Parsha Bo 5781 – Slaves & Plaques

By: Michael Carr

“Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”
Bob Dylan – The Times They are a Changin’

This week’s Parsha includes the final three plagues that G-D created for the benefit of the Israelites and imposed upon Pharaoh to let the Israelite Slaves GO (HENCE BO! – BO MEANS GO!)   So what did slavery look like back in the day and how does slavery look today?

 Let’s talk slavery & about the plagues. Slavery was a way of life in the old testament AND unfortunately remains so today in the US and around the world.

 It is written that slavery under Pharaoh was much less humane than other examples from Torah. In fact, the midrash emphasizes the harsh period of slavery under pharaoh as illustrated through the plagues upon Egypt for the years of adverse treatment of enslaved Israelites.

When we step back and look at Parasha’s Va-era & Bo, the plagues are well thought out, organized, planned, deliberate and with purpose.

The Torah highlights midah k’neged midah–no act is ever unaccounted for, no good deed is uncompensated and no evil deed ever goes unpunished – or Tit-for Tat/an eye for an eye.

Although y’all probably know of several stories from Torah where an ‘eye for an eye’ is exemplified here are two examples.

The first example is that of Cain who kills his brother Abel and therefore is sent to wander the earth because it is explained in the midrash that he polluted the earth with his brothers blood.

A second example is Judah who deceives his father, Jacob, with a he-goat, dipping Joseph’s rainbow colored coat in goat blood and sends it to Jacob, asking: Is this the coat of your son? Do you recognize it? Likewise, Judah is deceived with a he-goat, when he attempts to pay the harlot and can’t find her.

Today’s parasha of course is related directly to Pharaohs treatment of the Israelites and God’s punishment of Pharaoh with the plagues.

So what about the balance of plagues between Egyptian oppression and the Israelites. Here are a couple of quick examples to consider:
1) Why did the Nile turn into blood? Was it because the Egyptians forced the Jews to haul water from the Nile or because it was used to drown Israelite male infants? The water is punished along with the Egyptians.

2) What about Lice, keenim?   The Jews were forced to serve as farmers, so the earth was overridden with lice, and the land could no longer be farmed.

So back to slavery today – it seems unthinkable that slavery still prevails in our world today.

One stark example is in the country of India, where there are an estimated ten million bonded laborers—victims forced to pay off debts by working and who may ultimately pass their particular debt on to their children.

Studies from the American Urban Institute and Northeastern University indicate forced labor and child sexual trafficking is rampant in the United States.

And what about us as individuals? How is slavery characterized in our daily lives?

We’re slaves to the constant wants and desires and pleasures that have enraptured us since birth.

If someone insults me and I want to get on their ‘good side’, I am slave to their moods. If I have a big house and a mortgage and I’m worried I can’t pay it, I’m slave to the house, to the bank, to the government, to my boss who I am dependent on employing me.

Of course while there are many important social and human rights issues from institutional racism to sexual harassment and many others, it seems that slavery is often overlooked given our personal preferences, focus and priorities. While slavery is dehumanizing and indeed devastating we cannot always wait for an act of God to solve slavery; today, it is up to us.

Why should we care about slavery today and how can we prevent it?

It is said that Moses led 2 million slaves out of Egypt. Today the web site EndSlaveryNow.com estimates between 21 to 45 million people are trapped in some form of slavery and not the biblical slavery outlined in Torah. Today’s slavery includes domestic servitude, sex trafficking, forced labor, bonded labor, child labor, and forced/abusive marriages.

How can we prevent slavery today?  What about making slavery a personal cause that each of us actually cares about? How about relating any of the types of slavery noted above to our own lives and taking action for the benefit of our neighborhoods, community and the whole of humanity?

Imagine a sex trafficker who takes a child from their home, injects them with addictive drugs and sells them to strangers on an hourly basis? This child becomes hooked on the drugs and may be ever dependent on a lifestyle that is difficult to conceive.  While this actually occurs and is often repeated particularly among broken homes with broken relationships, we can do something to prevent these patterns of malevolent behavior.

How can we prevent slavery today? We can choose to educate ourselves. We can volunteer to help people struggling to emerge beyond chains of repression that they may believe they are bound too.  We can choose meaningful action to help those who suffer from the causes that contribute to many forms of slavery today.  We can pray, and donate our time and money to causes focused on decimating slavery.

Finally we can learn from Torah and Moses’ actions related to the liberation of slaves from indentured servitude.

Good Shabbos!