Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Bo –Sh’mot (Exodus) 10 – 13:16


YHVH charges Moshe to "go to Pharaoh", and it is this "going" which our Parasha is named after (the literal meaning of "bo" is "come"). The approximately three and a half chapters of Parashat Bo encompass a number of central themes. The historical narrative (describing the last plagues, some of the Israelites' preparations to leave Egypt, and a few of their moves), is interspersed with themes of redemption, ransom, the Pesach celebration, injunctions to instruct the future generations, and several teaching tools which are to accompany the nation of Yisrael down the road of time. Thus, at the outset of Yisrael's travels, which ultimately will bring them to the Land of Promise, they are also embarking on a journey to becoming a (special) Nation. And while they had no time to prepare supplies (ref. 12:39), and were carrying almost only that which the Egyptians had given them (ref. 12:33, 35, 36), YHVH was starting to do His own equipping of this nascent nation on the road toward its destiny.   

The educational theme is evident right at the beginning, by the reason given for the "signs" performed in Egypt: "That you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son's son the mighty things I have done…" (10:2). "I have done" here is denoted by the verb "hit'a'lalti," of the root a.l.l (ayin, lamed, lamed). It is a multi-faceted verb the meaning of which depends on context, yet its root also forms one of the words for "infant" or "babe" - "olal", such as used in Psalms 8:2: "Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have ordained strength" (emphasis added). Thus, within the word for YHVH's "doings" – or miraculous performances in Egypt, which the Israelites are to tell their children about - is hidden an allusion to these very children!

By this time in the narrative, the land of Egypt has experienced great devastation, with much more to come. The severity of the next plague is such that locusts "shall cover the face [literally "eye"] of the earth, so that no one will be able to see the earth, and they shall eat the residue of what is left, which remains…  from the hail…" (10: 5, 15). Here we find a sequel of three synonyms. The repetition serves to heighten the proportions of the catastrophe. The Hebrew reads: "yeter [ha]*pleta [ha]nish'eret".  “Yeter” is that which remains, as is also seen in 12:10, where the lamb is to be eaten in such a way that "you shall let none of it remain until morning" (emphasis added). The term "pleta nish'eret" was also mentioned by Yoseph, when he disclosed his identity to his brothers, saying the following: "And Elohim sent me before you to put a remnant ["she'erit", of the same root as "nish'eret" above] in the land for you and to keep alive for you a great survival [pleta]” (Gen. 45:7, literal translation, italics added). Yoseph’s words, regarding the survival of his brethren, had a prophetic fulfillment, as the “remnant” of the Children of Yisrael has not only “survived”, but it had actually turned into multitudes, resulting in Egypt's soil being left (almost) without residue of remaining life (through the plagues inflicted by the Elohim of the “remnant”). Therefore, that which was a means of salvation for one people (as expressed by Yoseph), turned into deadly circumstances for the other! Shaul the apostle expresses a similar principle in the following words: “We are to Elohim the fragrance of Messiah among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life" (2nd Cor. 2:15-16).

Par’oh's now-exasperated servants complain about Moshe, describing him as a "mokesh" – “snare” (10: 7). However, according to Ee’yov (Job) 34:30, it is a Godless king, such as Par’oh, who “should not reign lest the people be ensnared" (emphasis added)! Indeed, no sooner were the locusts removed, when Par’oh's persistence brought about the ninth plague.  Total darkness descended upon his land, and his people were ensnared once more. The darkness was so thick that it could be "ya'mesh", that is, "felt" or "touched" (10: 21. See also Genesis 27:12, describing the concern of Ya'acov, who was impersonating his brother, lest his father should discover his real identity by “touching” his smooth skin). In 10:23 we are struck by the contrast between the total darkness prevailing over Egypt, and the well-lit dwellings of the Israelites, where the source of Light was the Almighty Himself.

It is time now to prepare for the last phase, and for the start of a new one. YHVH declares to Moshe that He is about to strike the final blow on the Egyptians and on their king, “afterward he will let you go from here; when he lets you go he will surely drive you out of here altogether” (ref. 11:1). The last phrase may be also rendered (although without negating the conventional meaning): “he will send you from here. As if sending off a bride will he expel you from here” (“surely” – ‘kala’ here – can mean completely OR a bride). The (Hebrew) terms “driving” and “sending” are terms also used for divorce. What’s more, when in the next verse Moshe is told that Israel is to ask from their neighbors' articles of silver and gold, one wonders if this isn’t symbolic of a bride’s dowry, the dowry that she was now to retrieve, upon her ‘disengagement’ from the relationship with Egypt and its ruler, being set free to follow YHVH to “the wilderness, to a land not sown” (ref. Jer. 2:2). Perhaps YHVH's insistence (in spite of His own unlimited power) that it be Par'oh who would release Yisrael, supports this probability that YHVH's people were bound legally to Mitzrayim's sovereign.

It is taught that the pattern of lives of the fathers is followed by their children or posterity. If that is the case, then Avram's descent into Egypt during a time of famine, giving up his wife to Par'oh who suffered from "great plagues" as a consequence (ref. Gen. 12:10-20, cf. 26:1-11), certainly supports the latter events taking place in our Parasha. 

Moshe goes on to convey to Pharaoh the news regarding the slaying of the Egyptians' firstborn sons, in place of Yisrael’s slain male babies, while the slaying of Egypt’s firstborn was already predicted by YHVH in Shmot 4:22-23. This is followed by instructions for the Pesach lamb, whose smeared blood will single out the homes of the Hebrews when YHVH will be striking the Egyptian homes by killing their firstborn. Each Hebrew household is to partake of one lamb or share it with others if the family happens to be too small. The expression used, "according to the number" (12:4), is denoted by a single word - "[beh]mich'sat," rooted in k.s.s (kaf/chaf, samech, samech), meaning "to allocate". A similar root is k.s.h (kaf, samech, hey) which means "to cover". Thus, even before an explanation is given for the procedure of choosing, slaughtering, eating the lamb, and applying its blood, the text points subtly to the Lamb which has been ‘allocated’ and designated to be slain from the foundations of the world (ref. Rev. 13:8), Whose blood was given for the covering of sin.

The blood over the Hebrews’ doors enabled YHVH to steer clear of their homes by passing over - "pasach" (ref. 12:23) - a verb rooted in (pey, samech, chet) and means to “pass" or "skip". Yishayahu (Isaiah) 31:5 says: "Like flying birds, so YHVH of Hosts will protect Jerusalem… He will pass over ["pasach"] and rescue it”. Hence, a lame or limping person is a “piseh’ach” (e.g. 2nd Sam. 9:13; 1 King 18:21). This verb gives the feast its title of Pesach.

We have already noted that our Parasha is 'didactically inclined', with 12:14-22 being devoted to instructions pertaining to the future life of the Israelites, once planted in their own land. This passage is fraught with distinct words and terms. We already examined the notion of "allocating" in verse 4. In verse 6 we note that the lamb was to be "kept" (from the 10th of the first month, until the 14th). But rather than a verb, a noun is used there - "mishmoret", of the root sh.m.r (shin, mem, resh). In verse 17 the Children of Yisrael are instructed: "to observe the Feast of Matzot". "Observe" is again from the same root, meaning “to keep, or guard”, while in verse 24 the Israelites are told, "to observe", literally "keep", what now becomes an ordinance to be practiced upon entering the Land. In the future, the night commemorating the exodus from Egypt will become a "night of solemn observance (or vigil)" - "shimurim" (verse 42), and again in 13:10, "You shall keep this ordinance in its season from year to year". Thus, upon those who had been “kept” or “protected” (shamar) by their Elohim, it is now incumbent to do their own form of “keeping”.

The lamb was to be slaughtered on the 14th day of the month, "at twilight" (12:6), which is "ben arba'yim”. “Arbayim" is the plural form of “erev” (evening), the all-familiar term we have been discussing over and again. Most interpreters and commentators believe that "between the evenings" (its literal meaning) denotes "twilight". However, there exists a minority view that supports the literal “between the evenings”, making that expression a reference to an entire day, between the 14th and the 15th.  The meat was to be eaten with bitter herbs, “maror”, and unleavened bread called "matza", which are thin wafer-like crackers baked without yeast (12:8).

The root (mem, tzadi, hey) means “to drain out” to the very last drop of water (e.g., Jud. 6:38) since the leavening agents require liquid in order to be activated. The bitter herbs most likely point to the "bitterness" experienced by the Children of Yisrael in Egypt. Sh’mot (Exodus) says: "And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage--in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of service in the field" (italics added).

In 12:14 we encounter for the first time one of the words for "feast" - "chag" (although in verb form it appeared already in Ex. 5:1). Since the annual reoccurrence of the Feasts makes them cyclical, “chag” is related to the verb "choog" which describes a circle (Job 22:14; Pro. 8:27; Is. 40:22). By its very nature this word implies not only a (set) time but also a place - a “circle”.  Another such 'multi-dimensional' word is holy "convocation", also appearing here for the first time (v. 16). This "holy convocation" or "assembly", is "mikra kodesh". The root k.r.a (kof, resh, alef) means “to call”, even though the "convocation" - the assembling - is made up of people. The "mikra kodesh" (i.e., the congregation) is designated, therefore, by its calling, but is also connected to a place. In Yishayahu (Isaiah) 4:5, for example, we read:  "Then YHVH will create over the whole area of Mount Zion and over "mikra'eh'a" ("her assemblies") a cloud by day…." These “holy convocations” are, of course, to be also special times. The “calling”, then, proves to be the common ‘ingredient’ bonding the people, their place of gathering, and the times wherein they are to convene, indicating that Time, Place, and People are joined in YHVH's economy. This concept will surface again in future Parashot. 

In their Egyptian Pesach, the Israelites were promised that "the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses... And when I see the blood, I will pass over you" (12:13). This "seeing" (of the blood) brings to mind another "seeing" on the part of YHVH, as was stated by Avraham, who on the road to Mount Moriah responded to his son's inquiry regarding the offering, saying: “YHVH will see (literally) for himself the lamb for the offering" (Gen. 22:8 italics added). And although (at that time) it was a ram that was provided, the beginning of the fulfillment of those words is taking place now, in Egypt, later to have a further fulfillment, to an even greater degree, by another Lamb. One more connection to the Lamb of Elohim is found in 12:46, where it says that none of the bones of the lamb are to be broken, an injunction which finds its fulfillment in Yochanan (John) 19:33.

The Egyptians finally relent to send off the Israelites. According to 12:33, "they pressed” them to leave. However, "pressed" in this case is from the root "strong" - "chazak" - which makes it a fulfillment of 6:1 “…For with a strong hand [Par’oh] will let them go, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land". Another fulfillment, this time of 3:22, is taking place here in 12:35-36 when the Egyptians consent to give their former slaves gold, silver, and garments. This is described as the “spoiling of the Egyptians", which is also a fulfillment of YHVH’s promise to Avraham concerning the Egyptian Diaspora, out of which his seed was to "come out with great wealth" (Gen. 15:14).  "Spoiled" is "(va)yinatz'lu", of the root (noon, tzadi, lamed), which most frequently means to "survive, save, rescue, or deliver".  In fact, it came up in Parashat Sh’mot (5:23) when Moshe complained to YHVH on behalf of his people, saying, “For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all (italics added)". But now not only are they being "delivered", but they are also "procuring" gifts (the form of as it is used here) from those who had subjugated them. The fact that all of these terms are rooted in the same three letters lends an extra emphasis, or 'twist', to the rescue story and sheds light on the protagonists (YHVH as the "savior", and on those who are being "saved"). The gold and silver will no doubt serve later for the making of the Mishkan’s articles (and likely also for the golden calf). But even beforehand, in Shmot (Exodus) 33:6, where the Israelites remove their jewelry, the verb used is "(va)yitna'tzlu" (again of the root of The unusual usage of this word highlights the origin of these articles.

Upon leaving Egypt, a "mixed multitude" (“erev rav” – literally “a great mixture”) goes out with the Sons of Yisrael.  After “arbayim” (“twilight”) above (with is root e.r.v. - "evening" – being a "mixed" state, 12:38), “mixture” is now being applied to the nature of the "multitude”. More on this group of people in future Parashot.

When the time allotted for their sojourn in Egypt ends, "on this very day" (12:41) YHVH's people, who had been waiting for so long, are suddenly forced to hurry and leave. We recall the case of Yoseph, who was also made to hurry out of prison when the time ordained for his sufferings had fully expired (ref. Gen. 41:1, 14). In both cases, the word used is "miketz" ("at the end of"). When it is time for a change, there is not one moment to spare.

The latter part of the Parasha, 13:1-16, is devoted to further instructions. First and foremost, among them is the "setting apart" of the firstborn: "…every one who opens the womb among the sons of Israel belongs to me" (13:2), declares YHVH. In verse 15 He elaborates on this, saying that since He "killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt… therefore [the Israelite are to] sanctify to YHVH all males that open the womb, and all the firstborn of [their] sons [are to be] redeemed/ransomed". In last week's Parasha we saw how "ransoming" separated the Israelites from the Egyptians (8:23), even before the smiting of Egypt's firstborn. The notion of "ransom" (“p'dut”) becomes even more evident when blood separates the Egyptian firstborn from those of Yisrael's. The ultimate ransom price for purchasing 'Yisrael the Firstborn' thousands of years later will be, and still is, Messiah's blood.

Among the "firsts" in this Parasha, there is a first reference to a name of a month - the "month of Aviv" (13:4). The literal meaning of "aviv", which became synonymous with "spring", is a stalk of grain whose ears are still green. This word indicates the very beginning of growth, before the fruit or grain has had time to develop (e.g., Job 8:12; Song of Solomon 6:11), and is perhaps (also) a reflection on the condition of the Nation in formation. The fact that the noun “aviv” starts with alef, bet, the first two letters of the Alphabet, letters that also form the word “av” - “father”, highlights its “firstness”.

Twice in this portion of instructions we encounter references to the "signs" that are to be on one's hand and forehead (13:9, 16). These "signs" are to be for the purpose of remembering and commemorating the "strong hand with which YHVH brought you out of Egypt" (v. 16), and, "so that the Torah of YHVH may be in your mouth" (v. 9). In both places the mention of these "signs" is related to the teaching of the generations to come. In addition, in keeping with the pedagogical message included in the Parasha, several possible approaches are offered to a variety of future inquirers about the Pesach practices and its teachings. In 12:26-27 we find: "When your children say to you, ‘what does this service mean to you…?’ you shall say, ‘it is the sacrifice to YHVH’s Passover’…" In 13:14, "When in time to come your son asks, saying, 'what is this?' You shall say to him, 'by strength of hand YHVH brought us out of Egypt’…" And in 13:8, "You shall tell your son on that day, saying, 'it is because of this YHVH did for me when I came out of Egypt’". All three of these are echoed in the traditional Pesach Haggada read on the Passover eve ceremony called the Seder. There they are called the “Four – since another one is added based on Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 6:20 – Questions”, and are posed by the youngest member of the family.

Lastly, in order to partake of the Pesach, a man was required to be circumcised (ref. 12:48), a fact that connects the Paschal lamb to circumcision. It points to the renewal of the Covenant established with Avraham and his descendants. Interestingly, in Parashat Sh'mot (4:22) YHVH declares that Yisrael is His “firstborn”, and in the same breath predicts that because Par’oh will refuse to let His firstborn go, He will kill his firstborn (4:22,23). What immediately follows is the episode where Moshe’s wife is circumcising her son, using the term "a groom of blood" (4:24-26). This act and choice of vocabulary reinforce the connection of the Paschal lamb's blood to the blood of circumcision.[1] Our "Groom of Blood, " Yeshua, is also the epitome of the Pesach offering. His Blood has rendered us - the "circumcision who worships Elohim in the Spirit" (Phil. 3:3).



* Ha denotes the definite article in Hebrew.


[1] The Chumash Shmot With The Commentary Daat Mikrah, Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 1991.




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