Parashat Bo- “With Our Youth and With Our Elderly We Shall Go”
Upon hearing Moshe’s warning of the eighth plague, the plague of locusts, which would destroy all the crops in Egypt that survived the plague of hail, Pharaoh expresses a willingness to let Beneh Yisrael leave Egypt. A curious dialogue then ensues between Pharaoh and Moshe.
Pharaoh tells the leader of the Israelites, “Go worship Hashem your God,” but he then immediately asks, “Who are the ones who are going?” (10:8).
Moshe replies, “With our youth and with our elderly we shall go – with our sons and with our daughters, with our sheep and with our cattle we shall go, for we have a festival to Hashem!” (10:9). Pharaoh then rejects Moshe’s demand that both young and old be allowed into the wilderness to serve God.
How are we to understand this exchange?
The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Lebush Ben Yehiel Michel, 1809-1879) offered an insightful explanation of these verses. Pharaoh, like many ancient pagans, believed that there was a god of good and a god of evil. Unable to accept the fact that a single divine power brings both goodness and evil upon people, the pagans concluded that there must be two separate, competing gods, one of which brings goodness, and the other brings evil. According to this belief, we need to bring sacrifices to only the god of evil, in order to placate him and win his favor so he does not cause us harm.
This explains Pharoah’s question. He assumed that if Beneh Yisrael were going to worship the god of evil, thus requiring them to bring their sheep and cattle, then they should not bring their youngsters, who would be frightened by the service of an evil, threatening divine power. If, however, the nation was going to worship the god of good, then it is understood that they would bring their children, but there was no reason to bring sheep and cattle, because sacrifices are not necessary when serving the god of good.
Moshe therefore responded to Pharaoh, “With all youths and with our elderly we shall go” – we will take their youth with us, but, nevertheless, “with our sheep and with our cattle we shall go” – we are ALSO bringing our animals as sacrifices. The reason, Moshe explained, is that “we have a festival to Hashem.” Our God, he told Pharaoh, is the God of “Havaya,” the one God who governs all of existence. We believe that there is but one God who is responsible for everything that takes place on earth, and that there is no difference between what we perceive as “good” and what we perceive as “evil” – it is all “good,” brought about by the one, true God.
When we worship God, we acknowledge that He is the one who brings prosperity and good fortune, and also the one who brings illness and poverty. And there is no contradiction whatsoever between the two, because we firmly believe that whether or not we understand it, all that the Almighty does is, ultimately, pure goodness. This is the belief we take with us when we go to serve Hashem, and the belief which we seek to impart to our children whom we happily and joyously include in this national spiritual endeavor of Abodat Hashem (serving God)!