Bo – All Lives, Regardless Ethnicity, Matter

Executive Summary (Exodus 10 – 13:16)

  • Bo in Hebrew means Come, get close, enter. God instructs Moshe to present himself to Pharaoh ten times, six out of which He uses the verb Bo.  Unfortunately, the common translation to this verb is Go.  The difference is huge: go is an outwards action, while come, enter, is an inwards direction.  The use of the verb Bo sets the intent of the encounters.  Moshe comes and enters Pharaoh’s home, and tries his earnest to penetrate Pharaoh’s heart and soul.
  • Continuation of the Plaques story – the last three:
    • Some negotiations took place before inflicting the Locust Plaque. Pharaoh’s advisors try to convince him to let the Israelites go, and Pharaoh agrees to only let the men go.  Moshe accepts Pharaoh’s word to let the people go and asks HaShem to remove the plague.     
    • Pharaoh changes his mind and refuses to let the People go. The Darkness Plaque is an immediate retribution to Pharaoh’s refusal.  It stays for 3 days and disappears without a plea to remove it, neither bringing any relief to the Israelites.
    • Preparing for the biggest of them all: the Death of the Firstborn Plaque. This is the only plaque that the people of Israel are involved in and are required to perform various tasks.  For two whole weeks, detailed instructions flow down from Moshe and Aharon to the last individual.  Moshe warns Pharaoh, telling him about the upcoming Plague and its consequences.  Despite the all the marvels that Moshe and Aharon demonstrate, Pharaoh holds to his refusal to let the people go. 
    • This final plague does the job: Pharaoh and the Egyptian People beg the Israelites to immediately leave Egypt.
  • Engraving for eternity the event in the national memory bank, using rituals and rules, questions, fear and reward as tools. Educating the young generation and answering their questions is yet another important tool to commit the event to memory.

Hearing, Listening, Talking and the Interaction Between Them.

Hearing and listening

There are two verbs that describe the act of processing audible signals: hearing and listening.  Hearing is to perceive with the ear the sound made by someone or something. Listening is giving one’s attention to a sound.  Hebrew also has two distinct verbs, one for each: To hear –לִשְׁמוֹעַ   – Lishmo-ah, and to listen – לְהַקְשִׁיב – L’Hakshiv.  Hearing is a pre‑requisite to listening; we hear with our ears, we listen with our brains and hearts.  A nice example of using both verbs in one sentence is in Psalm 61:2:

Hear O God my song, listen [heed, pay attention to] my prayer.

שִׁמְעָ֣ה אֱ֭לֹהִים רִנָּתִ֑י הַ֝קְשִׁ֗יבָה תְּפִלָּתִֽי׃

Alas, the verb “to listen” does not appear at all in the first five books of the Bible, in Torah!  In Torah, the verb Lishmo-ah has the most profound and deepest meaning of hearing and listening, absorbing and following.  We feel and know that from the ‘Sh’mah Israel’ statement.  I also argued in the essay on Parashat Va’Era that Lishmo-ah is a prerequisite to knowing, loving.

In Parashat Bo, Pharaoh continues to be the one that hears but does not listen.  He hears Hashem’s words, coming through Moshe, he hears his advisors (Exodus 10:9); but he listens to none of them.  

Moshe comes and speaks to Pharaoh, telling him: ‘let my people go, or else!’, over and over again.  Pharaoh, hard-hearted, stubborn and arrogant (considers himself to be a god), never listens.  HaShem knows that, and tells it to Moshe, using the verb Shama (in Hebrew) – he did not hear (Exodus 11:9):

Now HaShem told Moshe: “Pharaoh will not hear [listen, heed] to you…

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל מֹשֶׁ֔ה לֹא יִשְׁמַ֥ע אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם פַּרְעֹ֑ה

There is another group that does not listen to Moshe: The people of Israel.  They do have an excuse (or a reason) not to (Exodus 6:9): 

Moshe told all that to the Children of Israel.  They did not hear [listen] to Moshe, because of their impatience that resulted from the hard [difficult] labor.

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר מֹשֶׁ֛ה כֵּ֖ן אֶל בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃

Moshe told all that to the Children of Israel.  They did not hear [listen] to Moshe, because of their impatience that resulted from the hard [difficult] labor.

The drama of the nine Plagues that befell on the Egyptians and not on Israel brought the Israelites to listen.   Now the heard, listened and followed the instructions that Moshe relayed to them through the elders, their leaders (Exodus 12:28):

The Children of Israel went and did so; exactly as HaShem commanded Moshe and Aharon, so they did.

וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ וַיַּֽעֲשׂ֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְאַהֲרֹ֖ן כֵּ֥ן עָשֽׂוּ׃

The tragedy of the Death of the Firstborns, made the Egyptians listen.  There was not a single house that didn’t experience death.

How short-lived was this listening period!  Pharaoh immediately regrated his openness, and chased the People of Israel.  His inability to continue listening, eventually led to the drowning of all his army and himself.  And the Israelites regret and complain, again and again, about anything and everything, including their redemption.

Speech is basically a dialogical function. It is not enough to have someone talking; to be effective, to speak, one needs someone to listen.

People do not listen because they are reluctant to open themselves to another idea or another point of view.  Different approach, maybe a better one, makes one feel vulnerable and less worthy; especially if one is uncertain of oneself.  Such a conversation may bring forth to light aspects of oneself that are scary and unpleasant, aspects that one avoids.  Such a person misses the opportunity to grow, to become a better person.

A humble person, that knows well both one’s strengths and weaknesses, is more open to listen, to be vulnerable.  This openness provides the opportunity to change, to grow and improve oneself.  The risk of suffering and hurt are worthy compared to the rewards of learning and developing.     

The art of listening is not difficult to master.  You must be genuinely be interested and curious about what your partner to the conversation has to say.  It comes together with admitting that anyone has a valuable contribution to the discussion, regardless of credentials, titles or age.  It requires the ability to be silent, because when one talks, the only thing one hears is one’s own words.  Then, when you are ready to speak, consider what you are going to say.  Is it worth saying? May it offend anyone? Does it add value to the conversation?  Maybe that is why we have two ears and one mouth: hear and listen twice as much as you speak.

Why Should One Blame Pharaoh for All That Happened?

Pharaoh is accused, over and over again, to be stubborn and harden his heart, and not keeping his promises.  In most instances, the text refers to that behavior as a result of Pharaoh’s own characteristics and decision.  However, the astute reader will ask:  Was not Hashem that caused Pharaoh to act in that way?  The reader would answer one’s own question: Parashat Bo starts with this very declaration of HaShem’s intent (Exodus 10:1):

HaShem said to Moshe: “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers…”

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי אֲנִ֞י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ֙ וְאֶת לֵ֣ב עֲבָדָ֔יו….ֹ׃

Where is the free choice? Why did HaShem act that way, killing so many, inflicting suffering on the Egyptians?  After all, He could just as easily soften Pharaoh’s heart even before the first plague and let the Israelites go!  Most of commentators to this verse (total of 73 in Sefaria only…) explain the verse simply as it is read.  God was the one that hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  I suggest another reading and interpretation, basing it on Rabbi Akiva teaching (Pirkei Avot 3:15):

Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted

הַכֹּל צָפוּי, וְהָרְשׁוּת נְתוּנָה

Another citing that helps understanding the above enigmatic statement is in Jeremiah 11:20:

O Lord of Hosts, judges in justice, examines the thoughts, mind and heart:

וַֽיהוָ֤ה צְבָאוֹת֙ שֹׁפֵ֣ט צֶ֔דֶק בֹּחֵ֥ן כְּלָי֖וֹת וָלֵ֑ב ׃

Everything is foreseen – God is all knowing, past, present and future.  God reads our minds, hearts and soul and knows what will our next move be.  For God, our life is foreseen, and expected.  Yet freedom of choice is granted – the free will and free choice is given to us, the human beings.  We know that we are making our own choices, and influence our lives, as well as the lives of others.  And as a result, we are accountable to our actions. 

If our fate is sealed by the Higher Power because of His knowledge, we cannot be accountable to our deeds.  With that in mind, in that verse (and others with similar context) God tells Moshe what may happen.  And yet, Moshe talks to Pharaoh, with the hope that he will change is mind and let the People go.  Indeed, Pharaoh is accountable to his deeds and pays the price for them.

Two Important Values: All Lives Matter and Education

Tefillin – an Important, Daily, Reminder of These Important Values

Parashat Bo last verses deliver two profound messages.  The first is – All lives are precious regardless of who’s life it is.  The second emphasizes the importance of education and asking questions as an integral part of learning.  Laying Tefillin (phylacteries) is a reminder of these two values.  The Tefillin contain scrolls of parchment, on which these verses (exodus 13:1-16) are written.   Along with them is the Sh’mah (Deuteronomy 6:4‑9) and V’haya (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) portions.   

One of the phylacteries is wrapped around the left hand, with the writings against one’s heart.  The second is on the head; the text is on the forehead (where the cortex is), between the eyes.  After the blessings we recite the texts that reside within the Tefillin, reminding ourselves of these messages.  They penetrate our hearts and souls; they are in our eyesight and on our mind at the same time.  Whenever I lay Tefillin, I feel engulfed with an aura of sanctity that illuminates what is important in life.  I recite Hosea 2:21-22 and feel the physical bond with Shekhinah as the Letter ש (Shin) wraps on my hand: 

I will espouse you forever; I will espouse you with righteousness and justice and with goodness [lovingkindness] and mercy:

I will espouse you with faithfulness; Then you shall KNOW [most intimate love] the Lord.

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּ֥יךְ לִ֖י לְעוֹלָ֑ם וְאֵרַשְׂתִּ֥יךְ לִי֙ בְּצֶ֣דֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּ֔ט וּבְחֶ֖סֶד וּֽבְרַחֲמִֽים׃

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּ֥יךְ לִ֖י בֶּאֱמוּנָ֑ה וְיָדַ֖עַתְּ אֶת יְהֹוָֽה׃

All Lives Matter – Including the Lives of Your Enemy.

Let’s take a look at verses 13:1-2 and 13:12-13 in Parashat Bo:

Adonai spoke to Moshe, saying:

“Consecrate to Me every male firstborn, the first issue of every womb among the People of Israel, human and beast; those shall be Mine.”


You shall pass on [transfer] for Adonai every first issue of the womb; every male firstborn that your cattle deliver shall be for Adonai.

Every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep, and if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck; and you must redeem every male firstborn among your children.

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

קַדֶּשׁ לִ֨י כׇל בְּכ֜וֹר פֶּ֤טֶר כׇּל רֶ֙חֶם֙ בִּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בָּאָדָ֖ם וּבַבְּהֵמָ֑ה לִ֖י הֽוּא׃


וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ֥ כׇל פֶּֽטֶר רֶ֖חֶם לַֽיהֹוָ֑ה וְכׇל פֶּ֣טֶר שֶׁ֣גֶר בְּהֵמָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה לְךָ֛ הַזְּכָרִ֖ים לַיהֹוָֽה׃

וְכׇל פֶּ֤טֶר חֲמֹר֙ תִּפְדֶּ֣ה בְשֶׂ֔ה וְאִם לֹ֥א תִפְדֶּ֖ה וַעֲרַפְתּ֑וֹ וְכֹ֨ל בְּכ֥וֹר אָדָ֛ם בְּבָנֶ֖יךָ תִּפְדֶּֽה׃

This commandment comes immediately after the Plague of the Firstborn, in which God killed every human and cattle firstborn.  The link between the two is unbreakable.  According to Sefer HaChinukh 18:2 the roots of this commandments are two.  The first is that God, Blessed be He, wanted us to know that everything is His.  We have nothing in the world, except for what God, Blessed be He, apportions to us in His kindness.  I discussed this principle and Pidyon HaBen – the redemption of the firstborn sone – in the essay about the Akedah.

The second is “to remember the great miracle that God, Blessed be He, did for us with the Egyptians’ firstborn.”  He killed them to saved us from their hand and deliver us to freedom.  Even today we commemorate the loss of the Egyptian firstborns with a fast.   In Jewish tradition, a fast is used, among other reasons, to commemorate a loss and mourning.  During the day that precedes Pesaḥ the Jewish firstborn males fast from the morning till the evening, when the fast is broken by the Seder.   

Rabbi Eliezer Gutman, the father of the Baal Shem Tov was a great Tzadik (righteous) person, known for his hospitality. He broke down verse 13:2 to its elements in order to understand its hidden meaning.  “Consecrate to Me” means that a person must be humble to be worthy of being concentrated to HaShem.  “Every firstborn” is greater and more righteous than oneself; one shouldn’t look at others’ flaws. “The first issue” means that this teaching is fundamental.  He reads Reḥem (womb) as Raḥem – be merciful, show compassion.  One must be compassionate to all Israel, be that person whatever one may be.  “Shall be Mine” means that only God, who “examines the thoughts, mind and heart” can differentiate between human beings.  

He concluded that any human being must not differentiate between one person and anther, and must be compassionate to all.  One must love them all equally without any preference.  Indeed, his teaching referred to Jews; considering the attitude towards Jews at his time we can understand him.  There are more than a few references in Jewish literature that expand this approach to all human beings.  One of those references is Proverbs 24:17:

Do not exult in the fall of your enemy; Do not let your heart rejoice when he trips:

בִּנְפֹ֣ל אֽ֭וֹיִבְךָ אַל תִּשְׂמָ֑ח וּ֝בִכָּשְׁל֗וֹ אַל יָגֵ֥ל לִבֶּֽךָ׃

Education: Questioning is a Prerequisite to Learning

Let’s take a look at verses 13:8 and 13:14-15 in Parashat Bo:

You shall explain to your child on that day, saying: ‘It is because of what Adonai did for me when I exited free out from Egypt.’


When, in time to come, your child will ask you, saying: ‘What does this all mean?’ you shall tell him: ‘It was with a mighty hand that Adonai took us out from Egypt, the house of slavery.

When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, Adonai killed every male firstborn in the land of Egypt, human and beast firstborns alike; therefore, I sacrifice to Adonai every first male issue of the womb, and redeem every male firstborn among my children.’

וְהִגַּדְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּעֲב֣וּר זֶ֗ה עָשָׂ֤ה יְהֹוָה֙ לִ֔י בְּצֵאתִ֖י מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃


וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֛ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֣ר מַה זֹּ֑את וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֵלָ֔יו בְּחֹ֣זֶק יָ֗ד הוֹצִיאָ֧נוּ יְהֹוָ֛ה מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים׃

וַיְהִ֗י כִּֽי הִקְשָׁ֣ה פַרְעֹה֮ לְשַׁלְּחֵ֒נוּ֒ וַיַּהֲרֹ֨ג יְהֹוָ֤ה כׇּל בְּכוֹר֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם מִבְּכֹ֥ר אָדָ֖ם וְעַד בְּכ֣וֹר בְּהֵמָ֑ה עַל־כֵּן֩ אֲנִ֨י זֹבֵ֜חַ לַֽיהֹוָ֗ה כׇּל פֶּ֤טֶר רֶ֙חֶם֙ הַזְּכָרִ֔ים וְכׇל בְּכ֥וֹר בָּנַ֖י אֶפְדֶּֽה׃

The message here is very clear: educate, teach, tell the story. Make it interesting to the children, adapt it to their ability to comprehend, and encourage their questions.  Their questions will show that they are interested and involved, and open to deepen their understanding.  Now you can add and elaborate to the story and its lessons learned.  Repeat it every year – adapting the way you deliver the story to their deeper level of comprehension.  Never stop encouraging the questions, providing the answers and retelling the story – every story.  Repetition is an important element of learning, and every time we reread a story, we find new insights in it.

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