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Parshat Bo: Psychological Redemption

Imagine it’s December 1932, and you’re preparing to light Chanukah candles in Kiel, Germany, where, across the street, stands the headquarters of the Nazi Party. Consider the Jews who survived the concentration camps and remained steadfast to their faith, never losing hope. Where did these Jews, and countless others throughout our long exile, derive the resolve and strength to remain steadfast to their ancestral beliefs, and overcome great adversity, even at the risk of death?

The Torah, and much of the Haggadah for that matter (yes, sorry ladies, Pesach is approaching), places a good deal of emphasis on both the physical and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people in their sojourn from the land of Egypt to Mount Sinai, and ultimately to the land of Canaan, Israel. We are all acutely familiar with the miraculous events that ushered in our exodus. First, we are assured that “by a strong hand shall he let them go, and by a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land” (see Shemot 6:1), and then, five verses later, we are promised the four catch phrases of redemption: “I will bring, deliver, redeem and take you to Me for a people (see Shemot, 6: 6-7), which our Sages use as the impetus for the four cups of wine on the Seder night. These fulfilled promises heralded the spiritual element of redemption: the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Physical and spiritual redemption are indeed defining events as we turned from a nation of slaves to a beacon of light unto the world. Before we move forward, we should question whether there was anything else that might give rise to yet another critical factor of our redemption?

As the saying goes, and I paraphrase, you can take the slave out of Egypt but you cannot take Egypt out of the slave. How did we psychologically break from Egyptian tyranny and suppression of thought, to be mentally emancipated, such that we could develop as free-thinking, productive members of society, rooted in a Torah-based theology, that continues to serve, to this modern day, as a shining example for all to emulate? Where is this discussed, and how did it shape and strengthen the hearts and minds of our timeless people? Look no further than Parshat Bo.

Unlike Parshat Va’eira, where all seven plagues, on a fairly consistent basis, incessantly follow into one another, Parshat Bo is far less consistent. Unique to Parshat Bo, which contains the latter three plagues, i.e., infestation of locust, destabilizing darkness, and death of the firstborn, we find one special request and two divine commands, all of which appear better suited for delivery after the giving of the Torah. After the onset of the ninth plague, i.e., darkness, Moshe delivers a “special request” from G-d Himself: “Please borrow silver, gold and clothing from the Egyptians” (see Shemot, 11:2-3). The other two commandments were the obligation to declare the new month (Shemot 12:2), and in the following verse, the requirement to sacrifice one sheep per household, i.e., korban Pesach. What is the common denominator that links this singular request to these two mitzvot? Why does God preface His request to Moshe with a supplication, i.e., “Please,” and why are we told to “borrow” and not simply “take”?

God knows that we are human, not angels. We have emotions, and can vividly recall with agonizing detail the many wrongs committed against us, our family members and broader Jewish community during our 190 years of brutal servitude, and through our current time.

As God paved the way for our physical and spiritual redemption, there was a third element that had to be developed as we emerged from Egyptian tyranny and oppression. During the plague of darkness, when the tables were turned, and the Egyptians were helpless to defend themselves, God impressed upon Moshe, Daber na—to forcefully convey this special request to “borrow” so that we should act as noblemen, with civility, charm and in a manner consistent with uprightness and respect for another’s possessions—even when they may arguably be our own. In this way, God orchestrated our psychological redemption, as the verse states, “God gave the people status among the Egyptians” (Shemot 11:3).

Next, and to build upon our successes, we are given the auspicious mitzvah to declare the new month. The Ramban explains that whereas the rest of the mitzvot were given at Mount Sinai, this is the first mitzvah to be transmitted by God to Moshe in the land of Egypt. Declaring a new month may sound rather pedestrian, but it sent a powerful message across every household of the Jewish people, and the general Egyptian population: We were now in charge of our own destiny, of our own time, and the mitzvot and festivals that we will observe when the time arrives for us to observe them. Interestingly, the Baal Haturim explains that chodesh (month) equals l’regalim (festivals). Mentally, explains the Sforno, this powerful commandment enabled us to no longer think of ourselves as slaves. As a famous songwriter once penned, “We don’t need no thought control.”

Last, the mitzvah to sacrifice one sheep, viewed as a deity in Egypt, and to then spill its blood upon our doorsteps so that our God will pass over our homes and kill the first-born son(s) residing within the Egyptian households was the ultimate declaration of both faith in our God and audacity in the face of a nation that had mercilessly oppressed us for 190 years. As the saying goes, “The gloves are off, and we are just getting started.” These three lessons continue to strengthen our resolve to remain steadfast to our beliefs, irrespective of the unique set of challenges that we will experience. More specifically, these events ushered in the third and most critical element of redemption: psychological freedom through the emancipation of the mind via committed observance to our beautiful Torah and mitzvot.

By Mordechai Plotsker


Mordechai Plotsker runs a popular 10-minute nightly shiur on the parsha with a keen interest on the invigorating teachings of the Berditchever Rav, the Kedushas Levi. To learn more about the nightly shiur including dial-in information, visit www.shiurenjoyment.com. Plotsker resides in Hillside, New Jersey, with his wife and children and can be reached by email at [email protected].

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