Reflections: Bo

Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Stuart Altshuler 19th Jan 2013
This week’s Torah portion, ‘Bo’, delineates the last three plagues brought upon the Egyptians and the final stages of preparation for bnei yisrael before the exodus from Egypt, the land of slavery and oppression. On the surface level, Bo intensifies one of the main thrusts of the text with regard to the struggle not only for the Israelites’ freedom, but of two diverse concepts of God and, more specifically, of the regard for human life. Egypt is a society that sanctifies ‘darkness’ and ‘death’, symbolized by the ninth (darkness) and tenth plagues (death of the firstborn). There is no coincidence, in fact, that the very first act of God’s Creation in the Genesis account is ‘ohr’, or ‘light’, which culminates in the creation of the human being made ‘in the image of God’. Egypt is a society governed by the authoritarian power of the human-god, Pharaoh, the result of which was slavery and oppression (darkness) and the morbid sanctification of death (Book of the Dead). The Israelites left not only their physical slavery behind them, they also prepared for the spiritual revolution, a metamorphosis in thinking about the purpose of creation, which was ‘light’ and ‘life’, the polar opposites of the ninth and tenth plagues.

The entire struggle between Moses and Pharaoh, Egypt and Israel, was essentially about two theological views which resonates in the kind of debate that still exists in our contemporary western societies. What is a human being? Freud, in his ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’, along with his ideological cohorts Hobbes, Machiavelli and Nietzsche, said the following:

“The bit of truth behind this, one so easily denied, is that men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love. A powerful desire for aggression has to be considered as part of his instinctual endowment. The result is that their neighbour is not only to them a possible help or sexual object, but also a temptation to gratify their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without recompense, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him ”homo homini lupus” man is to man a WOLF!”

To Nietzsche, because of the depraved nature of the human being, the only solution for human beings is to be governed by the whip, order and command, the powerful over the powerless. He labelled this ‘herren morale’, or the morality of the master, the pharaoh and the king, driven by the will for power and the will to dominate others. That form of government, he writes, is what nature requires, built into the fabric of the universe. Good is power; evil is weakness.

Nietzsche called the morality of ‘Bo’, of the book of Exodus, ‘shklaven morale’, a Biblical notion that reverses the forces of nature and exalts the slave, the powerless, the disenfranchised, the widow, the orphan at the expense to the ultimate well-being of society. Compassion, feeling for others subverts the natural instincts of the strong who are meant to rule and to dominate.

The ultimate confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, God and the human-god, the Egyptians and the Israelites, challenges us to consider the revolution in thinking that occurs here in the account of the last plagues where the darkness was such that People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was ‘as opposed to the dwellings of the Israelites where light dominated and all the people ‘enjoyed light in their dwellings.’(Ex. 10:23).

The quest of the Torah and of the Jewish people has been meant to prove Freud, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Nietzsche wrong. The aim of life is not a Darwinian struggle of the fittest to dominate others, to enslave others, but to ensure that all of God’s Creation, every human life is considered sacred, holy, created in the ‘divine image’, especially those subject to dominance and oppression.

In his Genealogy of Morals, even Nietzsche paid a begrudging compliment to Judaism and to Jews, writing:

“All the world’s efforts against the aristocrats, the mighty, the holders of power are negligible by comparison with what has been accomplished against those classes by the Jews – that priestly nation which eventually realised that the one method of effecting satisfaction on its enemies and tyrants was by means of a radical transvaluation of values, which was at the same time of the cleverest revenge. Only the Jews dared to suggest that which is counter to master morality, teaching that the wretched are alone the good; the poor, weak, the lowly are alone the good; the suffering, the needy, the sick, the loathsome are the only ones who are pious, the only ones who are blessed, for them alone is salvation. But you on the other hand, you aristocrats, you men of power, you are to all eternity the evil, the horrible, the covetous, the insatiable, the godless; eternally shall you also be unblessed, the cursed, the damned.”

That in a nutshell is the meaning of these plagues, the preparation for the Passover and the Exodus. We still live in a world where this struggle of values continues, the aggrandizement of power over the good, the strong over the weak, the haves taking from the have-nots, terror over life. The Torah account in Bo is an old one, but its message is as timely today as ever before. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler is a Masorti Rabbi, the Rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in the US and former Rabbi of Belsize Square Synagogue.

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