By: Rabbi Menashe Sasson
Reporting from Jerusalem, Israel
Parashat Bo speaks of the last three of the ten plagues, the plagues of the locusts, darkness, death of the bechorim (Hebrew, plural, literally the “eldest” or “firstborn”). The Parashat then turns to a discussion of lamb and matsa (Hebrew, “unleavened bread”). Each of these topics, in order, are discussed in close proximity to the others, thus perhaps implying some sort of relationship or connection between each topic.
In the previous Parashat (Va’era), we read about the first seven of the ten plagues that HaShem visited upon Par’o as the result of Par’o intransigence with regard to letting the Hebrews depart Misrayim.
Parashat Bo begins with the plague of the locusts and then the plague of darkness. Only then did Par’o somewhat capitulate. “And Par’o called to Moshe and said, ‘Go, serve the Lord; only let your flocks and your herds stay behind. . . .’” Shemot 10:24.
Many might view Par’o’s seemingly capitulation as success for Moshe Rabbeinu and the Hebrews. If Moshe Rabbeinu simply compromised by agreeing to leave the Hebrews’ livestock in Misrayim, Par’o would allow the Hebrews to leave the country.
Moshe Rabbeinu, however, does not compromise. Instead, he replies, “Thou must give us also sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God. Our cattle also shall go with us; there shall not be a hoof be left behind. . . .” Shemot 10:25-26.
Some might have said Moshe Rabbeinu’s refusal to compromise with Par’o, who was at that time the most powerful man in the world, was foolish. But contrary to what these “moderates” might have said, Moshe Rabbeinu understood that Par’o’s refusal to unconditionally allow the Hebrews to leave Misrayim was nothing less than a rejection by Paro of HaShem and HaShem’s kingship over the world. Recall that when Moshe first approached and said to Par’o, “Thus says the Lord God of Yisrael, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness,” Shemot 5:1, Par’o replied, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice and let Yisrael go? I know not the Lord. . . .” Shemot 15:2.
Par’o, of course, did not agree to Moshe’s request that the Hebrews be allowed to take their livestock with them when they depart Misrayim and then revoked his offer to allow them to leave without the livestock.
The Torah then “interrupts” the story of the plagues to instruct Moshe regarding the festival of Pesah (Passover).
Returning to the plagues, the Torah then tells us about Par’o’s renewed intransigence that results in the plague of the bechorim, that is, the death of the firstborn in every house, except of course, for the houses of the Hebrews. Par’o, who had finally had enough, called for Moshe Rabbeinu and his brother Aharon and said, “Rise up and get you out from among my people, both you and the children of Yisrael; and go, serve the Lord as you have said. Also take your flocks and your herds. . . .” Shemot 12:31-32.
Ramban (Moses ben Nahman, 1194–1270), explained that the reason for the commandment to slaughter, roast, and eat a lamb
Regarding matsa, Maimonides (Moshe Maimonides, 1138-1204), explained, “Due to the fact that the idolaters would sacrifice only leavened bread, and they would offer up all manner of sweet food and would smear their animal sacrifices with honey, . . . therefore God warned us not to offer to Him any of these things, leaven or honey.” The Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46. Likewise, it has been said that “Whoever eats chametz on Pesach is as if he prayed to an idol.” The Zohar, 2:182.
Leavened bread, “hames,” has also been said to symbolize “arrogance” or “pride.” For example, the Talmud relates, “Rabbi Alexandri would end his daily prayers with the following supplication: ‘Master of the Universe, You know full well that it is our desire to act according to Your will; but what prevents us from doing so? — the yeast in the dough. . . .” Maseket Berakhot, 17a.
Similarly, the Nitziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, 1817-1893), wrote that:
Thus, three lessons that can be learned from Parashat Bo are that, just as:
1. Moshe Rabbeniu did not compromise with Par’o, who denied HaShem, so too, we should not compromise with those who deny HaShem;
2. The Hebrews exhibited their faith in HaShem by obeying HaShem’s command to slaughter the Egyptian’s god — the lamb — so too, we should have faith in HaShem and not be afraid to reject the false gods of others; and
3. Leavened bread (hames) is not eaten during the festival of Pesah because it symbolizes arrogance or pride, so too, we should be humble in general, and in our service to HaShem in particular.
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Menashe Sasson is a Sephardic rabbi and American attorney who resides in Jerusalem, Israel.