Parashat Bo: The Smokescreen
Parashat Bo tells the story of Yesi’at Misrayim – Beneh Yisrael’s Exodus from Egypt after over two centuries of exile and bondage. We read that when Beneh Yisrael left, they took with them the utensils and clothing of their Egyptian neighbors, as God had commanded them (12:35). The Ba’al Ha’turim (Rabbenu Yaakob Ben Asher, Germany-Spain, 1269-1343) comments that each member of Beneh Yisrael took two garments from the Egyptians. One was used to wrap the Masot which they took with them, and the other was worn throughout the forty years of travel in the wilderness. Miraculously, these garments remained intact and fresh for the entire forty-year period.
We might wonder why it was deemed appropriate for Beneh Yisrael to wear these garments. Intuitively, we would have expected God to not want them to have anything to do with the belongings of the debased, idolatrous Egyptian society. Why did He want Beneh Yisrael to stand at Mount Sinai and behold His revelation while wearing Egyptian clothing? Is this appropriate attire for such a sacred event? Why did God insist that Beneh Yisrael wear the Egyptians’ clothing while they traveled in the wilderness?
The Hatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg, 1762-1839) explained that something very significant happened to these garments on the night of the Exodus. That night, besides killing the firstborns of Egypt, God also destroyed the country’s idols. Moshe predicted before Yesi’at Misrayim that God would "make judgment" upon all the pagan gods of Egypt ("U’v’chol Eloheh Misrayim E’eseh Shefatim" – 12:12). All the statues were shattered, and all the idolatrous images were miraculously removed from the objects upon which they were engraved. Likewise, the Egyptians would embroider idolatrous images onto their clothing, and these images were miraculously torn off the clothing on the night of the Exodus. Thus, by the time Beneh Yisrael took these garments, they had undergone a change, and no longer bore images of pagan gods.
God specifically wanted Beneh Yisrael to wear these garments in the years following Yesi’at Misrayim in order to teach them – and us – a vital lesson. These pagan gods were looked upon as powerful deities, but in an instant they were exposed as mere smokescreens. They appeared significant, until they were shown to have no power and no significance whatsoever. The same is true of the Yeser Ha’ra (evil inclination). Our Yeser Ha’ra convinces us that sinful behavior is gratifying and will bring us contentment and happiness. To take an extreme example, alcoholics crave intoxicating drinks because they are convinced that drinking will make them happy and bring them a feeling of gratification. But after the intoxication wears off, the addict feels worse and emptier than he did before he drank. Sins, too, appear tempting and gratifying, but then leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled. The Yeser Ha’ra sets up for us a smokescreen, portraying the sin as something we need in order to attain happiness. But like the gods of Egypt, it is only an illusion, appearing as something valuable when in truth it is sheer vanity and nothing of significance.
The Gemara teaches that in the times of Mashiah, the Yeser Ha’ra will be destroyed. We will look back at the vanities and lures of this world and realize that they were all just a hoax, an illusion, that we were deceived into affording importance to something meaningless. We must at all times remember the message of the Egyptians’ clothing, the illusionary nature of sin. It appears to have significance and value, but in truth is worth nothing. This perspective will help us avoid the traps set for us by the Yeser Ha’ra, and ensure that we invest all our time and energies into worthwhile and valuable pursuits.