by Aaron Potek
A Difference of Night and Day
Parshat Bo opens within the story of the ten plagues that began in the previous parsha, and the reason for dividing the story is unclear both literarily (why split it at all) and thematically (why split it between the seventh and eighth plagues). This division suggests there is something unique about the final three plagues that requires further exploration.
Indeed, the theme of darkness only appears in these last three plagues. By locusts the Torah says: “They hid all the land from view, and the land was darkened” (Exodus 10:15), substantiating G-d’s warning a few verses earlier that the people will not be able to see the land (10:5). The next plague is darkness itself, where “people could not see each other” (10:23). The final plague on the Egyptian first-borns occurs at midnight, in contrast to the first plagues which occurred in the morning.
The prominence of darkness is further highlighted in the recounting of the plagues in Psalm 105, which lists it as the first (v. 28). Also, immediately after the ninth plague in our parsha, Bnei Yisrael receive the first commandment – to keep time according to the moon, not the sun.
It seems clear, then, that these final plagues are a reaction to and rejection of the Egyptians’ belief in their sun god Ra and the associated concept that power is tantamount to rigid consistency. Pharaoh embodies this trait, stubbornly refusing to let the Jews go even after his closest advisers realize there is no alternative.
By removing light from the lives of the Egyptians, G-d uncovers the incredibly limited scope of a sun god. During hardships and suffering, the Egyptians are simply consigned to a predetermined fate, as the sun’s power extends only as far is its rays. Contrariwise, the G-d of Israel’s existence is not limited to situations when we feel His direct presence.
Like the waning and waxing of the moon, reality is dynamic and situations change, for better and for worse. We do not lose hope during difficult times because both G-d and Man has the power to intervene and alter the course of history. Perhaps this is why the parsha concludes with the mitzvah of tefillin. The של ראש is a mental reminder of G-d’s divine providence; the של יד is a call to reflect G-d’s actions on behalf of those in need. The story of our freedom from years of suffering in Egypt inspires us to simultaneously think idealistically and act practically.