] this is what [Pharaoh] said to them, ‘See that Ra’ah [evil] is opposite your faces [implying that their blood would be shed in the desert]’. Immediately, ‘G-d repented from the Ra’ah’ and He turned the bloodshed [symbolized by this star] into the blood of the circumcision, for Joshua [in fact] circumcised them[2].”

What was “Ra’ah”? Some suggest that Ra’ah is actually the god Ra, one of the most important gods in ancient Egypt. The problem with this hypothesis is that Ra was the god of the sun, not the god of the star associated with “blood and slaughter”, most likely Mars. The Egyptian god associated with Mars was “Horus of the Horizon” or “Horus the Red”. Let us assume, nevertheless, that Pharaoh is warning Moshe that one of the Egyptian gods will strike the Jewish People down in the desert if they dare leave Egypt and let us assume, for the sake of an argument, that Ra’ah possessed real power[3]. Why should Moshe care? No matter how powerful Ra’ah was, he was no match for G-d. Moshe should have told Pharaoh that the only “blood and slaughter” in the cards was Egyptian blood – their firstborn all died in the tenth plague and their entire army was drowned in the Reed Sea. (Yam Suf). Why does the Midrash feel it necessary to state that the blood that Pharaoh saw was the blood of circumcision?

Now we turn to the second point of the Midrash. When the Jewish People sin with the golden calf, Moshe pleads with G-d to rescind His decree to destroy the Jewish People by playing the “poor optics” card. Pharaoh told us we were leaving under the sign of Ra’ah and now You are proving him right! Moshe’s argument is easily refuted: G-d does not forgive the Jewish People after Moshe makes this point. Moshe must first add another plea [Shemot 32:13]: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your very Self, and to whom You said: ‘I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens, and all this land which I said that I would give to your seed, they shall keep it as their possession forever’”. Only after this second plea does G-d acquiesce [Shemot 32:14]: “G-d [then] reconsidered the evil He had said He would do to His people”. What does mentioning Ra’ah add to Moshe’s case?

A comment by Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik, the leader of North American Jewry during the second half of the previous century, can help us make headway. Rabbi Soloveichik suggests that Pharaoh’s reference to Ra’ah was in the context of Moshe’s intention of taking the children into the desert. Pharaoh understood that the Jewish People wanted to form a “singular, unique” society and he was warning Moshe against doing such a thing. Pharaoh told Moshe that the society he was trying to create would be hated. “The Jew cannot eat, cannot drink with the gentile. He cannot enter his church. If the gentile touches his wine, he cannot drink it.” That society would promote antisemitism and eventually bloodshed, as predicted by the star Ra’ah. The results would be catastrophic. Pharaoh chides Moshe, “If you want to start such a community, why risk the lives of your children? The same argument would apply if an astronaut about to embark on a space voyage wanted to take his child along”. Concerned for the welfare of the Jewish children, Pharaoh could not allow this to happen.

Believe it or not, Pharaoh was correct – it was all about the children. G-d chose Abraham for one reason and one reason alone [Bereishit 18:19]: “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of G-d by doing what is just and right.” G-d knew that Abraham’s faith community would not end with his death. G-d knew that Abraham understood the vital importance of continuity – of passing his values to his children. Judaism is and has always been defined by the relationship between parents and their children. The Jewish children were not leaving Egypt together with adults. Rather, the Jewish adults were leaving Egypt because of their children. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who passed away two months ago, teaches that the Jewish People were redeemed from Egypt in order to become educators: “Freedom is won, not on the battlefield, nor in the political arena, nor in the courts, national or international, but in the human imagination and will. To defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need schools. You need families and an educational system in which ideals are passed on from one generation to the next[4].” Pharaoh asserted that this “educational system” would create a stillborn society. Moshe disagreed. But he could not merely tell Pharaoh “You are wrong”. He had to prove it.

The Hebrew word “brit” or “bris” means “covenant”. G-d reveals to Abraham [Bereishit 17:4] “Behold My covenant is with you, and you shall become the father of a multitude of nations”. Then G-d gets down to the nitty-gritties [Bereishit 17:10]: “This is My covenant, which you shall observe between Me and between you and between your seed after you, that every male among you be circumcised”. The circumcision – “mila” in Hebrew – is the implementation of that covenant. Why was our covenant with G-d sealed in the organ used for procreation? From what we have learned above, the answer is clear: Our covenant with G-d hinges on the education of our children. Now we can understand why the Midrash references the mass circumcision performed by Joshua: “You, Pharaoh, would keep our children in Egypt to rescue them from bloodshed. In fact, the opposite is true. Leaving our children in Egypt would be tantamount to shedding their blood along with ours. Our survival as a nation depends on our continuity, on the blood of our circumcision.”

When Moshe pleads with G-d to forgive His children for their sin with the egel, he reminds G-d of Pharaoh’s “warning” and then he says, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel… to whom You said: ‘…all this land which I said that I would give to your seed, they shall keep it as their possession forever’”. Pharaoh shed crocodile tears for our children. I shed real tears. Judaism is about education, a continuous process in which we learn through error. We cannot teach if we cannot learn from our mistakes. Forgive the Jewish People not only because of our children, but because we ourselves are children.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] Moshe never told Pharaoh that the Jewish People were going anywhere but a three-day sojourn in the desert to worship G-d. Why Moshe never told Pharaoh that the Jewish People were leaving on a one-way ticket is a topic for another shiur.

[2] This occurred forty years later, see Joshua [5:9].

[3] Rabbi YY Rubinstein asserts that if the Torah forbids the practice of magic, it must mean that magic has some kind of power.

[4] See this link: https://rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-bo-freedoms-defense/

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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