Bo (Exodus 10:1 – 13:16)

Locusts, darkness, the slaying of the firstborn, the first Passover, THE Exodus, and then – tefillin?

It is difficult for us city dwellers to appreciate the havoc a plague of locusts (yes, “plague” is the term for a group of locusts) can cause.  And this isn’t limited to ancient times.  There was a notable one in 2013 in Egypt and then Israel; and just this week, one invaded Mecca in Saudi Arabia.  To see what a locust swarm looks like, just watch the movie of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. The filmmakers simply waited until they had news of a suitable swarm in China and used that.  For the ancient Egyptians in our Torah portion, the locusts of the eighth plague simply devoured everything that hadn’t been destroyed by the hail. 

The ninth plague: Darkness.  Often when we get to this one, I’m already depressed because it’s a cold, darkish midwinter day, or I’m contemplating that which was left undone or not done well enough during the previous year, or I’m overanalyzing something, or some combination of the above.  Then I can really get into the ninth plague and riff on existential angst and Barbara Tuchman’s account of 14th century despair and how depression is symptomized not just sadness but a by paralyzing lack of hope.  But today, while cold, is sunny, and I’m singing in two groups for the next several weeks, and Robert Mueller’s report should be out in the near future, so I’m in a pretty decent mood and will just give you a few rabbinic interpretations of the ninth plague.  

Of course, there are possible natural explanations for the plague of darkness – a major sandstorm, a solar eclipse. But this is not a normal darkness. The phrase “V’yamesh hoshekh” (Ch. 10:21) can be translated as “a darkness that can be touched” (JPS) or “the darkness will become darker” (ArtScroll series).  According to Ramban (Nachmanides), this describes a darkness that cannot be removed with a lamp or candles. Rashi interprets the phrase as denoting three characteristics: the darkness will be so thick it’s tangible, it will become darker than the night, and it will persist.  Further, it will physically paralyze the Egyptians.  Earlier rabbis interpret the darkness as resembling the primordial darkness of the chaos before creation or, alternatively, a taste of hell (Midrash, Exodus Rabbah).  

While the Egyptians are so devastated by the ninth plague, the Israelites have physical and spiritual light in their homes as they prepare for the first Passover.  They learn how to observe not just this one, with blood daubed on the doorposts and roasted lamb, but all those to come, and, critically, how to teach this to the children in every generation. [By the way, with regard to the paschal lamb, my friend Stanley has pointed out (thanks, Stanley) that this ‘paschal lamb,’ i.e., the Passover offering in Exodus 12, is a thanksgiving offering.   In Christian theology, Jesus himself is a “paschal lamb” or Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) that is sacrificed to atone for humanity’s sins. The motivation for the two types of sacrifices is thus quite different.]  The blood on the doorposts is not incidental, though one would not expect the Angel of Death to need so primitive a mark to identify the Israelites, who were all clustered in Goshen anyway.  The blood can be interpreted as a symbol of birth, as the people move from the comfort of their home through a portal to be born as a nation (see Rabbi Michael Hattin, “The ‘Blood Service’ of the Paschal Sacrifice,” or, more briefly, last year’s TPH on Parashat Bo).

The tenth plague strikes in the middle of the night, killing all the firstborn in Egypt. As the Lord had already told Moses would happen (3:20-22), Pharaoh now tells the Israelites to leave Egypt and they are “given” silver, gold, and clothes by the Egyptians (12:35-6). In their rush, the Israelites don’t wait for their bread dough to rise (whence matzah).  Finally, they actually Egypt. 

And what happens next? The Israelites are given laws concerning the annual Passover observance, the dedication of the firstborn, tefillin (13:16, “a sign upon your hand and frontlets between your eyes”). The first two are obviously linked to recent their recent experiences, but still, is this really the time to get into legal details? But, as I wrote in 2013, “(w)hat really matters is that the Hebrews are being asked to perform, to act, to do.  The focus on the detailed actions will facilitate their divorce from the idolatrous ways of Egypt (Shemot Rabbah, 16, 2); in particular, the animal sacrifices involve sacrificing that which is sacred to Egypt (Rambam).  They, we, are forced to stop and think when performing these acts, which will increase our awareness of the workings of the Lord (Ramban).  Religious training in Judaism is not meant to flow from reason to action; on the contrary, character is cultivated by repeated actions (Rambam) (… Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot).  As we will read in a few weeks, the order is “Na’aseh v’nishma” we will (first) do and (then) listen.

Shabbat shalom,


tph plague-ground


Locusts Everywhere, Including on Your Dinner Table [excerpted]

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 (This swarm occurred about 3 weeks before Passover.)

Locusts…they’re everywhere in Egypt, heading for Israel, and they’re all over the media. Swarms of 30 million of the little critters munched their way through Egypt last week and some have already invaded parts of Israel. While farmers are concerned about the damage that the insects can inflict, some lovers of exotic foods are eagerly awaiting their arrival on their dinner plates….
Last week, writing in The Media Line, Linda Gradstein reported:

This week’s invasion of locusts offers adventurous home cooks an opportunity to try something new for dinner this week – locusts.

“You can sauté them like shrimp with garlic, baby cherry tomatoes, lemon and saffron,” Moshe Basson, owner and chef of the Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem, which specializes in Biblical foods, told The Media Line. “You can make them like french fries, or you can poach them like lobster, roll them in egg yolk, chickpea flour and spices and them deep fry them.”

About seven insects constitute a main course, Basson says. They are high in protein and low in calories. Basson himself says that in the past few days he has gotten a good supply of the insects from friends who have gone down to southern Israel to bring him back bags full.

“In the evening just before sunset when the temperature drops the locusts find a place and go to sleep on trees and bushes everywhere—you have just to pick them,” Basson said. “In the morning when the weather warms up they will start to eat and within an hour they can turn a field from green to brown by eating all of it.”


tph maxine locusts


(Also sent out in 2015, 2010 and 2006.  I guess that means I’ll send it out again in 2023 or 2024? We shall see…)

The Dark Sucker Theory (abridged)

For years, it has been believed that electric bulbs emit light, but recent information has proved otherwise. Electric bulbs don’t emit light; they suck dark. Thus, we call these bulbs Dark Suckers.
The Dark Sucker Theory and the existence of dark suckers prove that dark has mass, is heavier than light, and is faster than light.

First, the basis of the Dark Sucker Theory is that electric bulbs suck dark. For example, take the Dark Sucker in the room you are in. There is much less dark right next to it than there is elsewhere. Dark Suckers don’t last forever. Once they are full of dark, they can no longer suck. This is proven by the dark spot on a full Dark Sucker.

A candle is a primitive Dark Sucker. A new candle has a white wick. You can see that after the first use, the wick turns black, representing all the dark that has been sucked into it.

Dark has mass. When dark goes into a Dark Sucker, friction from the mass generates heat. Thus, it is not wise to touch an operating Dark Sucker. Candles present a special problem as the mass must travel into a solid wick instead of through clear glass. This generates a great amount of heat and therefore it’s not wise to touch an operating candle.

Also, dark is heavier than light. If you were to swim just below the surface of the lake, you would see a lot of light. When you get really deep, you would be in total darkness. This is because the heavier dark sinks to the bottom of the lake and the lighter light floats at the top. That is why it is called light.

Finally, dark is faster than light. If you were to stand in a lit room in front of a closed, dark closet, and slowly opened the closet door, you would see the light slowly enter the closet. But since dark is so fast, you would not be able to see the dark leave the closet.

Next time you see an electric bulb, remember that it is really a Dark Sucker.


Need tefillin? There’s an app for that. [excerpts]

Cnaan Liphshiz | JTA   Jul 13, 2018  The post Need tefillin? There’s an app for that. appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

AMSTERDAM— You can call a taxi, order a hamburger, rent a film and buy a book with a few clicks of a smartphone.

So why shouldn’t it be as easy to score a set of tefillin?

That, at least, was the question that led to the launch last month of Wrapp — an app its creator calls “the Uber of the tefillin world.”

It connects those who have tefillin — leather straps attached to a set of two small boxes containing scripture on parchment — with Jews who need them for morning prayers or other rituals. And it’s free.

The brainchild of a 39-year-old Brooklyn businessman, Wrapp hit app stores last month. It already has signed up more than 4,500 providers in the United States, Israel, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Providers offer their tefillin to those … within a radius of 20 miles.

The app’s creator, a follower of the Chabad Hasidic movement named Shimon … on a trip to Israel … met an old friend from the States who had made arrangements to borrow another person’s tefillin in Israel.“…That’s when the idea came to me…” 

Worshippers use the straps to bind the small boxes to their forehead and bicep— a literal interpretation of the biblical injunction to bind God’s word “as a sign upon the hands and between the eyes.”

…Although the app is also intended for observant Jews who forgot or lost their tefillin, Shimon said the typical user would be someone who had an impulse or inspiration to don a set.  Users tend to be people “who want to connect to God…Someone might reach out when they’re depressed, another when they’ve just signed a huge successful deal. Others on their mother’s yahrzeit,” he added. “It’s different for every person.”

Those in need of a set can indicate their window of availability — a half hour, an hour or two hours. Providers within a range are pinged with the request. The first provider who accepts can then schedule a session at the requester’s location or propose a different location.

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