This week’s Torah portion is Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16.
This week’s parsha, Bo, continues the narrative of Moses and Aaron coming to Pharaoh in order to free the Israelite slaves. Pharaoh again refuses. Having refused many times, he has exhausted any chance to redeem himself. This is part of the much discussed enigma of God’s purpose in hardening Pharaoh’s heart.
Three more plagues, locusts, darkness and death of the Egyptian firstborn, are added to the seven plagues the Egyptians have already suffered. Finally, Pharaoh relents under the cumulative horror of these plagues. Passover commemorates this day of emancipation from Egyptian bondage, and matzah, unleavened bread, will be eaten as a mitzvah of remembrance of the haste with which the Israelites had to leave Egypt.
Here it is made clear to us that God brings the plagues to humiliate Pharaoh so that he will accept that God is Pharaoh’s superior and so that the Israelites will know “that I am God.” This was meant to strengthen their faith, which was not totally strong at this point, and that these remarkable events would teach faith in God for all generations.
A warning is given to Pharaoh that locusts would be the next of the plagues. What is this and why is it a plague? I remember as a young boy spending the summers in New York State and having the experience of seeing grasshoppers. Usually, there was a solitary grasshopper in a vast field, not threatening, yet very special in the sense that this was something I did not encounter in Brooklyn. In reading the section on locusts, my first thought used to be, “How exciting! Grasshoppers!”
It turns out that grasshoppers can be useful, and the Torah teaches us that some species are kosher, in Leviticus 11:20-23. In the Mishnah of the Talmud of Kedoshim 59a, it states that grasshoppers may be eaten. The Hebrew language has at least four words for locusts or grasshoppers, arbeh, chargol, chagav and sal’am. Rabbi Joseph Hertz says that since we do not really know which of these locusts existed in biblical times, he declares them to be nonkosher. I hope you are not too disappointed.
Jews in Djerba and Yemen had a legitimate custom, however, of eating kosher grasshoppers. The Egyptians also ate them as food for the poor. A midrash tells us that the Egyptians ate pickled grasshoppers. When they heard that there would be a plague of locusts, they were excited and they sought to capture the locusts for food. What a gift! Instead, God brought the western wind and none were left. Even those that were already pickled in jars, pots and barrels disappeared.
A commentary by Ramban indicates that the remarkable nature of this plague, which darkened the sky of Egypt, was not a natural occurrence; rather, it was a miracle. The locusts consumed everything that was growing that had been left by the hail, which had previously beaten down branches and vegetation. The locusts came and left nothing growing.
Moses and Aaron were the instruments of God in the redemption of the people from slavery. How appropriate it is that we commemorate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend. We are reminded that Jewish biblical precepts inspired the modern-day leader of the civil rights movement in his quest for voting rights, justice and an end to Jim Crow laws. This is a call to us that we can discover and transform ourselves from praying only to praying through our actions.
Questions for discussion:
Can you name some ways in which Jews and African-Americans have a shared heritage in pursing civil rights in America?
Why is the mitzvah of proclaiming the new month (Exodus 12:2) mentioned at this point in the Torah?
Why is it important to remember and observe the festival of Passover throughout the generations?
Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is the rabbi of Hevrat Shalom of Maryland, Beit Chaverim of Calvert County and Shaʼare Shalom of Waldorf. He is a member of the Educational Directors Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.