May 21, 2019

Torah Talk: Parashat Bo with Rabbi Amy Joy Small

Rabbi Amy Joy Small was is the Senior Rabbi of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue of Burlington, Vermont from 2016. Previously, Rabbi Small worked in Jewish innovation by creating and directing Deborah’s Palm Center for Jewish Learning & Experiences in Morristown, New Jersey. Through Deborah’s Palm Center, Rabbi Small taught and facilitated Jewish experiences for adults, emphasizing questions from our everyday lives, explored through Jewish texts and ideas.

Rabbi Small has served congregations in New Jersey, Michigan and Indiana. She is a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, where she served on the board for many years. She is a fellow of Rabbis Without Borders and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Storahtelling Maven, and was awarded a Doctor of Divinity, Honoris Causa, from RRC in 2012.

This week’s Torah portion – Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16) – features the final three plagues of Egypt, the People of Israel’s departure from Egypt, and the first Passover celebration. Our discussion focuses on the idea of maintaining positivity and recognizing the point of view of the other in our struggle for Justice.

Previous Torah Talks on Parshat Bo:

Rabbi Joel Zeff

Rabbi Adam Zeff

Rabbi Zvi Grumet

Rabbi Nissan Antine









Gods of Egypt were no match

Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)

For several weeks, we have been reading the Torah portions that describe the Ten Plagues: blood, frogs, lice, raging beasts that were composites of multiple animals, animal pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and death of the first born.

We all know the sequence and images, so central both to the Exodus from Egypt and to the haggadah narrative at the seder, where we commemorate our liberation from slavery. In this week’s parashah, the final plagues unfold, and our nation goes free.

For many, the plagues seem a fanciful account. However, if we look beyond the plastic figurines of frogs that children are given as playthings at the seder, perhaps the plagues take on a more reasonable meaning. Let us consider three approaches:

First, the plagues eradicated the Egyptian food supply, step by step, bringing the world’s then-mightiest power to its knees. The blood destroyed the water supply, and the frogs that emanated from the pollution confirmed that something was perilously toxic in the Nile and elsewhere. The lice permeated the soil, destroying vegetables about to grow. The mixed animals came “from out of nowhere,” violently trampling all vegetables that already had grown. 

Next, the pestilence wiped out the meat supply, killing horses, donkeys, camels, cattle and sheep. After the boils isolated the Egyptian leaders, fiery hail balls rained down, smashing grain stalks and incinerating the surrounding dried terrain. The locust plague followed, cleaning out all fruit on the trees. 

The entire food supply now was destroyed, and the plague of darkness descended, affording the Egyptians an opportunity to sit quietly and to ponder what slavery had wrought. When they still did not free the Jews, the Tenth Plague struck every Egyptian home.

Another perspective: The Ten Plagues were conducted purposefully, unleashed as methodically as a military battle plan. First, attack by sea: The waters were stricken and placed off limits to the Egyptians. Then the amphibious attack unfurled, as the teeming frogs burst forth from the bloodied waters, raging throughout the land.

Next, the attack moved to land. The soil was destroyed by lice, the mixed animals ran amok throughout the land, and domesticated animals that provided Egyptian meat and milk and helped work the land were destroyed. And with boils, the generals were removed from battle. 

Finally, came the air campaign: the fiery hail balls screaming down with incessant terror like aerial bombs. Locusts next burst forth, overwhelming and blackening the atmosphere. And then the very daylights were knocked out from above, leaving three days of shrouded blackness, breaking the Egyptian spirit. With Egypt still refusing to free the Jews, the magnitude of the tenth plague hit the nation like a nuclear bomb.

And a third perspective: The Ten Plagues were designed to demonstrate to the Egyptians — and to the Hebrew slaves exposed culturally to the Egyptian pantheon of gods that contrasted so dramatically from the Jewish belief in monotheism — that their “gods” had no power and indeed were non-extant.

Thus, the first plague targeted the Egyptians’ all-purpose deity: the Nile. As the ancient Greeks later would worship Poseidon and the Romans Neptune, so the Egyptians believed in a water god. The first plague demolished that conviction. Next came the plague of frogs, directly negating the reverence that Egyptians accorded to Heqat, the frog-goddess of childbirth. 

The third plague, by which lice destroyed the soil, negated the Egyptian earth goddess, the equivalent of Demeter (Greek) and Ceres (Roman). The fourth plague was marked by rampaging animals that were strange composites; the Egyptians worshipped just such figures as divinities. The fifth plague demolished the invincibility ascribed to Hathor, the god of cows. 

Each plague targeted the belief in specific gods that populated the Egyptian pantheon, culminating in the plagues of darkness — which demonstrated the emptiness of the sun god, Ra — and the tenth plague, which challenged the belief in the one remaining major Egyptian deity, the dog god of death, Anubis. Amid the nocturnal dying among the Egyptian first-born children, something strange happened: All dogs in Egypt suddenly went silent (Exodus 11:7). 

In all, viewed from this third perspective for understanding the Ten Plagues, we also better comprehend God’s words in the Torah: “And I shall execute judgments against all the gods of Egypt, for I am God” (Exodus 12:12).

These alternate perspectives reflect that the Ten Plagues came in a precise order with the three-fold purposes of elevating the God of Israel and simultaneously nullifying the Egyptian pantheon, militarily subduing Egypt into submission, and eradicating the Egyptian food supply. The plagues left Pharaoh and Egypt starving and parched, defeated so thoroughly in physical might and spiritual inspiration, that their resistance ultimately broke, and Pharaoh finally let our people go.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and at UC Irvine School of Law, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. His writings appear at

Opportunity of a setback: Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)

This week’s parasha is one of the most central to the Jewish narrative. We read of the final plagues, the storm brought by God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm gathering on the border of Egypt, the Divine command to prepare for the Exodus by baking the matzot and eating the bitter herbs. It is the essence of the Passover story. Our greatest glory — Divine liberation — emanated from the nadir of our enslavement.

So often, events unfold that set us back. We wonder: “Why me?” Everything was going fine, and then we abruptly find ourselves in Purgatory. It might be a nightmare job, an aliyah effort that fails, a marriage that dissolves or an investment lost because of a predator’s fraud.

Suddenly, the “man with the plan” has no backup. Everything that once seemed so hopeful and easy has now collapsed. 

Such horrible setbacks are augured in the larger story framing the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt. One moment, a family seems finally at peace in Canaan; the next moment, a son is sold into slavery. He finally finds his own peace in a strange land, only to be targeted by his boss’s lusting wife, resulting in his imprisonment. He ultimately rises again, higher than before, and brings his family to Egypt, only to have history unfold horribly once more with a new Pharaoh arisen, the family enslaved, mired in their darkest hour.

The exodus from Egypt was meant to teach compelling life lessons that would imbue meaning for all generations. One of those lessons is that while every life sustains terrible setbacks, there also are escape valves that can open better opportunity than previously imagined.

Looking back, we see the steps that fell into place for this exodus to unfold. In order for the Jews to be crafted as a unique and holy people, we were meant to become resident in Egypt and then enslaved. But why did He select Egypt as our national petri dish?

When Jacob and his sons first arrived in Egypt, we were approximately 70 souls. Yet, 210 years later, we would grow into a nation of millions. To become that nation, we would need to forge an identity and cultivate a culture. For that culture to be unique, pure and unpolluted by surrounding corrupt foreign influences, that family had to be settled in virtual physical isolation. Egypt afforded that unique opportunity in Goshen, the rich land Pharaoh authorized uniquely for us. There, undisturbed by neighboring cultures, we enjoyed two centuries to evolve. Moreover, because of Egypt’s military might, our evolution was not threatened by security concerns. Egypt provided us safety so that we could thrive on our own.

But before that, we Jews had to have reason to move to Egypt. Thus, circumstances unfolded: Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, therefore later loving her son, Joseph, more than his other sons. As those sons became jealous of Joseph, they seized him and sold him into slavery, laying the groundwork for his falling into the hands of Potiphar, whose wife’s failed seductions prompted Potiphar to have Joseph imprisoned. That incarceration — yet another debilitating setback — was the necessary portal to enable Joseph to meet the imprisoned wine steward, who later would become the vehicle for introducing Joseph to Pharaoh. Once elevated to viceroy status, Joseph could bring his father and brother — the Jews — into Egypt, intending thereby solely to save them from famine when, in fact, God’s greater plan was for them to become a People with their own uniquely crafted culture and civilization.

That is how life goes. Setbacks and complications, with no clear reason “why,” until years pass and the master plan becomes a bit discernible. So Moshe’s mother puts him in a basket and floats him in a river, and the basket floats to the princess, assuring that the baby will be reared from infancy in the king’s palace, providing him a life-impacting education in noble bearing and speaking forthrightly to power. The perfect training for the “leader from the periphery” who will lead slaves from bondage. Even as that “happenstance” assures that baby Moses will be regal in demeanor and primed for political leadership, he also needs to acquire training in religious leadership. So, when fleeing from the former comfort and security of Egypt after killing an Egyptian taskmaster, he “happens” to encounter the daughters of Yitro, high priest of Midian. Upon marrying into Yitro’s family, Moshe now will have a father-in-law experienced in the priesthood who, for years to come, will teach him the skills and craft of theological leadership. 

Within each setback are the seeds from which greater things can germinate. Things often happen for reasons. Sometimes we need only pause long enough from asking “Why me?” to discern perhaps why and to appreciate fascinating new opportunities about to unfold.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at

Divine Presence

As I tucked my kids into bed recently, one of them asked me, “How do we know where God is? How do we find God?”

It was both an amazing moment
(that day school and synagogue are paying off) and a terrifying moment. I needed to provide an answer that was honest, but one they could grasp. A theological treatise from Rabbi Heschel was not going to suffice.

I told them that God was all around us, in our hearts, in the kindness they showed and experience, in the beautiful mountains surrounding our home.

And while my explanation seemed to allay my children, I knew there would be more moments like this. It inspired me to consider where I find God in the world.

As we journey through Exodus we see the God of great power and might, the God who sends plagues, attacks Egypt and toys with Pharaoh’s heart, all while trying to impress both the Israelites and Egyptians.

Many of us crave this God — not necessarily for the exact actions God takes, but for the mere fact that God acts in this real, visible way.

Many of us would like to see the God of Exodus operating in our lives, sending visible and obvious miracles, saving lives, swooping down and liberating us on the wings of eagles, taking us to a better and more prosperous life in a promised land. Certainly my kids would love the action-packed God of Parshat Bo. Plagues, drama, confrontation, good vs. evil — they can understand this. It’s like the Buzz Lightyear moment of the Torah.

But our world doesn’t operate like this anymore. The God of Exodus was a one-time moment in history, one that we recount and recollect each year at Pesach. Belief in God and the ability to find the Divine’s presence in our lives would be easier if we lived in a world where God operated with overt miracles.

With all the talk of plagues and miracles in Exodus, we rarely talk about the amazing connection the matriarchs and patriarchs had to God in Genesis. In Bereshit Rabbah, the great midrashic compilation on Genesis, we find God fondly recollecting the days of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, when they believed in God and didn’t question the Holy One’s ways, even without outward or miraculous proof.

In the midrash, God tells Moses about these times in a very nostalgic way, as a contrast to the way Moses immediately questions God at the burning bush, asks God for God’s name and doubts whether anyone will believe him when he announces the presence of this great Deity.

I ultimately believe that we could not function in the world as humans with free will if God continued to intercede like God did in Egypt.

This is not to say that God doesn’t act in the world; God does.

However, the Creator’s actions are visible through the works of our hands, the deeds of our hearts and the commitments of our lives to the values and dreams spelled out for us in the Torah and subsequent religious teachings of yesterday and today. This is how I understand tzimtzum, the kabbalistic notion of God needing to recede in the background of reality in order to allow for all the rest of creation to operate fully and freely.

We can have emunah, or faith, precisely because God provided space for that to emerge.

The very last verse of this week’s parsha reminds us how we are to recapture a sense of awe and wonder for God in our world: “And it shall be a sign on your hand and a symbol between your eyes that with a mighty hand God brought us forth from Egypt” (Exodus 13:16).

While we cannot go back to Egypt or a time when God worked miracles in such visible ways, the Torah is teaching us that through the ritual acts, in this case wearing tefillin each morning, we can remind ourselves of the miracles that God once did, and inspire ourselves to look for the miracles that God continues to do for us each and every day.

On this verse, the great sage Nachmanides said, “And the purpose of all the commandments is that we believe in our God and be thankful to God for having created us….”

Each day is a miracle, each breath is a miracle, each moment is a miracle.

When we love the stranger, that is a miracle; when we stand up for justice, that is a miracle; when we are grateful for this life, that is a miracle.

This is what I need to remind my children; this is my answer to their queries about God.

And when we say the “Shema” each night, this is what I now ask them to think about.

It is interesting that the God of Exodus, the very God our people did not believe in or wish to follow, is the one many of us long for in our lives. I would argue that we are, perhaps, longing for the wrong aspect of God. Why are we not longing more for the relationship of our first family, a relationship that was based on subtle insights to God, dreams, visions, feelings and faith, not supernatural miracles?

To me, that is a more profound and interesting relationship with the Divine. This approach to God might yield more fruit in our lives.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center and serves as the social action chair for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. He can be reached at

A Portion of Parshat Bo

In last week’s parsha, the Israelites sat back and watched as God brought seven plagues upon the Egyptians. This week, we read of the final three plagues. All of a sudden, the Israelites are told that they must help God in the last plague. How? They must smear the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of their houses. Why? So that God will know not to strike those houses with the plague of the killing of the firstborn. Instead, God will pass over those houses. But God is all-knowing. Doesn’t God know which houses are Jewish?

God has made a decision. It’s time for the Israelites to start taking some responsibility. Yes, they were slaves, but they did not have to take care of themselves. It is now time for them to become a nation. It is time for them to take action and learn about right and wrong — just like children. So God says: you must participate in your release from slavery. You will become free — and with freedom comes responsibility.