bo: a plague on all your houses

Ten plagues, actually, and on their houses not ours. We have a seder plate at home on which all the plagues are represented around the rim. Similar to pictures in some illustrated haggadahs, the plagues have an almost cartoonish quality about them and the faces of the Egyptians are comically grotesque. Of course, we celebrate the plagues insomuch as they are instruments of HaShem’s salvation. Yet once liberated from slavery, we are told many times not to hate the Egyptians, for we we were strangers in their land. It does not say ‘slaves’, but ‘strangers’. Compare this with the instruction we receive to blot out the name of Amalek. As far as we can tell, it is the Pharaoh who hardens his heart against the Israelites, not the Egyptians as a whole. Interestingly, too, when God says he will strikes the land with the plague of hail, it says, “He that feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses.” This suggests that some Egyptians believed in God, though whether they also believed in the sun and river and other gods as well we cannot tell. Most tellingly, when Pharaoh finally gives in long enough to allow the Israelites to leave, his people shower them with gifts and it is mentioned how greatly respected Moses was among the Egyptians. No wonder that one of the several reasons why we spill drops of wine as we recite the plagues during the Seder is to show our sorrow for the suffering Egyptians. 

Our relationship with Egypt did not end when we were led away be Moses, Aaron and Miriam. We have turned towards it for support and even returned to live more than once. The prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah warn, as we can see in the haftorahs for Va-eira and Bo respectively, against depending on Egypt for help against the invading Assyrians and Babylonians and prophesy that Egypt will be humbled. However, they also allow for a resurgence of Egyptian power, though much reduced. Around 650 BCE, Jews settled in the city of Elephantine, many serving in the imperial Persian army and establishing a confident, thriving community. In Ptolemaic times, they settled in Alexandria, among other places, and there were several more waves of settlement, including after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. It was not until the establishment of the state of modern Israel that Jews began to disappear almost totally from Egypt.

It’s a complex, messy thing, life, and the Torah does not pretend otherwise. Fortunately, this week we will have the wisdom of our Life President, Harvey Kurzfield, to help us unscramble things, not to mention to lead us in more harmonious voice than is our wont. Be there, this Saturday at 10:30 a.m.