Light from the Sidra

Bo ('Go!')

Torah: Exodus 10:1-13:16. Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28

A people without end

In 1898, Mark Twain published an article entitled Stirring time in Austria. Two years earlier he had lived in Austria and was of the opinion that the Habsburg empire was able to maintain unity within the empire only by using the Jewish people as scapegoats for the ills of the empire. In response to the article, Twain was asked by an American Jewish lawyer if anti-Semitism would ever end and if the Jews would ever be permitted ‘to live honestly, decently, and peaceably like the rest of mankind?’ In response, Twain penned Concerning the Jews, which was published the same year. This is part of what he wrote:


Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvellous fight in the world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendour, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

What indeed! The answer to Mark Twain’s question is actually found in this week’s Haftarah in which God says he will once again judge Egypt as he did at the time of the Exodus.

The LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, saith: Behold, I will punish Amon of No, and Pharaoh, and Egypt, with her gods, and her kings; even Pharaoh, and them that trust in him; and I will deliver them into the hand of those that seek their lives, and into the hand of Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon, and into the hand of his servants; and afterwards it shall be inhabited, as in the days of old, saith the LORD. But fear not thou, O Jacob My servant, neither be dismayed, O Israel; for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall again be quiet and at ease, and none shall make him afraid. Fear not thou, O Jacob My servant, saith the LORD, for I am with thee; for I will make a full end of all the nations whither I have driven thee, but I will not make a full end of thee; and I will correct thee in measure, but will not utterly destroy thee. (Jer. 46:25-28 JPS translation)

In Ex. 12:12, God declared to Moses: ‘I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD.’

In 5:2 Pharaoh refused to acknowledge the God of Israel: ‘Who is the LORD, that I should hearken unto His voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, and moreover I will not let Israel go.’ Through the first seven plagues Yahweh had demonstrated to Pharaoh who he was. Pharaoh, who was himself regarded as a god, was going to be brought to his knees. The final two plagues demonstrated that the god of the Israelites was infinitely great than two of Egypt’s greatest deities, the sun and Pharaoh.

What an irony that today, many Jews find themselves in the same position as the sceptic Mark Twain; they don’t know the secret of their own immortality. They dismiss the Bible as a piece of human writing; a beautiful and inspiring work of human genius maybe but certainly not the very word of God. Even the current Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks thinks the Jewish people have survived until now because, as he put in a Radio 4 broadcast, ‘the last chapter has not been written’.

According to the Haftarah, Israel has outlived the ancient super powers precisely because God declared he would make ‘a full end’ of all the nations to which he had driven his people but he would never make ‘a full end’ of his people will correct them in measure, but will not utterly destroy them. He has punished the Jewish people through the ages but he will not destroy them. His correction and his mercy are intended to bring Israel to repentance and to the recognition of their Messiah.

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