Parashat Bo: The Exodus and the Chain of Jewish Tradition
Parashat Bo tells about the final three plagues that G-d brought upon Egypt – locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn – the three plagues that ultimately broke Pharaoh and led him to agree to release Beneh Yisrael.
The Hatam Sofer (Rav Moshe Sofer of Pressburg, 1762-1839) observes that the word "Arbeh" ("locusts"), the name of the first of these final three plagues, has the same Gematria (numerical value) as "Yishak" (208). These final plagues, which resulted in the Exodus from Egypt, were brought specifically in the merit of Yishak Abinu. This can be seen also in a verse in the Book of Yehoshua (24:3) which says about Abraham Abinu, "Va’arbeh Et Zar’o Va’eten Lo Et Yishak" ("I made his offspring numerous, and I gave him Yishak"). The word "Arbeh" in this verse is associated with Yishak, and so the final series of plagues, which led to Beneh Yisrael’s freedom, began with "Arbeh" (locusts) – because the Exodus unfolded in Yishak’s merit.
Another source of this concept is the observation of the Ba’al Ha’turim (Rabbenu Yaakob Ben Asher, 1269-1343) in the beginning of Parashat Va’era that the word "Va’era," with which G-d began His prophecy to Moshe promising the Exodus, has the same Gematria as "Yishak." This, too, indicates that the Exodus occurred specifically in the merit of Yishak Abinu.
There are two reasons why the Exodus is associated with Yishak, and not with the other two patriarchs. One is that Yishak is the only of the three patriarchs not to have directly benefited from Egypt. Both Abraham and Yaakob found refuge in Egypt during times of famine in Eretz Yisrael, and so they could not be the cause of the calamities that G-d brought upon Egypt. This was able to occur only in the merit of Yishak, who never left Eretz Yisrael and thus never derived benefit from Egypt.
But there is also an additional reason why the Exodus is associated specifically with Yishak.
After Moshe warned Pharaoh about the plague of locusts, Pharaoh expressed his willingness to let Beneh Yisrael leave, and he asked Moshe who would be leaving (10:8). Moshe replied that the entire nation needed to go – including the men, women and children, but Pharaoh adamantly refused to let the children leave. It seems that what concerned Pharaoh more than anything else was the future, the next generation, Beneh Yisrael’s transmission of their traditions to their offspring. He set out to break the connection between parents and children, and thereby discontinue the growth and development of Am Yisrael. Indeed, Pharaoh decided to oppress Beneh Yisrael because "Pen Yirbeh" – he did not want them to propagate (1:10), and G-d’s response was "Ken Yirbeh" – to ensure that they did, in fact, continue to grow and flourish (1:12). And thus the final set of plagues began with "Arbeh," which literally means "I shall increase," alluding to the foiling of Pharaoh’s plan to halt the continuation of Am Yisrael.
The process of Mesora, of the oral tradition passing from parent to child, began with Yishak. He was the first child born after Abraham became the father of the Jewish Nation. He was the first child raised with Jewish beliefs and values. He was the first one to obey G-d’s will as taught to him, without having heard it directly from G-d. When G-d commanded Abraham to offer Yishak as a sacrifice, Yishak complied even though he did not receive this command from G-d, because he trusted his father. Yishak thus signifies the oral tradition, the intergenerational link upon which our nation’s continuity depends. This is precisely what Pharaoh set out to destroy. The Exodus occurred in the merit of Yishak – precisely because Pharaoh wanted to disrupt the process of Mesora, which is embodied by Yishak, and which Yishak established as an integral, defining characteristic of the Jewish Nation.
On the night of the Exodus, when Pharaoh rushed to Moshe and Aharon and told them to leave Egypt, he emphasized, "Gam Atem Gam Beneh Yisrael" – "both you and Beneh Yisrael" (12:31). Rashi explains this phrase to mean that both the adults and the children were to leave. The entire argument between Pharaoh and Moshe revolved around the children, whom Pharaoh wanted to keep with him in Egypt in order to break the chain of Jewish tradition. Now, as he conceded defeat, he emphasized to Moshe that he was allowing even the children to leave, finally recognizing that any effort to break the eternal chain of Jewish tradition is doomed to fail.