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In Melbourne Shabbat begins Fri 3 Apr 2020 06:52 PM and ends Sat 4 Apr 2020 07:50 PM

A word of Torah - Parshat Bo

ו' שבט ה' אלפים תשע"ג

Parshat Bo has a split personality. It is the culmination of the story of plagues and doom for the Egyptians and the hardest challenge to the newly founded faith of Israel. It represents the beginning of the Torah as a book of laws, starting with Chapter 12, with all the laws that are heavily quoted in the Pesach Seder, the core of the Haggadah text concerning the Pesach offering and observance.

There is an overlap of communication styles as God is on one hand addressing the one exact historical juncture in which the Israelites had to paint the blood of the sacred animal of the Egyptians on their doorpost, clearly and publically declaring their faith in God that He would save them from the dire consequences of that seeming desecration by unleashing the Angel of Death.

On the other hand there is the manner in which God is addressing Jews down the ages to do this service as “an ordinance to you and your child forever. And when your children ask you what is this Seder, you shall say it is Hashem’s Pesach offering that he commanded us to do on the day we left Egypt etc…” It is now when all the action is happening; the rubber is hitting the road that goes into your scrapbook of experiences so that you can witness what and why we do these Jewish acts. It is a snapshot of a very raw moment from our history—it is now, it is fresh! You are enslaved and eke out a meager and fear filled existence. Yet you have a sense of undeniable hope in forces beyond you that somehow have promised you that you will come through this whole and then be compelled to go back and free all others who are badly treated until eternity. You will have an indelible seal of God’s sense that the innocent must never suffer while you stand by.

We went through the experience so that we could tell it at a much later time to those who had not experienced it, to the next generation who must carry this message forward as a sense of purpose and the meaning of our people’s whole existence. It will not make sense to the learner immediately. The teaching about the immediacy of the need for freedom and safety from the dangers of man’s inhumanity to man is not always relevant to every learner in every age. A true understanding of the implications of the story may take a lifetime of Passover Seders. Moreover, Avivah Zornberg teaches in her book “The Particulars of Rapture” that the message was completely lost on the original Israelites who were going through the actual Exodus. They could not reflect on the deep meaning of this terrible experience! They were in a survival mode that few will ever understand.

All too many of our people lived under totalitarian regimes. It takes many generations to make anything approaching sense to senseless acts of brutality. But the commandment concerning the Passover ritual is a way to simulate the emergency—we need to awaken the miraculous nature of our own freedom and feel empathy with those struggling for freedom and a dignified life around the planet. It is in the telling of the story that we redeem the enslaved, give meaning to the suffering and motivate ourselves to action.

Many things we do as Jews are so reasonable that we think the world always had those sensible laws and legal systems in place to enforce them. We have been the stewards of normative moral thinking for so long we cannot conceptualize a world before these ideas were accepted as common. The Torah was given to human beings who had their egos crushed in order to bring them to the place to accept help from outside, to be vulnerable enough to hear eternal truth and to accept the mission of always being the ones to be hurt, never ones to hurt others if we can help it. We learn that our instinct/urge to act “natural” according to the law of the jungle (survival of the fittest/eat or be eaten) was exactly wrong! In order to be truly human, the Torah taught a way of being super-natural, to work with our human nature but also condition ourselves to know the eternal truth and to inculcate it into our consciousness. This could not have happened at the time of the Exodus. It took many retellings over the millennia for us to appreciate the “Grand Narrative”, as Avivah Zornberg calls it. This is the essence of Midrash and it is a process in which we participate and add our own unique voice and chapter.

The Parasha asks us to teach history along with idea and practice: “And it came to pass that at the end of four hundred and thirty years, on the very same day they entered 430 years before, it came to pass that the host of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. It was a night of watching unto the Lord for all the Children of Israel throughout their generations. And the Lord said to Moshe and Aaron: This is the ordinance of the Passover…” (Exodus 12:41-43) It goes on to say that no alien may eat of the Pesach offering. Only men that were circumcised may eat of it etc. “Look,” says God in the Parasha. “This is about passing down the essence of what it means to be Jewish to the next generation. For that, I will watch this night each generation for who shows up for dinner. You have to declare you are in or out by buying into the history and the struggle for the bedrock upon which all those nice morals rest. No excuses. You did your job if you inculcated the lessons yourself and have carried it forth to the next generation and you can answer their questions.” This is a very moving Parasha unless you only go for the “universal” lessons. We need to refuel our particularism every year by reading this Parasha. It is an early preparation for Pesach.


Shabbat Shalom,



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