November 16, 2018

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









TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Pexels.

PARSHA: BO, Exodus 10:1-2

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons what I have wrought of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them — in order that you may know that I am the Lord.’ ”

Rabbi David Woznica
Stephen Wise Temple

Why does God harden the heart of Pharaoh and his courtiers? The Torah gives two reasons: so that God can place “signs among them” and so that future generations will recount what God did.

What God did was take the Israelites out of Egypt, an act Jews recount every week. Two events in Jewish history are so central that they are included in the full version of the Friday night Kiddush blessing: the creation of the world and the Exodus from Egypt. Both events reflect God’s power. Each of them also reveals an additional important aspect of God — that God is above nature (as creator of the world) and that God cares about the world (as demonstrated by the Israelites’ liberation from slavery).

God is all-powerful, supernatural and cares.

These facets of God are particularly important when it comes to prayer. While prayer has many forms, we frequently appeal to God to use power to intervene. And we often ask God to intervene to stop nature’s course — to halt a life-threatening disease, for example, or avert a natural disaster. Knowing that God cares about the world is vital to meaningful prayer. After all, if we didn’t believe God cares and has a sense of justice, prayer would seem hollow.

God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to create a more just world. More than 3,000 years later, we continue to feel the impact.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

There’s only one way to understand anything in Torah. You have to read it as a teaching in your life. Because that’s what Torah is, first and foremost. And that’s what your life is — a commentary on that teaching.

It also helps to read the Hebrew. This translation renders the phrase bo el Paro as “go to Pharaoh,” but it can also be translated as “come to Pharaoh.”

God says to each one of us: Pharaoh is the big, mean world out there. Pharaoh is scary. Pharaoh is powerful. Pharaoh is obstinate. There’s just no way around Pharaoh. And Pharaoh holds you captive, as his slave.

God tells you, “Come with me. You’re not doing this alone. You just do your thing and I’ll take care of the rest. Then you’ll be free.”

There’s a reason He set it up that way.

Because you weren’t put in this world to do the possible, the predictable, the natural and the obvious. You were put here to transcend nature. To allow miracles to enter. To make sure the world will never be the same again. So that the whole wide world will recognize that it’s not just a world. It’s a divine masterpiece — one big, amazing miracle.

To do that, Pharaoh needs to be impossible. And you need a lot a faith and chutzpah. Like Moses.

May we all make our grand escape from Pharaoh’s slavery really soon — sooner than we can imagine.

Rabbi Jill Zimmerman
The Jewish Mindfulness Network

Every year when I come upon this verse, I wonder about the relationship between freedom and a hardened heart. Psychologist Erich Fromm argues that every evil act a person commits deadens the person’s own heart and when this is repeated, a person increasingly lessens her freedom to change. Fromm writes that there is “a point of no return, when man’s heart has become … so deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom.”

Our path out of slavery requires a practice in which we examine the state of our hearts and take steps to keep it open, even in the face of conflict. For example, we can include a daily check-up of our heart in our personal practice: to whom and to what have we closed our hearts? Can we bring kindness to our own emotional bruises, gently encouraging ourselves to stay expansive?

Sometimes, just sitting with your hand gently on your heart, inhaling compassion, is powerful. In the presence of love, our hearts blossom. When we are hurt, we close down, often with the false belief that doing so will protect us from further pain. Our families, communities and the world itself need our tender hearts. Freedom itself depends on the openhearted — people who have the courage to feel the pain and to walk boldly, with trust and strength, into the wilderness ahead.

Rabbi Lori Shapiro
The Open Temple, Venice, Calif.

Two words in this verse are spark plugs that drive the engine of our story for generations: bo (come) and eleh (these). Bo is a command directing one toward a complex act of fecundity. For Noah, it was “Come into the ark,” the command to endure the destruction of the world for its renewal. For Moses, it is “Come to Pharaoh,” an imperative toward the completion of the anti-creation story of the Ten Plagues, which will birth the greatest experiment from the ancient world, one that continues to evolve through all of us today: the nation of Israel.

But why state, “I will show these my signs in the midst of them”? As Ramban reminds us, “these” refers not just to Pharaoh and the Israelites but to generations to come. God informs Moses that there is a reason behind all of this suffering — a master plan that will play out for generations.

When entering into Parashat Bo this week, what if we ask ourselves: What are the signs in our midst? Where are our hearts hardened? What destructive vermin eat at the fabric of our society? Where does darkness lurk and what ultimate loss must be endured for an era of transformation and rebirth to arise? How much more suffering must we witness until we all understand that there is something larger than just ourselves conducting the rhythms and music of this ceaseless song of creation, and that our modern-day Pharaoh is, indeed, our partner in redemption?

Rabbi Elan Babchuck
Clal — The National Jewish Center or Learning and Leadership

Few verses in Torah have inspired more spilled ink than this first one, which raises the question of free will. How can it be that Pharaoh is punished so brutally when it was God who hardened his heart in the first place? And what about us? If we’re hardwired a certain way, will we be afforded the opportunity to change — to immerse ourselves in the heart-softening work of teshuvah? Is teshuvah even possible?

As they did so many times in their relationship, Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish disagree about this issue. Yochanan is concerned that heretics will forgo repentance because the nature of their hearts is in God’s hands, while Lakish argues that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened only after invitations to repent.

While the conversation between these two sages is relatively unremarkable, it is noteworthy that if they had listened to each other only a bit more carefully, they might not have suffered the tragic fate that took them both from this world. Deep in the throes of what would become their final learning session, they disagreed about an issue and both said things they would later regret. But despite their previous years of loving friendship, they remained hard-hearted and unrepentant until both eventually died of grief — of broken hearts, as it were.

Sometimes the insights we need most are right in front of us. If we are able to soften our hearts just enough to truly hear them, we will open ourselves not only to teshuvah but to more honest and compassionate relationships with those we love most in this precious world.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Max Pexel.

PARSHA: Va’era, EXODUS 6:10-13

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.’ But Moses appealed to the Lord, saying, ‘The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!’ So the Lord spoke to both Moses and Aaron in regard to the Israelites and Pharaoh king of Egypt, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt.”

Salvador Litvak

God is about to send 10 plagues into the world — 10 miracles that will prove His existence and His special regard for the Jews. Why, then, does God ask Moses to approach both Pharaoh and the elders of Israel without proof of his divine mandate?

In his 2010 viral video, “Leadership Lessons From Dancing Guy,” Derek Sivers says, “The first follower transforms the lone nut into a leader.”

When Moses announced that he would demand that the most powerful man in the world release his workforce, no one took him seriously. It required faith and vision to become Moses’ first follower.

Aaron did not grow up with his brother and hardly knew him. He recognized, however, that Moses was the right man at the right time. Aaron jumped aboard despite enormous risk of failure and ridicule, thus earning his special relationship with Moses and his eternal stature among the Jews.

Once the plagues arrived, not only were the Jews finally ready to follow Moses, so were many Egyptians. A mixed multitude left Egypt, and our sages teach that many of these opportunists became the complainers whose faithless whining brought on a string of calamities in the wilderness.

Complainers are inevitable in any mission-driven group and they are profoundly destructive. To combat such a negative force, a leader needs a great first follower — one who not only gets the movement going but keeps it on track in tough times. May we merit being that first follower when the moment calls.

Rabbi Tal Sessler
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel

Moses complains that the people did not listen when he addressed them. Why didn’t they listen? Because they were short of breath and working hard — a timely lesson for us moderns. Often we are so enslaved to our careers that we cannot possibly open up soulfully to what Elijah called “the still small voice” of God.

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that Americans don’t think, because in America “one thinks with a watch in one’s hand.” Today we can add to Nietzsche’s observation that nobody can experience spiritual emancipation from the tyranny and shackles of the mundane because we are constantly glued to our smartphones.

In the book “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” nurse Bronnie Ware shared the second most common regret of people in palliative care: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” So many potential, blissful hours with loved ones and with the Almighty are squandered because of our culture’s idolatrous obsession with the false idol of “productivity.”

Karl Marx wrongly defined humanity as “Homo Faber,” the producing animal. The Torah reminds us that we are the soulful animal, and meeting the world’s material and psychological demands should never come at the expense of developing what Michael Fishbane called a “sacred attunement” to the mesmerizing voices of our loved ones, and to what Abraham Joshua Heschel called the subliminal “echo of eternity.”

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David-Judea Congregation

How do we get people to listen to us when we feel unheard? Moses almost gives up because he can’t answer this question, and he defines himself solely by this struggle: “I am a man of closed lips.”

The Midrash teaches that the phrase “God spoke to Moses and Aaron” indicates that God actually gave them advice about how to communicate. Namely, Gold told Moses and Aaron that the way to be heard is to speak gently, with patience and respect.

Whether we are like Moses — leading others, petitioning authority for justice — or feeling unheard in our relationships, workplace or even prayer life, each of us can apply this wisdom. None of us is a stranger to conflict or heated conversation, to feeling unheard or silenced. Perhaps we may have even been the cause of such feelings in others.

Proverbs tells us, “As in water face answers to face, so is the heart of a person to a person” (27:19). What we give to others is what we receive. If we communicate gently, with patience and respect, we will receive just that. This is God’s advice to Moses and Aaron — and to us. It applies when we are speaking or listening, and even if our audience (like Pharaoh) doesn’t end up heeding our words. May God help us connect with one another and with Him — not with “closed lips” but with open ears, open mouths and open hearts.

Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat
Board of Rabbis of Southern California

“Is there an age limit for jury duty?” an elderly man asked at jury-duty orientation.

“No,” the woman replied. “We have had jurors of all ages, but if you are over 70 years old and have a medical condition that precludes you from serving, then you can fill out this form.”

The man thanked her and began filling out the form.

I sat down and read the verses I had brought with me to jury duty. In them, Moses asked God to be exempted from telling Pharaoh to let the people go. Moses, too, was elderly — 80 years old. Moses doesn’t ask God for exemption based on his age but rather based on his speech impediment.

God refused Moses’ request. Instead, God reiterated the summons to Moses and to his brother, Aaron. By including Aaron, God provided support to Moses. Aaron could serve as Moses’ spokesman if necessary. However, God didn’t believe that Moses’ speech impairment precluded him from leadership.

Moses thought he was “not a man of words,” but God knew better. God understood that, inside of him, Moses had a reservoir of wise words, which would become the book of Deuteronomy — in Hebrew, Devarim (literally, “words”). Moses was worried about his deficiencies but God recognized his strengths.

If only we could see ourselves — and one another   — as God sees us. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. … You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn
Yeshivat Yavneh

Moses’ fear is reasonable: “How will I approach Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world, the man who raised me, when my words flow with difficulty?” This insecurity probably stems from the fact that he knows that Pharaoh recognizes him at his most vulnerable. Pharaoh was responsible for teaching Moses most of his words and now Moses is going to use them against him.

The problem with this passage is not so much Moses’ fear, but rather the solution to the fear. God speaks to Moses and Aaron, instructing them to go together. How does this assuage Moses’ reservations? One possibility that has been suggested is that Moses doesn’t need to fear, because he will have a backup — Aaron will be with him. This approach’s flaw is that it ignores the fact that Moses has the ultimate backup: God.

Notice the wording of the verse is not that “you and Aaron will speak to Pharaoh.” That job still belongs to Moses alone. Perhaps this wasn’t about going in with a security blanket, but rather with an identity. If Moses stands and protests before Pharaoh, Pharaoh can turn and say, “How dare you? You are my son. I raised you. Traitor!” This is what Moses is afraid of. But with Aaron — his flesh and blood brother — by his side, he can turn and say to Pharaoh with confidence, “I may have been raised here, but these are my people and this is my family. You were merely a forced stopover.”

Quality of Life

It was a very brief meeting, and a seemingly peculiar exchange of words. For the first time, the head of the Israelite household — Jacob — meets Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.

The only thing they shared in common was Joseph.

To Jacob, Joseph was his son, and to Pharaoh, Joseph was the economic wizard who saved his empire’s economy from total disaster.

If one were asked to speculate on what these two men would speak about during their first meeting, it might go something like this:

“Jacob, you raised a brilliant young man. Without him, our country would be in a great depression right now.”

Beaming with pride, Jacob would respond, “Thank you, your majesty, it’s a great honor to see my son serving in your distinguished court. He always was a dreamer, and I am proud that he followed his dreams.”

Pride, honor, and praise — all of the ingredients one would expect in a first conversation between a grateful king and a proud father.

There is no such exchange between the two, nothing even remotely close. Instead, here’s how it went: “Joseph brought his father and presented him to Pharaoh. Jacob blessed Pharaoh. ‘How many are the days of your life?’ asked Pharaoh of Jacob. Jacob replied to Pharaoh: ‘The days of the years of my sojourning are a hundred and thirty years; few and unhappy have the days of my life been. I did not attain the days of the years of life that my fathers did during their sojourn through life.’ With that, Jacob blessed Pharaoh and left his presence.” (Genesis 47:7-10)

Far removed from the typically schmaltzy story of “Your son is so wonderful,” and “Yes, I’m so proud of him,” the brief exchange between Pharaoh and Jacob has an altogether different aura, rooted in what we call in Hebrew hochmat haim, or life’s wisdom.

As the leader of a powerful empire, Pharaoh had certainly met many world leaders. In his meetings with them, he certainly drew from their wisdom and advice, as would any intelligent ruler. One can only imagine what Pharaoh expected Jacob to look like, but the 16th century Polish commentator Kli Yakar tells us that Pharaoh was shocked when he saw a thin, frail, weakened old man approaching him, barely able to walk toward his throne. Jacob begins by blessing Pharaoh, and this seems to bond the two men, so much so that Pharaoh poses a wise, carefully worded, personal question: “How many are the days of your life?” The wording of Pharaoh’s question caught the eye of many commentators, who wonder why Pharaoh did not simply ask, “How old are you?” Why did he word his question as “How many are the days of your life?”

Jacob’s response reflects a deep understanding of Pharaoh’s carefully worded question: “The days of the years of my sojourning are 130, [but] few and unhappy have been the days of my life.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German commentator, remarks that Jacob differentiates between living and existing: “You ask how many are the days of my life? I have not lived much. I have sojourned on this earth for 130 years. The days of the years that I can really call my life were in reality only few — and were themselves bitter and full of worry.”

The Netziv, head of the Volozhin Yeshiva during the second half of the 19th century, offers an additional insight: “My years of success in life were few and bitter, for even when I had actually achieved material wealth and financial security, my life was still filled with woe and sorrow, such as the death of my wife Rachel and the rape of my daughter Dinah.”

Jacob’s answer is filled with perspective on life’s big question: How do we measure and define a “happy life”? Is it by living to a ripe old age? Is it through material wealth and success?

According to Hirsch, Jacob was telling Pharaoh that a true human being does not see life through length of years, rather through the quality of days lived. As much as we may like to think otherwise, Hirsch says, “It is only with a few select people that each day is full of importance and is considered by them as having a special meaning.” Jacob’s perspective brings to mind the custom of reciting Psalm 90 at a funeral, when — before burying a loved one — we ask God to “Teach us to number our days, so that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

The Netziv’s comments add the powerful reminder to Pharaoh that material wealth alone does not bring happiness. In another psalm recited by mourners (Psalm 49), we are reminded that material wealth is not carried with us into the grave. Jacob told this wealthy king that his great palace, wealth and fame are of no value without the true happiness, love and fulfillment of family life and personal relationships.

In the waning days of a 130-year-old life that included receiving his father’s blessing by way of deceit, a terrible relationship with his brother, an unfulfilled married life, the rape of his daughter and constant strife between his children, Jacob teaches Pharaoh — and all of us — that happiness is not about reaching old age or amassing wealth; rather, it’s about the quality and richness of day-to-day life. In this regard, his brief encounter with Pharaoh is arguably his greatest and wisest moment as a patriarch.

Daniel Bouskila is the rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. You can read his blog at, and can reach him for questions or comments at



I Have a Lesson For You

Happy New Year!

It is back to school and back to lessons. In this week’s parshah, Pharaoh learns a few lessons, too – seven, to be exact.

But, Pharaoh is a slow learner – and it will take three more lessons (in next week’s portion) to make him finally realize that the God of the Israelites is stronger than he is. Let’s hope you don’t need any plagues to teach you what you need to know!


An anagram is a word or phrase whose letters can be rearranged

to form a different word or phrase. Try this one on for size:


Take the letters in this phrase and turn it into one word that

describes a bear’s “winter activity.”

Predictions 2005

This will happen in January:


This will happen in May:


These two holidays will occur on the same day



Parshat Reeh

Last week we talked about ways you can help out people who might need your help this summer. In this week’s portion, we are again told not to forget the needy. This time the Torah uses the words “do not harden your heart.” Who else hardens their heart in the Torah? Pharaoh, of course! Pharaoh gets so used to hardening his heart, that at some point, it becomes the only reaction he can have. Can you think of a time when you “hardened your heart” and refused to give in or help someone? The Torah says: Do not do this too often, for it will become a habit hard to break.