As Parashat Bo, read on this past Shabbat, opens, seven of the Ten Plagues have already happened, and only the three final Plagues – Locusts, Darkness, and the Slaying of the Firstborn – are yet to come.
(As a useful memory aid to remember how many Plagues are in each parashah, the first two letters of וָאֵרָא are ו and א, which add up to 7; the two letters of בֹּא add up to 3.)
The penultimate Plague, and the second Plague in Parashat Bo, is the Plague of Darkness. And this had Plague had two distinctly separate purposes.
Like all the previous Plagues, it was punishment for the Egyptians for their continued enslavement of the Israelites.
We should note, however, that according to the S’forno (Commentary to Exodus 7:4), the first nine Plagues were solely demonstrations of G-d’s control over nature for Israel’s sake, and the Egyptians’ only actual punishments were the Slaying of the Firstborn and the drowning of the Egyptians at the Red Sea.
But whether the Plagues were punishments for Egypt, or demonstrations of G-d’s control over nature, or both, the ninth Plague, Darkness, served the same purpose or purposes as all the preceding eight.
But the Plague of Darkness also had another, more depressing, purpose in addition:
“There were evil sinners among the Jews who had Egyptian patrons, hence they had wealth and honour there in Egypt, and they did not want to leave. G-d said: If I bring a Plague upon them openly and they die, then the Egyptians will say: Just as this Plague came upon us, so too it came upon them. Therefore, He inflicted three days of darkness on the Egyptians, for [the Jews] to bury their dead without their enemies seeing them” (Shemot Rabbah 14:3 and Tanchuma, Va’eira 14).
That is to say, there were Jews who were so comfortable in their Egyptian exile, so well-connected with the Egyptian aristocracy, that they preferred to remain in exile, subservient to their Egyptian masters.
And their punishment was to die together with their Egyptian patrons.
Shockingly, this was not just a fringe phenomenon of a few isolated Jews: the Torah says that “the Children of Israel went up armed from Egypt” (Exodus 13:18), using the word חֲמֻשִׁים for “armed”. The Midrash derives from this that “only one out of חָמֵשׁ (‘five’) went up; some say, one out of חֲמִשִּׁים (‘fifty’); and some say, one out of five hundred. Rabbi Nehorai says: By G-d! Not even one in five hundred went up, as it says ‘I have made you as abundant as the vegetation of the field’ (Ezekiel 16:7)…[implying that there had been far more than 500 times as many as the 600,000 adult males who left Egypt]. When did they all die? – In the three days of darkness, as it says ‘No man could see his brother’ (Exodus 10:23). It was then that they buried their dead, and gave thanks and praise that their enemies did not see and rejoice over their disaster” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Pis’cha 12 and Tanchuma, Beshallach 1).
And then the ninth Plague was over, the light was restored, the Jews had buried their dead, and the Egyptians never knew what had befallen their erstwhile slaves.
One last Plague was still left to run, the Slaying of the Firstborn.
And then, at long last, Pharaoh finally capitulated to Moshe and Aharon and urged them and all the Children of Israel to hasten to leave Egypt:
“He called to Moshe and Aharon by night, and he said: קוּמוּ צְּאוּ, Arise, get out from the midst of my nation! Both you and the Children of Israel – go and worship Hashem as you have spoken!” (Exodus 12:31).
Moshe and Aaron had been demanding since before the first Plague that Pharaoh expel all the Jews; so we would have expected them to seize the moment and leave immediately. But no! Moshe and Aharon savoured their victory by refusing to leave:
“Moshe and Aharon said to him: We have been admonished to leave only in a blaze of publicity, as it was said, ‘And not one of you will leave the entrance of his house until morning’ (Exodus 12:22)” (Midrash Lekach Tov).
Or, perhaps more graphically, “Are we then thieves, that we should slink out by night?! We will only leave with a high hand, in the sight of all Egypt” (Tanchuma, Bo 7).
Because the purpose of the Exodus was Kiddush Hashem (Sanctification of the Name of G-d), it could achieve its purpose only by happening in a blaze of publicity. And this purpose would have been defeated had the Egyptians seen the majority of Jews dying.
The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the phraseקוּמוּ צְּאוּ , “Arise, get out…”, occurs only twice in the Tanach.
These are the words with which Pharaoh demanded that Moshe and Aharon and all the Jews leave Egypt (Exodus 12:31). And 401 years earlier, Lot had used the identical words when addressing his sons-in-law:
“קוּמוּ צְּאוּ – arise, get out from this place [Sodom], because Hashem is destroying the city. But he seemed like a jester to his sons-in-law” (Genesis 19:14).
Just as Lot’s sons-in-law refused to leave Sodom and therefore perished there together with all the sinners, so too, says the Ba’al ha-Turim (Commentary to Genesis 19:14), “the Jews were divided into groups, and there were those among them who did not want to leave, and they died in the three days of darkness”.
Of the entire metropolis of Sodom and Gomorrah, only one family, four people, were saved from the destruction; and of those four, Lot’s wife perished when she looked back and was turned to a pillar of salt, leaving only three survivors.
And of all the Jews in Egypt, only one in five, or one in fifty, or one in 500, survived to leave.
There is a closer connexion than just the two words קוּמוּ צְּאוּ being repeated. In both cases the phrase קוּמוּ צְּאוּ is preceded by the word וַיֹּאמֶר (“he said”); both times there is a dagesh (a dot) in the צ, even though there is no grammatical reason for this dagesh, the only two cases in the entire Torah where a צ has an unwarranted dagesh; and in both cases, the trop (the cantillation-marks) are identical for the entire phrase.
I suggest that these cantillation-marks carry a very subtle message:וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ ק֤וּמוּ צְּאוּ֙ מִן־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה in Genesis 19:14, and וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ ק֤וּמוּ צְּאוּ֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ עַמִּ֔י in Exodus 12:31.
These cantillation-marks read פַּשְׁטָא֙ מַהְפַּ֤ךְ פַּשְׁטָא֙ מֻנַּ֣ח זָקֵף-קָטֹ֔ן (pashta, mah’pach, pashta, munach, zakef-katon), which connote: the overturning spread forth, the respite of the small upright one spread forth.
In the case of Lot and his sons-in-law, the מַהְפַּ֤ךְ, the overturning spread forth over the vast conurbation of Sodom and Gomorrah, referred to as מַהְפֵּכַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה, mah’peichat S’dom va-Amorah (Deuteronomy 29:22, Jeremiah 49:18); the small upright family – Lot and his two surviving daughters – fled to the hills where they found their respite.
And 401 years later, the מַהְפַּ֤ךְ, the overturning spread forth over the whole of Egypt, and the remnants of Israel – one-fifth, or one-fiftieth, or one-five-hundredth of the original nation, the few who identified uncompromisingly with the Jewish nation and not with the Egyptian oppressors – and the few, the happy few survivors of the Plague of Darkness, the band of brothers – left upright to find in the wilderness their respite from slavery.
The dagesh doubles or emphasis a letter – in both these verses the צ, the tzaddik, the righteous one:
“קוּמוּ צְּאוּ – arise, get out”, emphasising the tzaddik, because it is only the tzaddik who will indeed arise and get out, out of Sodom and Gomorrah, out of Egypt.
It can indeed be difficult to leave the place you have called “home” for generations, even when “home” is בֵּית עֲבָדִים, the slave-house; how much more so when the place you have called “home” for generations is a land of wealth, freedom, equality, and opportunity!
The Haftarah (the Prophetic reading which follows the Torah-reading) is abstracted from Jeremiah 46:38, the Prophet’s eloquent castigation of Egypt and prophecy of its subjugation, which was to happen when Babylon, in alliance with Media, Persia, and Scythia defeated Egypt and utterly humiliated its king, Pharaoh Necho II in the Battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C.E.
A few years earlier, Pharaoh Necho II had sent his army to traverse Israel on his way to attack Babylon. King Yoshiyahu (Josiah) of Judah led his own army against the Egyptian army, attempting to deny them entry into the Land of Israel.
And in that confrontation, King Yoshiyahu was shot by an arrow and died, whereupon “all Judah and Jerusalem mourned Yoshiyahu, and Jeremiah eulogised Yoshiyahu” (2 Chronicles 35:20-26).
The Haftarah concludes with G-d’s assurance to the nation of Israel:
“As for you – do not be afraid, O My servant Jacob, and do not be frightened, O Israel, because I save you from afar, and your descendants from the land of their captivity; and Jacob will return in tranquillity and calmness, with none to terrorise him” (Jeremiah 46:27).
This is the Prophet’s depiction of the halcyon days yet to come. And he continues:
“As for you – do not be afraid, O My servant Jacob, says Hashem, because I am with you; though I put an end to all the nations to which I have exiled you, to you I shall not put an end; though I chastise you with justice, I will not entirely destroy you” (v.28).
As with the first redemption, the redemption from Egypt, which reaches its climax in Parashat Bo, so too with the final Redemption, the Redemption which has begun in our generations.
The Jew cannot be permanently secure in any nation of exile – not even in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
All nations can come to an end – but the Jewish nation will endure forever.
As with the first redemption, so with the final Redemption: for every Jew who wishes to leave exile and be part of Redemption, the gate is open to return to the Land of Israel.
And every Jew who desires to remain in Egypt, or in any other country of exile, will inevitably be lost to the Jewish nation.
It is impossible, at this stage of history, to determine just how long the gates of redemption remain open. But open they still undoubtedly are.
The Plague of Darkness of our generation has not struck. But if it does, then…can anyone who believes that the Book of Exodus is true say with confidence how much warning there will be before it does?
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, will yet defeat our enemies in the Land of Israel.
And though many have been killed fighting for Israel’s redemption, and though more may yet be killed by those enemies who are determined to prevent Israel’s Redemption, the day will yet come when those Jews who will watch the Redemption from afar, living their comfortable lives in exile, shall hold their manhoods cheap while those of us who fight for Redemption speak of all we have done.
Daniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher by profession and a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.