Parshas Bo: Light and Redemption from Darkness and Pain

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Bo, Pharaoh, his countrymen, and the land of Egypt are further decimated by the three final plagues: arbeh (locusts), choshech (six days of darkness), and makkas bechoros (the death of the firstborn). 

With the final plague, as death runs rampant throughout the land, Pharaoh – fearing for his own life, for he himself was a bechor (Rashi to Shemos 12:29) – admits defeat, and finally allows the Israelites to go free. 

וַיִּקְרָא֩ לְמֹשֶׁ֨ה וּֽלְאַהֲרֹ֜ן לַ֗יְלָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ ק֤וּמוּ צְּאוּ֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ עַמִּ֔י גַּם־אַתֶּ֖ם גַּם־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וּלְכ֛וּ עִבְד֥וּ אֶת־ה’ כְּדַבֶּרְכֶֽם – And he (Pharaoh) called to Moshe and to Aharon, and he said: get up, get out from amidst my nation, also you, also the Children of Israel, and go worship Hashem like you spoke! (12:31).

The devastating plague of the firstborn was brought to Egypt not by a malach (messenger or emissary), but by HKB”H b’Kevodo u’vi’Atzmo (by G-d Himself). 

R’ S.R. Hirsch teaches (commentary to Shemos 11:4-6), “What until now was done by G-d in Egypt, the osos and mofsim (signs and wonders), was brought about by His agents, as though messengers raced before Him, heralding His coming and issuing warnings.  Now He Himself steps forth in all His opposition to Egypt, and that spells the immediate death of the Egyptians through the death of the noblest in their family groups…

“This is the moment foretold from the beginning: So says Hashem: בְּנִי בְכֹרִי יִשְׂרָאֵל – My son, My firstborn, Israel; and if you shall not send them forth: הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הֹרֵג, אֶת-בִּנְךָ בְּכֹרֶךָ – behold I will kill your son, your firstborn (Ex.4:22-23).  I will slay your son, your firstborn, not out of hatred of your son, but to save My son.  Through the death of your son, you will learn to appreciate My feelings about the cruel treatment of My son.

“וְהָיְתָה צְעָקָה גְדֹלָה, בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם – and there will be a great outcry in the entire land of Egypt (with the death of the firstborn) (11:6) – in the face of centuries long oppression, the murder of Jewish children, they remained silent.  Now they will cry out loudly.”

Not only did Hashem Himself carry out this final plague, but in a display of Divine might and will, it was done exactly at midnight.

R’ Shalom Rosner writes, “(In foretelling the final plague, the pasuk says:) כַּחֲצֹת הַלַּיְלָה, אֲנִי יוֹצֵא בְּתוֹךְ מִצְרָיִם – And Moshe said: so says Hashem: About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt (11:4).  Hashem told Moshe that He would take the Children of Israel out of Egypt at חֲצֹת, midnight.  Why was this timing so important?

“The Nesivos Shalom (R’ Sholom Noach Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe zt’l, 1911-2000) answers with a fundamental principle about cycles of life.  Everything in this world, all creation, begins with darkness that is followed by light.  The Nesivos Shalom quotes the Zohar, who says that the only true light is one that comes after darkness.  This has been reality since Creation, as the Torah says, it was evening, and it was morning.  Darkness must come before light, because light is appreciated more after darkness.  Morning is so much more special because it follows a dark night.

“The same idea holds true with people, including with Am Yisrael.  At the bris bein ha’besarim (Covenant Between the Pieces, see Bereishis Ch.15), Hashem promised Avraham that his children would be slaves and then be redeemed.  Why did we need the slave experience?  Couldn’t we go straight into redemption without having experienced exile?

“The answer is ‘no’, because Hashem ordained that light and redemption can only come after darkness and exile.  The ultimate light must contrast with darkness.  This concept can be called growth; just as Hashem could have created the world to be permanently light but didn’t, He could have made us to be born as mature adults instead of babies.  Instead, we are born as babies, ‘in the dark,’ without knowledge, so we can spend our lives growing and bring light into our lives.

“This, according to the Nesivos Shalom, is why the redemption had to take place exactly at chatzos.  Chatzos is the epitome of darkness.  The first half of the night is still spiritually and metaphysically affected by the light of the previous day.  A minute after chatzos, the night is already affected by the light of the next day.  At precisely chatzos, the midpoint of the night, there is pure and utter darkness, deriving no light from the previous day or the next day.  That is exactly when the plague of the firstborn occurred (Shemos 12:29), because the redemption comes from the darkest moment.

“The pinnacle of darkness means it is time for the ultimate redemption.  That is how we view our lives, how we view Am Yisrael, and how we must view every challenge that we experience in life.  Whenever there is utter darkness, the time is ripe for the ultimate redemption.  Even if we do not see the ultimate light in our lifetime, we believe that the redemption will come after the darkness, because that is how Hashem created the world.  First, darkness.  Then, light” (Shalom Rav, p.339-340).

My grandfather, Yitzchak Kaftan a’h, wrote in his Holocaust memoirs (originally written in Yiddish), “I remember my uncle, Moishe Markovitches, a boy of 13 years.  Handsome as a tree in bloom – he was amongst those who were shot, may G-d avenge his blood.  I still remember several names of those killed: Reb Yehoshua Asher Weinberg, Reb Peretz Feder.  He and I slept on one pallet and talked continually about the murderers, that they were sent by G-d and their end is near.  We suffer now so that Moshiach will come.  Whoever will survive this hell will see a Jewish state.”

G-d smote the Egyptians exactly at midnight, because from the deepest darkness, salvation and light will come. 

May we merit the final and everlasting geula, which will surely be born from our long and dark exile, as all our pain and travail are turned to rejoicing and triumph (Ps.126).  May it be immediate and in our days, amen.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,

Michal

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