The Plague of Darkness and Slavery Reparations

Dear Rabbi,

Parshah Bo has so many takeaways that I could probably go on for pages and pages trying to digest what it means to me, but I will limit myself to only two.
Many years ago my family took a trip to Disney World in Orlando so that my children could experience its wonders. In a sense, a good time was had by all, except I will always remember my son’s reactions to what he was experiencing. He was only four when we went, and through him, I was able to fully appreciate what was before us.
Why you ask? Well, it is because he believed everything that he experienced. He grabbed on to me when he thought he was being shot at in the “Pirates of the Caribbean”. He groaned when he thought he was shrunk and would never get back to normal size when we went into an exhibit that made you think you were going into a human body to see what was inside, but while there, something went wrong. But the one that caused his greatest fear was something known as “Tom Sawyer’s Cave”.
For all the technological majesty that is what makes Disney World the marvel that it is, this attraction was nothing more than a walk through a cave that left those that ventured inside in complete darkness without the ability to see what was ahead. I held his hand throughout maybe a ten minute stroll because throughout what was truly an ordeal to him, he was screaming and hysterical crying. When we literally reached the daylight at the end of the tunnel, he broke free of me and ran toward the light. He was never touched or heard any sounds that may have caused him fear, but he had to be consoled for the rest of the day after his experience.
The boogey man, the fear of the unknown as it plays out in one’s mind, can be more devastating than whatever one can physically experience. Of all the plagues, to me the most intriguing one is the ninth, “darkness”.  As I understand the chronology of the plagues, they were designed to get worse as they were presented and I can think of nothing worse than the possibility of losing any of my children, but as the “intensity” of the plagues increased, the penultimate one was darkness.
A reading of the various plagues as they are depicted in the Torah gives a graphic description of what happened as a result of what was befalling the Egyptians. Not wanting to go over what we read last week but going on to the eighth plague, “locusts”, the following was stated in Exodus 10:14-15:
“The locusts ascended over the entire land of Egypt, and they alighted within all the border[s] of Egypt, very severe; before them, there was never such a locust [plague], and after it, there will never be one like it.
They obscured the view of all the earth, and the earth became darkened, and they ate all the vegetation of the earth and all the fruits of the trees, which the hail had left over, and no greenery was left in the trees or in the vegetation of the field[s] throughout the entire land of Egypt.”
Not a blade of grass could be seen by those that observed the devastation, leaving the Egyptians nothing to eat and contemplating what was to become of them, which is something that can be understood by those that read what had happened.
Compare that to what is described as what was taking place as it related to the ninth plague in Exodus 10:22-23:
“So Moses stretched forth his hand toward the heavens, and there was thick darkness over the entire land of Egypt for three days.
They did not see each other, and no one rose from his place for three days, but for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings.”
There is no other description of how the Egyptians felt during that three day period, but Pharaoh immediately summoned Moses to stop this plague. Whatever took place in the minds of Pharaoh and the rest of the Egyptians conjured up something that they could not take after a three day period and needed for the fear to stop. Again the plague that took place after the ninth, “death of the Egyptians’ first born” is something anyone that has a child can relate to, but apparently the fear of the unknown, is not far behind.
The second takeaway that is personal to me is the last thing stated in this week’s parshah at Exodus 13:16 when we read the following:
“And it shall be for a sign upon your hand and for ornaments between your eyes, for with a mighty hand did the Lord take us out of Egypt.”

I was about to be bar mitzvahed and one day my father came to me with a bag that contained two wooden boxes with straps around them. He told me that once you finish your haftorah experience in the synagogue, you will put these two things on your arm and head every day except for Shabbat and holidays. When my father told me to do something, I did it, and to this day I put on my tephillin without any hesitation and along with thinking about why I do it as it relates to my brethren that were taken out of bondage, I remember my father and it gives me pleasure. The mind works in many ways. 

Shalom, Mordecai

Dear Mordecai

This would be a masterful sermon, Mordecai. I like this point very much: "The boogey man, the fear of the unknown as it plays out in one’s mind, can be more devastating than whatever one can physically experience." I often think of this. 

Your point about Exodus 10:22-23 is well-taken: "no other description of how the Egyptians felt during that three day period." Finally, the Egyptians are paying for what they did to Israel. 

As is always the case, your anecdote about your father is truly moving. I didn't know you put on tefillin every morning. You should join us at 9:00 a.m.!

This is also a wonderful point: "The mind works in many ways." 

I'm surprised you didn't comment on these controversial verses: 

"The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing. And the LORD had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians."


Dear Rabbi,

Rabbi: If you want to give a sermon using my thoughts, it is ok with me. If you want me to deliver a devar torah that is ok with me as well.  

As to my putting on tefillin, I am an early riser and as soon as I see sunrise, I put them on and say my prayers. As I said already, it puts me somewhat at ease and makes me think of my father. By 9am I am immersed in my work.  

I also stated that I could go on for awhile with what is contained in Parshah Bo, but I chose to limit it to what I stated in my initial response. Your reference to Exodus Chapter 11:2-3 did catch my attention, but I did not want my comments to go to more than what I stated. What got me was the word "borrow" when it came to taking the Egyptians, "silver and golden vessels". Does that mean that the decedents of those Egyptians would have a claim against the decedents of those Israelites? If called upon to defend those decedents, I would move to dismiss the case on the grounds of "Statute of Limitations" or as reparations for over 400 years of being enslaved.

I would have also commented on earlier paragraphs of the Third Aliyah, specifically Exodus Chapter 10:28-29 as it applied to "darkness" wherein the following is stated:

"Pharaoh said to him 'Go away from me! Beware! You shall no longer see my face, for on the day that you see my face, you shall die!"

Moses then said, "You have spoken correctly; I shall no longer see your face."

Based on what I asked you last week, when I asked why Pharaoh had not told Moses that he would die after the third or fourth plague unless he stopped, it seems that Pharaoh finally woke up to what was really going on but Moses' reply should have been understood by Pharaoh to mean that it would be he that would die, not Moses.  

As Rabbi Richardson would always tell me, find something within a particular parshah and go with that. There is no need to discuss the Five Books of Moses in one sitting. 


Dear Mordecai,

In fact, the commentators also place their attention on the word to “borrow.” They then explain that the gold, silver, and clothing were reparations as you suggest, though the statute of limitations argument is interesting. See my message to the congregation for today, in which I discuss reparations for African Americans. Where do you stand on that issue?



Dear Rabbi,

I could have included another defense known as quantum meruit, which is a legal term meaning a reasonable sum of money to be paid for services rendered or work done when the amount due is not stipulated in a legally enforceable contract. As to "reparations", my parents received reparations from the Germans for what they went through as a result of the Holocaust. It was a pittance as compared to what they endured. If you want a little anecdote as to the German reparations to Holocaust survivors, I had a conversation with Barbara after Bernie Berko died and I mentioned to her that Bernie had donated one of the Torahs used at the JJC. Of course she knew that and further told me that he paid for it with the first reparation check that he received which was more a lump sum going back to when he was in the camps.  
As to reparations for African Americans, I have no opinion. I am a native born American citizen that had nothing to do with what happened to African Americans up to the Civil War. I know that my parents had to fight like Hell to get what they received with very little help from the American government, not that the USA had any obligation to give any help. I do know that during WWII, the Americans did not go out of their way to stop the carnage despite repeated requests by various Jewish groups to bomb the tracks that led to the concentration camps. If you know anything about the "Voyage of the Damned", the MS St. Louis that contained Jewish citizens of Germany that had booked passage to Cuba so they could wait out their time and gain entry into the USA when their "quota number" was reached, the Cuban government was pressured into not allowing the ship to dock and let the passengers off. It had to sail back toward Germany with the fate of those on board assured of no mercy when they returned. Some on board cabled Roosevelt to allow the ship to dock in Miami but it was refused. The ship could literally see the Port of Miami as the ship went passed it, but no one on board was allowed to leave.  Whether this has anything to do with your question, I do not know, but I personally have no opinion as to whether reparations are in order.