Drash on Parashat Bo
Cantor Michel Laloum
Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, VIC
“Freedom is not free” is an American idiom, which is engraved onto a portion of the Korean War Memorial in Washington DC. As we read Parashat Bo this week, which brings us the quintessential story of redemption, I can’t help but think of these words; there is almost always a price for freedom. Who pays this price?
Parashat Bo contains the final three plagues, culminating in the death of the first born. It is this final plague which breaks Pharoah and the Egyptian people, and brings about the redemption of the Israelites with their immediate departure from Egypt. This is such a liminal moment in the biblical story that it is commemorated in each and every service when we sing “Mi chamochah baelim Adonai”, “who is like unto you Adonai…awesome in splendour, working wonders” and through the commandment to wear Tefillin.
Interestingly, the redemption is not because the Israelites were especially pious or worthy, but rather it is depicted as a fulfilment of the promise made to our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On behalf of those promises, God sends the plagues, punishes the Egyptians, and rescues the Israelites after 400 years of slavery. One challenge when reading the Exodus is understanding that the enslavement of the Israelites lasted 400 years before their redemption. This question does not seem to be satisfactorily addressed, but rather, the narrative emphasises the wondrous intervention of God, the exit from Egypt and the expectation that this should be remembered by all future generations through the celebration of Pesach.
The most difficult part for me to read as we progress through the Exodus story is the cost of Pharoah’s stubbornness, arrogance and hubris to ordinary Egyptians. The price of freedom for the Israelites was a series of catastrophic plagues brought down on the heads of the Egyptians, culminating in the loss of their first-born children. Pharoah may have hardened his heart to the Israelites but it was this plague that broke him and probably broke the spirit of his people. It is noteworthy that the Torah does not shy away from recording the brutality of this final plague in securing the freedom of the Israelites. And while it may be a spoiler to next week’s Parashah, it says much about Pharoah that soon after granting their freedom, his hardened heart ordered that they be pursued, leading to the deaths of countless soldiers when the Red Sea engulfed them.
All around us right now, we see a similar story and the impact it is having on ordinary people across the world. The pretext for Putin’s war in Ukraine has always been flimsy (or farcical) and has really been about his personal desire to rebuild an Imperial Russia. And at what cost? Throughout history, we see the many who suffer for one person’s arrogance. As the world’s Doomsday Clock, a symbolic clock developed by atomic scientists in 1947 to warn humanity of the dangers of nuclear war, moved yesterday and is now set at 90 seconds to midnight. It’s the closest to catastrophe that the clock has been since it was developed – midnight marks complete annihilation.
The war in Russia has had downstream effects on the global economy, already shaken by two years of pandemic. The culmination of the first nine plagues was almost certainly a famine and Putin’s war is likewise having a disastrous effect on food and energy supplies and affordability. In Egypt, Turkey, Yemen, Tunisia and Iraq, 68% of the population are worried about their access to food over the coming year, and food prices increased 14.3% globally last year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
According to the UN’s World Food Programme, “the number of people facing acute food insecurity jumped from 282m at the end of 2021 to a record 345m in 2022. As many as 50m people will begin 2023 on the brink of famine.” How can we even imagine 345 million with food insecurity, never mind 50 million on the brink of starvation? And it will come at a time when countries who can afford to provide food aid, reduce their giving because of domestic pressures amid the economic downturn.
Even here at home, according to the Smith Family, in Australia there are 1.2 million children living in poverty. With cost-of-living pressures increasing across the board, this is likely to worsen this year.
This week in Australia many will mark the Australia Day public holiday. It is supposed to be a day in which people from every background and walk of life who call Australia home, celebrate together. But the price of our freedom came at a great cost the world’s oldest known civilization. With ties to country going back 80,000 years, it is necessary that we reflect on the impact of this day to an entire people and every generation that has come before or will follow. As we read Parashat Bo this week, we may also reflect on the plagues the arrival of Europeans brought to indigenous Australians – destruction of their traditional food sources, water, management of the land, disease, plagues of introduced species and the deaths of so many, including children. ‘Freedom is not free’ and so often, a high price is paid by a few for the many.