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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Bo

>The story of the Ten Plagues is one of those sections of the Torah which changes with age. As children, we read of these miraculous events with awe at God’s supernatural abilities, focussing on the plagues themselves rather than the people involved. As we mature and return to the text, there is a difficulty as we are challenged by an awareness that the Egyptians suffered greatly so that our suffering could end. With further reading, the text becomes even more difficult, as God’s role, hardening Pharaoh’s heart in order to display God’s signs among them, becomes evident, and it becomes unclear as to whether the fate of the Egyptians was even under their control.

The break between Parashat Va-era and Bo interrupts the narrative of these plagues, and we are left to wait an entire week to find out what happens next.

The first two verses make for very uncomfortable reading (Exodus 10:1-2):
‘And Adonai said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart, and the hearts of all of his servants, so that I can put these signs of Mine among them. In order that you can tell in the ears of your children, and the children of your children how I mocked/destroyed in Egypt, and placed My signs amongst them –and you will know I am Adonai.”’

According to the text, the whole exercise, the immense Egyptian suffering, has been for the benefit of future generations who will know Adonai through the tales of these plagues. What had previously appeared to be a rescue mission (Exodus 3:7-10) has been transformed into something different. Future generations will learn about God, and follow God, through the stories of havoc and destruction which rained down on Egypt.

The word which I find most troubling is hitalalti, which translates to mockery or destruction. In the story of Balaam and his donkey, the word denotes mockery (Numbers 22:29). In the story of the rape and murder of the Levite’s concubine, however, it denotes violence and destruction (Judges 19:25). In this story, we are either confronted by a mocking God, a destructive God, or even the possibility of both. This wouldn’t be the first time we see God in this light, but it is certainly the first time we see God manipulating a situation to this extent. So where do we go from here?

What lessons are we supposed to learn from the story of the plagues in Egypt? Are we supposed to understand God as an impulsive Deity, using death and destruction to teach a lesson – a questionable means to a necessary end? Are we intended to view God as a sadistic abuser, destroying an entire nation for mere amusment? Maybe God is the divine judge, meting out justice on those who have sinned and caused others suffering. Could this story offer us a lesson about the dangers of conflict, and the potential to get carried away with the disagreement to the point of forgetting the original cause? Or perhaps this is an example of behaviour that is acceptable for God, but not to be emulated by us mere mortals, highlighting the boundaries between humanity and the divine. This portion offers a myriad lessons to take away, so which one do we follow? Well that is up to to you.

More than anything else, the text offers us the challenge of finding our own lesson. God does not command that our children shall shema – hear this story. Instead the text instructs tesaper beoznei – recount in their ears (literally). We have a role in the transmission of this story. We have a responsibility to teach our children not only the story, but also the lessons that we learn from it. These lessons may make us uncomfortable, and these lessons may challenge our previous understandings, but these lessons allow a deeper relationship with the text. As Ben Bag Bag challenged us: ‘Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it’ (Pirkei Avot 5:22). So what have you learned?

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