A Few Thoughts from Parashat Bo

This week’s parasha, Bo, Exodus 10:1 – 13:10,1 picks up in the middle of the story of the ten plagues sent upon Egypt by HaShem’s mighty, outstretched arm because of Pharoah’s hard-heartedness. Seven plagues have passed, and Pharoah continues his pattern of disregarding Moses’ requests to allow Bnei Israel to depart. Pharoah’s decision resulted in three more plagues—locusts, darkness and death of the firstborn. Pharoah’s comment to Moses before the final plague is intriguing.

“Go away from me! Take heed never to see my face again, because on the day you do, you will die!”

Exodus 10 28

Moses responded very simply, “As you wish.” Within a few hours after this interaction, Pharoah may have wished he could take back his words spoken in anger. If only he could have moved the sands of time backward so he could change his response to Moses. Little did Pharoah know that death would visit Egypt that evening, killing all of Egypt’s firstborn, while sparing everyone and everything among Bnei-Israel. Every firstborn in Egypt, from Pharoah’s house to the lowest servant’s hovel to the livestock pens throughout the land, died that night.

It was not the plague that intrigued me; rather it was Pharoah’s words and attitude. As a supreme ruler, he was used to having his words accepted, unquestioned, and final. It all changed that night. 

Then Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians, and there was loud wailing in Egypt. For there was not a house where someone was not dead. So he called for Moses and Aaron at night and said, “Rise up, go out from my people, both you and Bnei-Yisrael, go, serve ADONAI as you have said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone! But bless me, too.”

Exodus 12:30-32

Nahum Sarna comments,

The king (Pharoah) himself has to rise during the night, thereby compounding his humiliation at having to surrender unconditionally to Moses’ demands. By summoning Moses and Aaron, he must retract the arrogant threat made at their last meeting (10:28). For him to seek their blessing is thus the ultimate humbling of the despot.2

That night Pharoah learned that his word was not final. He also realized the incredible folly of his first response to Moses and Aaron,

“Who is ADONAI, that I should listen to His voice and let Israel go? I do not know ADONAI, and besides, I will not let Israel go.”

Exodus 5:2

As I thought about Pharoah and his words and attitudes, I was reminded of the numerous times Yeshua and other authors of the Apostolic Writings addressed the issue of the words we speak. In Besorat (Gospel of) Matthew, Yeshua concluded his teaching with these words,

“For from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man from his good treasury brings forth good, and the evil man from his evil treasury brings forth evil. But I tell you that on the Day of Judgment, men will give account for every careless word they speak. For by your words, you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Matthew 12:34b-37

The important thing in Yeshua’s comments is that we all “will give account for every careless word” we speak. Rev. J. Martin in his book, The Power of Words: Words are Free, It’s How You Use Them That May Cost You, comments,

There is simply no value put on words. We can all speak them. They don’t cost any money. As they are free to all, they are simply not appreciated.3

Continuing with the idea of the little value many put on their words, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, stated,

Unlike armaments, which can hurt only those within their immediate vicinity, verbal “shots” can inflict ruinous injuries from a distance. (In the modern world, the telephone makes it particularly easy to do so.)4

As we enter 2022, it is safe to say that the internet, digital news services and social media have far surpassed the verbal damage that Rabbi Telushkin felt could have been inflicted by telephone.

Remember Yeshua’s words, concerning one’s careless words; their source is the heart of man. Luke also emphasis the heart as the source, 

“Out of the good treasure of his heart the good man brings forth good, and out of evil the evil man brings forth evil. For from the overflow of the heart his mouth speaks.”

Luke 6:45

The Psalmist wrote these words about the need for divine assistance to guard our mouths as well as our hearts,

Set a guard, ADONAI, over my mouth. Keep watch over the door of my lips. Let not my heart turn to any evil thing, to practice deeds of wickedness with men that work iniquity, nor let me eat of their delicacies.

Psalm 141:3-4

A further emphasis on the need for divine assistance to guard the words of our mouths, and by extension our hearts, is expressed in the meditation at the end of the Amidah (Standing Prayer),

My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit. To those who curse me, let my life remain silent and my life be like dust to all, open my heart to Your Torah, then I will pursue Your commandments. … May the words of my mouth and the musings of my heart be acceptable before You, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. 

Every day we are presented with opportunities to speak words of encouragement and comfort or to speak careless words that harm and tear others down. Often, like Pharoah, we find out too late that our words were reckless. We should remember the subtitle to Rev. J. Martin’s book, The Power of Words, and place them as a neon sign that flashes before eyes every time we open our mouths to speak,

“Words are free. It’s how you use them, that may cost.”

Or maybe these words attributed to Carl Sandburg,

“Be careful with your words. Once they are said, they can be only forgiven, not forgotten.”

Let’s purpose in our hearts, since the heart is the source of our words, to consider the words we speak before we vocalize them. And as we remind ourselves of the words of Rev. Martin and Carl Sandburg, let’s also hold on to these two exhortations from Mishlei (Proverbs),

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

Proverbs 18:21

And 

“Whosoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself (or herself) out of trouble.” 

Proverbs 21:23

Endnotes:

  1. All Scripture readings are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
  2. Nahum M. Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus the Traditional Hebrew text with the new JPS Translation /Commentary, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991, p. 61.
  3. Rev. J. Martin, The Power of Words: Words are Free, It’s How You Use Them That May Cost You, Scotts Valley, CA: Create Space Publishing Co., 2016. Apple Audio Book.
  4. Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wisdom: Ethical, Spiritual, and Historical Lessons from the Great Works and Thinkers, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1994, p 66-67.
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