You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Bo.
Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
THE REAL START OF THE TORAH
In Rashi’s opening comment on the Torah (Gen. 1:1), he indicates that the real “beginning” of the Torah is in our present parshah of BO. “Rabbi Yitzchak said: the Torah should have started from ‘This month will be for you the head of the months’ (Ex. 12:2) since this is the first commandment that the Children of Israel were commanded.” [See Rashi on Gen. 1:1, where he explains that the account of the Creation and the ensuing history recounted in Genesis are proof of the Children of Israel’s G-d-given right to the Land of Israel.]
In other words, the “real” start of the Torah is when we read it first and foremost as a message about our obligations rather than one about our rights. Having been passively freed by G-d from servitude to man, we have obligations to the “hero”, the only true Savior. If anyone lays claim to any lien on us, G-d’s lien always has priority.
The first mitzvah of the Torah to the Children of Israel is that of “sanctifying the month” (KIDDUSH HACHODESH). This involves counting the months of the year from Nissan, the month of redemption, and, when the Sanhedrin sits in the Land of Israel, taking testimony from witnesses who have sighted the new moon in order to declare the start of the new month. Marking time from the point at which the moon, having briefly disappeared from sight, begins to wax and grow, is a sign of constant regeneration and vitality. The sign of the crescent was taken over by Islam, but the unique power of the crescent of the new moon as a symbol of renewal is known only to the Children of Israel, who observe the commandment of Sanctifying the Month. Alone among the nations, the Children of Israel possess the Secret of IBBUR (literally “pregnancy”). This involves the method of reconciling the Lunar year (of 354 days) with the Solar year (of 365 days) through the insertion of an extra month in certain “leap” years (= SHANAH ME-UBERET, a “pregnant” year of 13 instead of only 12 months). It is to this and the related astronomical and mystical wisdom of the Children of Israel that Moses alluded when he said: “For this is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the nations” (Deut. 4:6, see Shabbos 75a).
This teaching from Rabbi Shefa Gold was included here since the sentence from this
parsha, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.” has been used as the basis for the celebration of Rosh Chodesh.
Yom Kippur Katan As Preparation For Rosh Chodesh
by Rabbi Shefa Gold
In any spiritual practice, preparation and intention make all the difference. When the preparation for Rosh Chodesh can occur in all four realms of my being – physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual – then my receptivity to its transformative effects is maximized. The Kabbalists of 16th century S’fat understood this essential truth, and they had the creativity and the courage (some might say audacity) to respond by developing a holy-day that would address the spiritual challenges of renewal that Rosh Chodesh brings. That holy-day came each month on the day preceding Rosh Chodesh and was called Yom Kippur Katan. The custom was to fast from sunrise to sunset and to recite certain prayers which had the flavor of Yom Kippur and would facilitate the process of self-examination and purificatiion and preparation for receiving the new moon.1
Those kabbalists were moon watchers. The lenses through which they gazed were intensely focused on issues of exile and redemption. And so as the moon waned, the exile of the Shechina (the divine presence), was noted and mourned. With the moon’s return came the celebration of the miracle of redemption, a redemption which could be tasted and known but briefly before the cycle of exile continued. They based their custom on a legend that was recorded in the Babylonian Talmud in which God Says to Israel, “Bring atonement upon me for making the moon smaller.” 2
They understood “making the moon smaller” as referring to a contraction of divine essence, which in human terms could be experienced as exile. There is another legend that at the time of Messiah, the moon will again be as bright as the sun.3 The moon’s return to glory will mark our redemption. The Kabbalists based their reading of these myths on a Lurianic Kabbalistic conception of Creation, which says that it was the divine act of tzimtzum (God’s self-contraction) which made room for the existence of our world. Yet it was this very act of tzimtzum which set into play the dramatic cycle of exile and redemption which has become the vehicle for the the soul’s evolution and the self-realization of every aspect of Creation.
As Gershom Scholem explains it, “..the act of tzimtzum itself, in which God limits Himself, requires the establishment of the power of Din (judgment), which is a force of limitation and restriction. Thus the root of evil ultimately lies in the very nature of Creation itself, in which the harmony of the Infinite cannot, by definition persist; because of its nature as Creation – i.e., as other than Godhead – an element of imbalance, defectiveness, and darkness must enter into every restricted existence, however sublime it may be.” 4
With the exile of the Shechina, darkness enters into our existence and with that darkness comes a longing for her return. Yom Kippur Katan comes at a point in the cycle when that longing is at its peak. Inner reality reflects the absence of moon and manifests as a longing for fullness that claws at the dark empty pause. It is a call to re-create ourselves in God’s image.
At the same time, it feels as if God might be doing tshuvah (turning, repentance), taking another look at us and reconsidering the relationship. On Yom Kippur Katan we feel those all-seeing eyes on us and we do what must be done to make ourselves beautiful to God. The dark moon night allows for the visibility of stars and planets that would ordinarily go unnoticed. On Yom Kippur Katan we do an examination of the inward skies as well – the constellations of our being that in the busy light of our lives might remain hidden from view. It is the time for correcting our aim, seeing the ways that we have been pulled off course. It is the time for paying attention to the subtle details, a time to feel the internal striving after righteousness, that is born of love.
The symbol of the moon and its cycles representing our experience of God’s presence is significant because it is multi-layered. As the moon waxes and wanes, there is a part of me that experiences the shrinking and swelling of light in the night sky. There is another part of me that knows and experiences the moon as a whole sphere which happens to reflect different amounts of the sun’s light. I can often even see the dark part of the moon when there is only a sliver of light. It is the same with the experience of exile. There are times when I feel so very far from God, and yet another part of me knows that it is only a “seeming” distance. God has never left my orbit. Yet I live my life in the drama of these cycles – the waxing and waning of God’s presence in my life. Another part of me stands back and understands these cycles as the contractions of labor that birth the soul into wholeness. Though all these layers exist simultaneously, I know that I must give myself fully to the experience of this drama, even to the pain of it.
The challenge of renewal requires us to look hard and honestly at the aspects of our personalities, habits, beliefs and patterns that need renewing- whatever it is that we have outgrown, whatever it is that holds us back, distorts our vision, prevents our love from flowing freely. If we do this work of examination, purification and realignment each month, then on Rosh Chodesh we will indeed have something to celebrate.
In a class with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in which we studied the liturgy of Yom Kippur Katan, he said that to really know and celebrate the essence of lunar energy, we must experience the “dark rays of the moon.” 5 When we notice and pay attention to the particular power of this time, those “dark rays” will aid us as we meet the challenge of renewal.
As our celebrations of Rosh Chodesh evolve in ways that express our deepest joys and concerns, so must our preparations, both inner and outer, effectively address our present needs. Although I can appreciate the beauty of the liturgy of those 16th century kabbalists, I have also felt a need to express the process of Yom Kippur Katan in a more personal way. And so I offer the following song. The chorus is in Aramaic and comes from the traditional liturgy of Yom Kippur Katan. It says, “Compassionate One, who answers broken hearts, answer us, answer us.”
May we all have the courage and strength to let our hearts break, and may the light of renewal, healing and wisdom stream in to those broken places so that in our wholeness we may shine.
The Dark Rays of the Moon6
My flaws are showing all too clear, In the dark rays of the moon, All my certainties will disappear, In the dark rays of the moon, I surrender to the shadow’s glare, In the dark rays of the moon, I am strengthened by the truth I bare, In the dark rays of the moon, Rachamana d’oney litvirey liba, aneyna, aneyna. (Compassionate One who answers broken hearts, answer us, answer us.)
When the tide is low I search the beach, In the dark rays of the moon, Broken dreams wash up within my reach, In the dark rays of the moon, I will hold the shell up to my ear, In the dark rays of the moon, Till the voice of God is all I hear, In the dark rays of the moon, Rachamana d’oney litvirey liba, aneyna, aneyna.
In exile I am forced to roam, In the dark rays of the moon, Till my prayerful longing brings me home, In the dark rays of the moon, Though I see my life in shades of dark, In the dark rays of the moon, In the deepest depths there glows a spark, In the dark rays of the moon, Rachamana d’oney litvirey liba, aneyna, aneyna.
1 Yom Kippur Katan is not observed for the following months’ Rosh Chodesh: Cheshvan, because Yom Kippur has just passed; Tevet because it would fall during Chanukah when fasting and penitential prayers are not permitted; Iyar, because it would fall during Nissan which doesn’t allow fasting; and Tishrei because it would fall on the day of Erev Rosh Hashana which doesn’t permit penitential prayers. If Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbat, Yom Kippur Katan is observed on the preceding Thursday. (Klein, Isaac. A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1979 pages 262-3.)
2 Hullin 60b
3 Based on Isaiah 30:26
4 Scholem, Gershom. On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead. New York: Shocken Books, 1991. p. 83.
5 The phrase “Dark Rays of the Moon” appears to have been coined during a conversation between Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Eric Neumann in Jerusalem. Discussing whether the moon gives off its own light or only reflects the sun’s light, Eric Neumann said, the moon has its own rays, they are the dark rays of the moon.
6 Copyright © Shefa Gold. 1989
From Rabbi Shefa Gold Torah Journeys
Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys
(Come On In!)
Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
The story of the Exodus from Egypt continues.
THE BLESSING OF BO IS OUR FREEDOM. We finally take that first step out of the narrow spaces of Mitzrayim and become conscious journeyers touched by the dream of awakening.
Freedom in our tradition is not merely “freedom from,” freedom from oppression, suffering, or servitude. It is “freedom to,” freedom to be in direct relationship with God our liberator. Being in that relationship means serving the One, the Whole, the Holy. Our freedom depends on this servitude.
At the beginning of the portion God speaks to Moses, the prophet within us, and says, ” Bo! Come on in! I am waiting for you inside the heart of Pharaoh. The heart of Pharaoh is inside you. It is the place that has grown heavy with the weight of life’s experience. It is the place that has hardened – its outer shell cynical, and its inner layers made of fear and unhealed grief. Through this heart of Pharaoh you must come if you are to know Me, if you are to find your freedom.”
THERE IS A STORY about some jealous angels who are asked to hide the spark of the Divine in the world.
“Let’s put it atop the highest mountain,” offers one.
“No,” says another, “The Human is very ambitious; he will find it there.”
“Well then, let’s bury it beneath the deepest sea.”
“That won’t work either,” another chimes in. “The Human is very resourceful. She will even find it there.”
After a moment’s thought the wisest angel says, “I know. Put it inside the Human heart. They will never look there.”
And so the spark of God is hidden in the heart of Pharaoh where we are kept out by the heaviness that has accumulated, by the hardness that we meant for our protection. Sometimes that spark will speak to us from within, and say, “Bo! Come on in. I have been waiting for you for so very long.”
WHEN WE COME THROUGH the heart of Pharaoh and enter in to those depths within, the blessing we receive is freedom and protection from the Angel of Death, whose only realm is the surface of things.
We are called into consciousness during a “night of watching,” a night of vigilance.
We are blessed with a ritual of celebration and renewal so that we can re-experience the miracle of freedom with a feast of Matzah, unleavened bread. Matzah represents our essential self before it is “leavened” with ego.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
THIS WORLD IS FOREVER CALLING US to the surface of things with its drama, seduction, humor, and entertaining dilemmas. Constantly bombarded with stimulation, we begin to rely on that stimulation to keep us from boredom, and dreaded emptiness. The spiritual challenge of Bo lies in the cultivation of a rich inner life. The obstacles to inner-ness, and depth, are represented by the heart of Pharaoh, the obstruction through which we must pass on our way to freedom.
How do we address the weight of our burdens? How do we acknowledge the hard shell of a self-image that has become too small? There are moments when the burden is lifted, when the hard surface softens, and the heart of freedom is revealed in its glory. Even as those moments fade I lift them up with my awareness and my gratefulness. I keep the memory of that inner vastness and hold it as witness against a world that pretends to reflect the whole truth.
ONE OF THE KEYS to freedom lies in Moses’ insistence that the whole of the people must be freed together. When Pharaoh offers freedom if the feminine and child parts are left behind in bondage, Moses refuses, for he understands that to be free is to be whole and integrated. When Pharaoh offers freedom to the people if they will leave their animal selves behind, again Moses refuses, knowing that without the acknowledgment of all aspects of our selves, we cannot serve God.
The challenge before us is to accept and honor all parts of the self as the pre-requisite to freedom. In answering the call of Bo, we are led onto the path of healing and wholeness.
For Guidelines for Practice please click the link to the website:
From Rav Kook
Bo: The Exodus and Tefillin
The Torah commands us to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt by wearing tefillin (phylacteries) on the arm and head.
“It will be for you a sign on your arm and a reminder between your eyes, so that God’s Torah will be in your mouth; for God brought you out of Egypt with a strong arm.” [Ex. 13:9]
What is the connection between tefillin and the Exodus? How does wearing tefillin ensure that the Torah will be ‘in our mouths’?
An Outstretched Arm
Superficially, the redemption from Egypt was a one-time, historical event, forging a potent memory in the collective consciousness of the Jewish people and all of humanity. But if we listen to our inner soul, we will recognize that the Exodus is truly a continuous, ongoing act. The Divine miracles and signs that took place in Egypt launched the continual revelation of the hand of God, publicly and visibly, on the stage of world history. The Exodus was an outburst of Divine light, potent and vibrant, in all realms of the universe. Its inner resonance continues to make its impact throughout the ages.
Before wrapping tefillin on the arm, we reflect that this mitzvah commemorates God’s “zero’a netuya”, His “outstretched arm.” What does this metaphor mean?
The word zero’a (‘arm’) comes from the root zera, meaning ‘seed’. The redemption of Israel in Egypt was a holy seed, planted at that point in time. That wondrous event prepared the way for the spread of its message, unhindered and uninterrupted, stretching out across the generations. As we bind the tefillin to our arms, we are reminded of God’s “outstretched arm,” the inner godliness that constantly develops and perfects worlds, elevating their treasures of life to the pinnacle of divine fulfillment.
A Strong Arm
Yet, there is a deeper connection between the mitzvah of tefillin and the Exodus.
The purpose of the liberation from Egyptian bondage was to combat the debasement of life, which threatened to drown humanity in the depths of its crassness and vulgarity. Since the materialistic side of life is so compelling, so overwhelming, it was necessary for God to reveal a “strong arm” to overcome our base nature, and allow the light of our inner holiness to shine from within. The holy act of fastening the tefillin to the arm and head helps us transform the coarse and profane aspects of life into strength and vitality for a life beautiful in its holiness.
To triumph over humanity’s coarseness – then at its peak in the contaminated culture of Egypt – required God’s “strong arm.” We similarly need to make a strong effort so that the Torah will be in our minds and hearts. Tefillin are called a sign and a reminder, for they evoke the wondrous signs and powerful miracles of our release from Egyptian slavery. We must engrave the legacy of those miracles on our faculties of action, emotion, and thought. By binding these memories to our hand, heart, and mind, we can transform our coarse nature to a holy one. Then the Torah will naturally “be in your mouth,” in the thoughts of our hearts.
Through this powerful mitzvah, engaging both the arm (our actions) and the eye (our outlook and thoughts), we continue the Divine process that God initiated in Egypt with a “strong arm.”
[adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, pp. 26-7,39]
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Chassidic Insights for Parshah Bo
From the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Click here to download (1.13mb)
 Come to Pharaoh: As stated in the Overview, the Torah’s use of the expression “Come to Pharaoh” rather than “Go to Pharaoh” is striking. One way of explaining this is that the Exodus is predicated on approaching life as “coming” rather than “going.”
“Going” implies that the home base is where one already is presently located; one is simply visiting the place he is “going to.” “Coming,” on the other hand, implies that one is moving his home base, that he is going where he is going with his whole being.
So when we commune with God in Torah study or prayer, we should be sure to “come” into the words and ideas, rather than just “go” there for a visit. This way, our study and prayer can affect us and change us; it can take us out of our personal Egypt.
Going out of our personal Egypt hastens the collective redemption of the Jewish people and all humanity, as well.1
 Exactly at midnight: Night is divided into two halves: from dusk until midnight, the sun sinks deeper below the horizon and the sky becomes progressively darker; from midnight until dawn, the sun begins its ascent to the opposite horizon and the sky becomes progressively lighter. The first half of the night is therefore associated with God’s attribute of severity and judgment (gevurah), while the second half is associated with God’s attribute of kindness (chesed).
Midnight, however, being the exact midpoint between the beginning and end of the night, is associated with neither attribute. In fact, midnight is just a theoretical construct rather than an actual span of time—for the moment immediately before midnight is part of the first half of the night and the moment immediately after it is part of the second half. Although midnight defines a specific time, it itself “takes up” no time, similar to how the corner where two walls intersect defines a location in space but itself takes up no space.
Midnight is thus beyond time, and it is by virtue of this transcendence that it can connect the two opposite halves of the night and negotiate the transition from the first to the second. Although we take for granted the “transition” from pre-midnight to post-midnight (as well as the “transition” from one direction to another), it in fact takes a time-transcending input to switch from one type of time to another (and a space-transcending input to change from one direction to another), since nature, by its own inertia, always tends to continue in the direction in which it is already going.
Hence the great significance of midnight: it is a “moment” when God’s transcendence is revealed. The slaying of the firstborn therefore had to occur exactly at midnight, since it was the final stroke of the Exodus, and in order for the Exodus to occur God had to reveal His transcendence beyond the laws of nature. Naturally, the Exodus could never have occurred, since it was entirely “natural” for Egypt to be the world’s superpower and enslave the Jews, etc. Nature had to be overruled, and this is the essence of midnight.17
From Rabbi Jonathan Case 2008 http://lifespathway.com/aboutus.aspx
Light and Dark
God said to Moshe. He said, “Stretch out your hand towards Heaven so that darkness will come over Egypt, a darkness which can be felt, vayamaish.” (Exodus 10:21)
What is darkness? Most people would admit that it is nothing more than the absence of light. No light? we wonder. It must be dark. After all, step into a dark room switch on the light and the darkness disappears. Light dispels the other. Yet the Torah here speaks of a darkness that can be felt. What does it mean?
In Bereshit, the language is very clear that darkness existed before light (“Darkness on the face of the deep”). If it is true that darkness only exists at the expense of light how could there be darkness in the void of the great Beginning? Light would not be created until later. Perhaps this pre-creation darkness means more than just before the sun came into being. The Vilna Gaon reveals:
“There are some who say that light is an independent creation, and that darkness is an independent creation…. Darkness is a creation that is pushed away by light. That is the way The Holy One, Blessed is He, made nature. Here -in this plague- God changed the course of nature. When the Torah says, ‘a darkness which can be felt,’ it means that the darkness ‘pushed’ away the light…” (Kol Eliyahu, Bo 53)
The darkness of which the famed Vilna Gaon speaks is “a darkness that can move light.” In our thinking it only works the other way; light chases the darkness. This Egyptian night was a palpable darkness that was not displaced by light. The darkness had its own power and could thrust aside light.
This was the same darkness that engulfed the nascent universe before God cast into being an opposing force.
There is a certain kind of darkness that moves itself like a thick curtain blocking out light. It is a spiritual vacuum where hope and vision are obscured. It is as Martin Buber taught, “an eclipse of God.” When Pharaoh was utterly intent on genocide, banishing goodness and destroying life the darkness of the primordial universe returned. It shut out the possibility of balance, teshuvah and redemption. Was it not so in the Holocaust? Is it not so in Darfur?
From Rabbi Arthur Waskow
In this week’s Torah reading, when God sends Moses to face Pharaoh, God says, “Bo el Pharaoh.” Most English translations say, “Go to Pharaoh.” But “Bo” means “come,” not “go.”
“Come to Pharaoh!”
How could God be saying “Come!” unless God was already there? — already within Pharaoh!
“Come toward Me.”
And God’s call to Moses continued: “Hikhbad’ti libo.” That is usually translated, “I have made his [Pharaoh’s] heart heavy, hard.”
But the Hebrew root KVD can mean heavy, bearing gravitas, or glorious, or honorable, or radiant. When a leader is said to possess “gravitas,” it means he is a “heavy dude,” worthy of honor, radiating forth his own glory to faraway places.
So the phrase can be read as: “I, God, have put my radiance in his, Pharaoh’s, heart.”
In other words: “Come to Me — the Me who lives hidden inside Pharaoh. Don’t be afraid of Pharaoh: what looks like HIS radiance, HIS glory, HIS power, is really just a mask for MY radiance, MY glory, MY power.”
From seeing God hidden within Pharaoh, Moses could learn both courage and compassion.
Courage as he realized that Pharaoh’s seeming power was not his, but just a part of the enormous power of the flow of life, the Unity of universe. If Pharaoh tried to grasp that power as his own, the river and the locusts, the frogs and the first-borns, would overflow his rigid boundaries and sweep away his power. No one need fear it.
Compassion as Moses recalled that even within Pharaoh was the Tzelem Elohim, the spark of God. So he could resist the Pharaoh’s tyranny while yet remembering the KaVoD — honor — due his spark of divinity.
Torah Reading for Week of January 17 – 23, 2010
“Come to the Winter of Our Content”
by Lori Schneider
AJR,CA, Fifth Year Rabbinical Student
Last month Santa Monica, CA witnessed “autumn for a block” – a line of trees awash in vivid maroons and yellows. The leaves lingered for a few weeks until, one at a time, they fell onto the sidewalk, crunching under school children’s feet. Today, these trees stand naked, a visible reminder that seasons do change, even in Los Angeles. If we look closely, we can discern the changing of seasons – a barren tree, a cold shot of wind from the north; here in Los Angeles, seasons can be subtle. But, with every winter, our Torah brings us Parshat Bo. And with the coming of Bo, I know winter has arrived.
Winter asks of us to go inward – the dormancy of the natural world redirecting our attention to our interior landscape. And like a molecule in the cold, we are forced to slow down as well. When reading this week’s Torah portion, we experience the entropy of the natural world with the fait accompli of the final plagues: locusts — the devastation of sustenance; darkness – the blindness that comes with being unable to recognize the world before oneself; and finally, the killing of the firstborn – the undoing of natural order. These three plagues mirror our interior experience of winter: we are hungry for the succulence of summer fruits, cloaked in long, dark nights, and long for the rebirth of spring. It’s as if this cycle of un-life is the biblical narrative’s mirror of the season engulfing us.
And, indeed, we have fallen through our “Biblical Looking Glass”, as even the Biblical voices seem confused. G-d commands us to “Come to Pharaoh”; Pharaoh commands us to “Go out…” and even implores that we grant him a blessing. With the gestation period of 10 plagues complete, we go into ‘un-creation labor’, as Pharaoh commands the Israelite slaves to “…Go worship Yah.” From the one who sought to destroy us, our nation is born.
But what does it mean that Pharaoh, our oppressor, commands us to not only worship G-d, but grant the source of our barrenness a blessing?
In response to the charge of our oppressor, Rashbam teaches “May you also bring a blessing upon me” meaning: our enemy is requesting that we bless only him. Rashi explains “Pray for me that I shall not die, even though I am a firstborn!” Both portray the selfish interests of Pharaoh. However, from within the barrenness of devastation and darkness, we are given the eyes to see beyond Pharaoh’s surface character flaw.
From the vulnerability of natural disasters, Pharaoh’s humanity is revealed. It is as if the stripping away of the natural world ripens a circumcision of the heart; and just as Pharaoh transforms through the undoing of creation in his midst, and commands the Israelites to go, so, too does the un-creation of New Orleans or Haiti reveal the supple and tender truth of our global community that lies within every beating of the lev – to be alive is to be just a heartbeat away from not. Perhaps Pharaoh, whose name derives from the word “to unbind or remove restraint,” is the character of winter itself, teaching us that our enemies or “anti-selves” possess dormant wisdom which draws forth our humanity, our vulnerability, our truest selves.
However, it is not easy to recognize our enemies as a life-breeding source. And so, our parasha also teaches us through subtle signs – the symbol of tefillin, or the coming of spring with the harbinger of the Pesach festival; or even the creation of Rosh Hodesh – a marking of women’s time, another reminder of creation. Winter is a time of hidden messages; but, it is only through the surrender of will to something larger than ourselves that we understand the wisdom of its stillness. Its challenges – whether literal and physical or metaphoric and psycho-spiritual – ask each of us to dwell in a deep, dark, interior space until the time of rebirth is upon us.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Why We Had To Leave Pharaoh
Open with the eighth plague
brought by an east wind [Ex.10:3]
carried away by a west wind. [10:19]
the silent heart of wisdom
the heart’s deep wisdom.
Both winds blow through our camp
Now the integrating dream
every blessing a prayer of concentric unity
Set against this is Par’oh
Par’oh — to rend to split
the separator the dis-integrator
Every blessing a union
the power of the upper root descends
and that is why we had to leave Pharaoh
to become one with ourselves.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Bo: The New Moon
This new moon (Ha’chodesh Hazeh) shall be to you the head of months (This week’s Torah portion – 12:2).
Moses found difficulty with the renewal of the moon…G-d therefore showed him with His finger the moon in the sky and said to him, “You will see a moon like this and you will then sanctify [the month].” Now how did G-d show it to Moses? Did He not speak to him only by day? …Rather, this chapter was said to Moses just before sunset, and He showed him [the moon] when it became dark (Rashi, from Midrash Mechilta. Talmud Menachot 29a)
Why did Moses have a problem with the moon’s renewal?
And what did G-d show him? If there was a moon in the sky, Moses could have looked up and seen it on his own. And if there was no moon yet – which is more likely because the new moon was just being born – what exactly did G-d show him? How can a new moon be seen with the naked eye?
Various reasons for Moses’ difficulty are posited by the sages. Some explain that Moses was unclear as to the exact criteria necessary to determine when we must sanctify the new moon. Others suggest that Moses was unsure how to determine whether he was actually seeing the new moon or perhaps the final stages of the old moon. But all these explanations seem inadequate for several reasons: Moses, who was quite an educated man, could have figured out, like any astronomer, the factors that constitute a new moon. Why did he need G-d to show it to him? Clearly, Moses was disturbed by something that only G-d could resolve. Additionally, as mentioned, the new moon does not yet have any shape and form, so what exactly did Moses see?
The mystics explain that Moses was struggling with some of the fundamental dilemmas of existence as they are reflected in the birth of the new moon (see Ohr HaTorah on this chapter, vol. 8 pp. 2902). Here we will focus on the psychological and personal application of this strange episode – which illuminates one of the most profound challenges in life: How to deal with pain and loss.
But first, another practical question. Why is the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon told to Moses as a prelude to the redemption of the Jews from Egyptian bondage? What connection is there between the moon’s renewal and the Egyptian Exodus?
The waxing and waning moon reflects the ups and downs of life and history. The waning moon represents difficult times; periods that get darker and darker, like the fading moon. But just as the moon disappears, when all seems bleak and lost, we experience rebirth, newfound life – a new moon has been born.
The long Egyptian exile was the first documented instance of institutionalized oppression perpetrated by one nation against another. Multitudes of Jews were killed, tortured or worked to death in forced labor. The moon was dark indeed.
By commanding Moses to sanctify the new moon G-d was in effect imparting to Moses the power of renewal: Just as the moon is reborn right after its disappears, so too will the Jewish people experience a renaissance following their darkest moments.
Moses, however, was disturbed. He was happy to hear that the time of redemption – the birth of the new moon – had arrived. But he was bothered by the fact that when things get so dark, to the point that the moon emits no light at all, how can mortal man hold on? How do we gather strength when we don’t see any glimmer of hope? If we don’t have the energy to see it through, we can be consumed and destroyed by the darkness, and then never reach the new light…
Philosophically, Moses understood that a mortal human being will never fully fathom the mystery of pain and suffering. He also understood and believed that the “end story” was that we will endure and prevail over all our adversaries. Indeed, the Egyptian oppression forged a nation with enormous power, an eternal nation. The more they were oppressed, the more they proliferated and grew.
But Moses was disturbed because he knew that this was not enough. Moses in effect was saying: “If you want man to grow through the dark challenges, You, G-d, must give us the power of hope – the strength to see it through and forge ahead despite the inability to see the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’.”
G-d agreed. In response, G-d “pointed His finger” and showed Moses something that is otherwise impossible to see: The birthing itself. The point when the darkness turns into light, the exact moment when the seeds of suffering yield the fruits of greatness
When we cry over a disappointment or loss we feel pain and sorrow. We (and others) may understand that “those that sow in tears will reap in joy” (Psalms 126:5). But while we weep and taste our bitter tears, we cannot at the same time see the joy that will come. The seed by its very nature conceals its future fruit.
G-d therefore divulged to Moses the mystery of transformation, how darkness turns into light. And He revealed it as the sun was setting. Usually G-d spoke to Moses during the day. But in this instance G-d wanted to show Moses that even darkness yields light. He therefore spoke to him just before sunset, and He showed him the moon as darkness was falling.
This vision of Moses has a perpetual effect for all generations to come – to give us the power to make it through any challenge, no matter how difficult.
All birth in this world comes only after a moment of darkness. Growth is always preceded by a void. Creativity is a child of frustration. But when things seem bleak we get demoralized, and that in turn makes things far worse. If only we were able to see the birthing to come we would be able to endure the hardest times. The problem is that we cannot see from beneath the rubble the light ahead.
So once in history a man was shown the moment of rebirth. Once in history the invisible became visible.
That one vision has given us strength throughout history, as our lives have waxed and waned like the moon, to see it through. Even as we have stood at the abyss, at the brink of extinction, something deep inside us reminded us that all is not lost.
Where does such conviction come from? How does a mother have strength to fight for her child even when all doctors have given up hope? What power did the Jews have when they were herded into the gas chambers to sing “Ani Maamin” (“I believe”)? How is it possible that against all odds, in situations that were absolutely hopeless, a nation has not just survived but thrived?
This enormous, superhuman, power is rooted in Moses’ vision one lonely night in Egypt. As he looked up into the skies Moses saw nothing. The moon had completely disappeared. But then G-d pointed his finger and directed Moses to look closer: Hachodesh hazeh – here, look at the secret of rebirth, here I show you the moment that no man has ever seen and no man will ever see – the moment of transition, when one state is about to end only to open up a new state. Here is the invisible intersection where dark meets light, pain meets joy and exile meets redemption.
Birth means something new. We therefore can never actually see the exact moment when the old becomes new. But Moses did see – once for all times. G-d showed Moses the new moon at its moment of rebirth, and said to him: “When the moon is reborn, mark the beginning of a new month.”
As we now read the story of Exodus, the “book in which Israel goes from darkness to light” – the story of process, the process of loss and renewal, of suffering and growth, the process of death and birth – we can gather in our own lives much fortitude from the events that took place 3319 year ago.
When the next new moon arrives, go outside and look up into the sky. If we look hard enough perhaps we may get a glimpse of what Moses saw. But even if we can’t, our very gaze into the dark heavens, looking, searching, yearning, for the sliver of the new moon’s birthing, carries immense power – strength that can help us though any challenge.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Energy of the Week: Parshas Bo |
In this weeks Torah reading the people of Israel, still tightly bound in the constraints of their Egyptian bondage, receive the first Mitzvah, or invitation to connect.
“This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year.” (12:2)
This introduces the Mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon and the beginning of counting time through Lunar patterns.
There is a profound distinction between Solar and Lunar time. Sun-time is rigid. There is a set pattern of movement. The sun rises and sets day in and day out.
In the book of Kohelet it is written “There is nothing new under the sun.” In a rigid predictable universe there is no newness.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped the pagan deity RA – the ‘Sun deity.’ In this reality there was no possibility of breaking out of the natural order of things.
A person who was born a slave would remain a slave forever.
The Zohar adds, that while under the sun there is nothing new the moon does contain newness.
The moon waxes and wanes and is ever changing and renewing itself. The word Chodesh – month, is from the root word ‘Chadash’ – new.
The children of Israel believed and then envisioned themselves free and were therefore able to become free people and break out of their slave reality.
This is the third stage in freedom. First is the need to reject your negative story, not accepting your situation as permanent. Secondly, you need to believe in the possibility of change, accept the possibility of the miraculous. The third and final stage is actually visualizing this new reality and creatively imagining yourself already in that new state of being.
THE WEEK’S ENERGY
Creative VisualizationThis week’s Torah reading imbues us with the energy to creatively visualize ourselves in a better reality and in that way offers us a direct link to that reality.
Whatever reality you wish for yourself is within your reach.
Visualize yourself with clear imagination living in the reality which you desire.
When you place yourself in the picture of that place you begin to create that reality.
By fully imagining ourselves into this new reality we can truly be liberated from all constrictions and limitations.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Bo: Mutations of Consciousness
Wendy’s Comment: In her drash on the plague of locusts, Rabbi Laura writes about
issues that I, as an animal lover grapple with.
From Reb Sholom Brodt
Strengthen Your Faith and Come With Me
I first want to thank Hashem for having compassion on me and helping me learn some Torah.
One of the deepest, and maybe the deepest aspect of this week’s parsha is the lesson that to be liberated from Mitzrayim, to be liberated from our ‘meitzarim – narrows’ we must strengthen our emunah and bitachon – our faith and trust in Hashem. Whatever level one is on, high or low, every one of us is always on the ‘border’ of our narrows. Every one of us must continuously advance and rise from level to level to come closer to Hashem b’emunah ub’ahavah – with faith and love. Hashem is the infinite One, no matter how high you may have risen Hashem is always beyond your current level of belief in Hashem and understanding the depths of His Oneness.
To come closer to Hashem we must continue on our journey toward higher liberation and deeper and stronger faith. It is easy to be lulled into thinking otherwise. Once I heard the following parable– your spiritual journey is compared to walking through a totally dark and scary tunnel. At each step forward you experience some degree of instability. Every so often you encounter people sitting at snack-bars on the side. They warn you that to journey any further is frightening and just about impossible. They say that you have done very well to come this far, you’re already better than most, and they invite you to join them. And you, you are tired and weary, for it has really taken a lot of your energy. And so, there is only one way to go any further- you musty strengthen your faith in Hashem and strive to fulfill “Sur mey’ra v’assei tov – turn away from evil and do good; bakeish shalom v’rodfeihu – seak peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34)
To stop at any point and say, “I’ve reached my final destination,” is spiritually very dangerous, and it is false because there is always more to do and much more to grow. “So long as the candle is lit it is possible to fix.” So long as there is soul breath in our nostrils, “Don’t give up!”
Before leaving Mitzrayim, on the night of our Seder in Egypt, we were given two mitzvot to fulfill, to sacrifice and eat the Korban Pessach – the Paschal lamb and to perform brit milah – circumcision, which was a requisite for participating in the eating of the Korban Pessach. Rashi explains why we needed and were given mitzvot to perform while still in Mitzrayim, and why these two in particular:
R. Masia b. Cheresh would say: Scripture says: “And I passed over you and saw you and behold your time was a time of love”— [Hashem said] “the time has come [to fulfill] the oath which I swore to Avraham that I will redeem his children.” But they possessed no mitzvot with which to be occupied in order to merit redemption as it is said “And you are naked and bare.” So He gave them two mitzvot [regarding] the blood of the [korbon] pesach [which we put on the two side-posts and on the lintel],and the blood of circumcision, for that night they circumcised themselves; as it is said: [“when I passed over you I saw] you wallowing in your bloods (pl.),” referring to two bloods (Pesach and circumcision). It is also said: “As for you, because of the blood of your covenant I released your prisoners from the pit which had no water.” And because they (the B’nei Yisroel in Egypt) were immersed in idol worship, He said to them, “Draw and take [a lamb],”[meaning:] “withdraw your hands from idol worship and take unto yourselves a lamb to fulfill a mitzvah.” (Rashi shmot 12:6-7)
According to this Midrash we were “naked and bare” of mitzvot. Though we had the merit to be redeemed because of Hashem’s promise to Avraham Avinu, Hashem wanted us to have merit of our own as well. For this reason He gave us two mitzvot to be involved with before leaving Mitzrayim.
But why these two in particular? The Rabbis taught that the Children of Israel were redeemed from Mitzrayim only in the merit of their faith in Hashem. The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l explains that faith is of a higher power than intellect. Faith takes us beyond intellect. The belief of the Jewish people in Egypt, that they would one day be redeemed from slavery, was something impossible for the rational mind to imagine. But with this faith we went beyond the confines of our intellect.
The mitzvah of brit milah – the covenant of circumcision, [ – performed at the age of eight days, before the child can understand it], creates and signifies our supra-rational bond with Hashem. The bonding of this mitzvah is not only spiritually most lofty- the holiness of this covenant affects and penetrates even into our physical bodies.
The mitzvah of the ‘korban Pessach’ required us to sacrifice and eat a lamb. To do this mitzvah required our total self-sacrifice to Hashem, since this mitzvah required of us to slaughter the worshipped Egyptian idol and to cleanse ourselves of all traces of idolatry. By performing this mitzvah we brought the holiness of our ‘brit Milah” covenant with Hashem into the environment beyond our flesh, dispelling the impurity of idolatry.
The supra-rational bond between the Children of Israel and Hashem, created by these two mitzvot, affected even our darkest surroundings, the idolatrous Mitzrayim – narrows, and enabled us to be redeemed in our merit as well.
There is only one way to go – go further, strengthen your faith in Hashem and strive to fulfill “Sur mey’ra v’assei tov – turn away from evil and do good; bakeish shalom v’rodfeihu – seak peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34) So long as Hashem is breathing souls into our nostrils, He hasn’t given up. We are His optimism. May we all be blessed to never give up.
have a wonderful Shabbos, b’ahavah ubivracha
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
This was written for Rabbi Rachel’s ordination this week from Aleph.
“So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders.” —Exodus 12:34
You’ll need to travel light.
Take what you can carry: a book, a poem,
a battered tin cup, your child strapped
to your chest, clutching your necklace
in one hot possessive fist.
So the dough isn’t ready. So your heart
isn’t ready. You haven’t said goodbye
to the places where you hid as a child,
to the friends who aren’t interested in the journey,
to the graves you’ve tended.
But if you wait until you feel fully ready
you may never take the leap at all
and Infinity is calling you forth
out of this birth canal
and into the future’s wide expanse.
Learn to improvise flat cakes without yeast.
Learn to read new alphabets.
Wear God like a cloak
and stride forth with confidence.
You won’t know where you’re going
but you have the words of our sages,
the songs of our mothers, the inspiration
wrapped in your kneading bowl. Trust
that what you carry will sustain you
and take the first step out the door.
Congratulations to Rabbi Rachel.
From Rabbi Jill Hammer
This is a link to a sound file of a sermon at Congregation Romemu
From Melissa Carpenter
Bo: The Dog in the Night
January 14, 2013 at 10:14 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment
To me, dogs are pets. Most dogs have appealing personalities, and the love between dog and human is real. I rarely cry, but I cried when our dog died.
In the Torah, dogs are bad news. The ancient Israelites did not domesticate dogs until late in the First Temple period, even though their neighbors had long been training dogs for hunting, herding, and guarding. So most of the 24 references to dogs in the Hebrew Bible view them as disgusting feral scavengers. Calling a man a dog (or worse, a dead dog) means that he is the lowest of the low.
The first appearance of the Hebrew word for dog, kelev, is in this week’s Torah portion, Bo (“Come”).
Moses said: Thus said God: In the middle of the night, I Myself will go out in the midst of Egypt. And every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne, to the firstborn of the slave-woman who is behind the millstones, and every firstborn beast. Then there will be loud wailing in all the land of Egypt, the like of which has never happened, and the like of which will not happen again. But as for all the children of Israel, not a dog yecheratz its tongue against man or beast; in order that you shall know that God makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. (Exodus/Shemot 11:4-7)
yecheratz = will cut, will use a sharp instrument, will decide
On the night of the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, not a dog will use its tongue as a sharp instrument against the Israelites. In other words, while God is killing Egyptians, not even a dog will growl or bark to threaten the Israelites.
The verses translated above include two contrasts between the highest and the lowest. First, God says all the firstborn of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne, to the firstborn of the slave-woman who is behind the millstones. The phrase “slave-woman behind the millstones” is a translation of a phrase that an Egyptian document uses to indicate someone of the lowest possible social class. In other words, God will make no exceptions; everyone belonging to Egypt will suffer, regardless of social position, and regardless of guilt or innocence.
Next, the Torah says that everyone belonging to Israel will be safe from all threats: from the highest power possible–God Itself–to the lowest danger–dogs. In the middle of the night, while God is killing the Egyptian firstborn, and the Israelites are eating their Passover lamb, roaming dogs will not bite any Israelite humans or beasts. They will not even bark.
This reminds me of the dog that did not bark in the night in “Silver Blaze”, a Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle. Inspector Gregory asks Holmes, “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident.”
Sherlock Holmes has deduced that the guard-dog was silent in the middle of the night because the intruder was not a stranger, but the dog’s owner.
The passage in Exodus/Shemot contrasts the loud wailing of the Egyptians with the silence of the dogs. Dogs get agitated when their owners start screaming and wailing, and they respond by whimpering and barking. The dogs who will not growl or bark during the night of the death of the firstborn clearly do not have Egyptian owners. The Israelites who wrote down the Torah thought of dogs as ownerless wanderers, so the silent dogs do not belong to the children of Israel, either. Whose dogs are they?
And it was at midnight when God struck every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on this throne, to the firstborn of the captive in the dungeon, and every firstborn beast. (Exodus 12:29)
God goes from house to house in Egypt that night, skipping over only the houses of the Israelites. But the dogs roaming in the streets are silent, like the dog in “Silver Blaze”–because they recognize their owner.
I want to be like a dog. I don’t want to be the lowest of the low. But I do want to recognize my owner.
I have often wondered why the scout in the book of Numbers/Bamidbar who argues that the Israelites should go ahead and enter Canaan, and trust God to give them the land, is named Caleb, Kaleiv in Hebrew. His name comes from the same root as kelev, “dog”. Yet Caleb’s actions are all virtuous, not base and low, the way most dogs in the Torah behave. Perhaps Caleb is named after the dogs in Egypt—because he, too, recognized God.
From American Jewish World Service
Although the plagues that God rains down upon Pharaoh and all of the Egyptians in Parashat Vaera and Parashat Bo seem almost grotesquely farcical in their nature—blood? frogs? fiery hail?—they raise complex and nuanced questions about collective punishment and collective responsibility.
They seem, from the outset, to be a form of collective punishment that is deeply unjust. Moses begs Pharaoh to free the Israelites from their bondage, and when he says no, all of Egypt is punished over and over again—from blood to the slaying of the first-born children.1 The medieval commentary Sforno says that the verse, “from the first-born of Pharaoh…to the first-born of the captive,” which describes the scope of this last plague, is shorthand for a more accusatory phrase: “from the most guilty of parties [Pharaoh] to the least guilty of parties [the children of the captives who were sitting in the dungeon].”2 Sforno’s comment highlights the fact that these “least guilty” were neither in a position to enslave the Israelites initially nor to free them in order to stop the plagues, yet they were punished collectively with those, such as Pharaoh himself, who were. It was outright punishment of the innocent.
Setting aside the fundamental question of why innocent children should suffer for the sins of their parents, why must the powerless slave woman suffer along with the all-powerful Pharaoh in the slaying of the first-born? What sense can we make of this collective punishment?
Rashi circumvents these questions, saying that the Egyptian slaves and captives lost their first-born children in the plague because “they, too, enslaved [the Israelites] and took joy in their suffering.”3 According to Rashi, the plague of the first-born was a punishment for each Egyptian who participated in the oppression of the Israelites, and not collective punishment with all of its unjust implications.
Another interpretation enables us to derive a lesson from the plagues while preserving the text’s emphasis on the collective. Rather than unjustly targeting the innocent, we might say that that the collective punishment teaches us about our collective responsibility to free the oppressed. Viewed through this lens, the plagues point to a wider circle of responsibility beyond one national or ethnic group: the Egyptians at the lower echelons of society were responsible for the wrongs dealt by the more powerful among them; even further still, they were held liable for the well-being of the minority in their midst: the Israelites. We can derive from this a powerful notion of collective responsibility that extends from each human being to all human beings.
This solution is not without its own difficulties. Why should I be responsible for the actions of others? Isn’t it enough to be responsible for my own actions and their repercussions? Am I responsible for the unfair detention of a human rights activist in Zimbabwe or sex trafficking in Cambodia?4 What if I am relatively powerless against those who are perpetuating injustice? How far does this responsibility extend?
I would argue that it ultimately encompasses the entire world. Even though shouldering global responsibility is difficult, the alternative—to know about horrific brutalities perpretated against innocent people anywhere in the world and do nothing—is untenable. The lack of this responsibility—the distancing of ourselves from the other—has allowed attrocities to take place without protest.
This fits into the story of the Exodus in some fascinating ways. Even if one wanted to argue that the Egyptian servants and captives were unable to stop the enslavement of the Israelites, their silence was damning.5 Their punishment is perhaps a message to us: that to be silent in the face of injustice is to be implicated in the act itself.
Even those of us who are far from being Pharaohs have tremendous powers of influence over both local and world events. We can heed the call to responsibility by working to ensure that no one in our neighborhoods goes hungry and that all have adequate childcare; we can call our elected officials and demand a forceful response to oppressive regimes around the world. We can use our individual and collective economic clout by refraining from purchasing from companies that engage in unfair labor practices; we can vote for government officials who care about working families. Compared to the servant woman or captive in a dungeon in biblical Egypt, we are all nearly Pharaohs. Along with that power comes great responsibility, as there is always something that we can do to combat injustice.
This acceptance of global responsibility has galvanized a worldwide response to the attrocities taking place in southern Sudan and around the world. Thus, rather than a cause for despair or consternation, the collective punishment of the ten plagues should be a spur to action. From the most powerful to the least, we each have a role to play. In a world in which anyone suffers for naught, we are all, collectively, and each, individually, responsible for doing what we can to stop that suffering.
1 Exodus 7-11.
2 Sforno on Exodus 11:5, referring to Exodus 12:29.
3 Rashi on Exodus 11:5.
4 “Zimbabwe: Free Detained Rights Activist,” Human Rights Watch, 24 December 2008. Available at http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/12/24/zimbabwe-free-detained-rights-activist. Nicholas Kristof, “The Evil Behind the Smiles,” New York Times, 31 December 2008. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/01/opinion/01kristof.html.
5 Some interpretations maintain that some Egyptians, the “mixed multitude” who left Egypt with the Israelites, put the blood of the paschal lamb on their doors to evade the slaying of their first-born, throwing their lot in with the Israelites in favor of freedom and against oppression. The Egyptians who chose to leave their doorways clean thereby signified their acceptance of a repressive regime and evaded their own collective responsibility. The idea that any Egyptian could have put blood on his door and thus avoid the slaying of the first-born and join the Israelites in freedom was shared with me by Rabbi Arie Strikovsky, in a personal conversation.
From Chaya Kaplan-Lester
The Maqam Project
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
All of us, bringing our all: a d’var Torah for Bo
Posted: 03 Jan 2014 07:34 AM
Last week we read about Moses and Aaron going to Pharaoh, asking for permission to take their people into the wilderness to make offerings to Adonai. Pharaoh, not surprisingly, said no. God’s response was the first several plagues.
In this week’s Torah portion, the plagues continue. And for a moment, Pharaoh relents. “Go worship your God,” he snaps to Moses and Aaron. “Who’s going with you?”
Moses replies, “We will all go, with our youths and elders; we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds.” The phrase “youths and elders” is a rhetorical figure of speech which uses two extremes to convey a totality. The text says “young and old,” and we’re meant to fill in “and everyone in between.”
The Eskenazi and Weiss translation reads “We will all go, regardless of social station.” Rich and poor and everyone in between. Those who had assimilated into Egyptian ways, and those who had retained strong Hebrew practices, and everyone in between. Those who had power, and those who were powerless, and everyone in between.
How powerful that in this moment, as Moses has first taken on the mantle of leading our people out of slavery, he insists that making offerings to Adonai is something which all the people must do.
The Hebrew word עבודה (avodah) means service, as in the service of sacrifices we once offered, now replaced by the service of the heart which is prayer. We will read soon in Torah about how the priestly system of sacrifice began in the wilderness, and then about the priestly apparatus which existed once the Temple is built. But here in this moment before the Exodus, Moses offers a glimpse of a radically egalitarian future in which all of us are called to be servants of the Most High.
Not just the priests. Not just the men. Not just those with social standing. All of us.
Unsurprisingly, Pharaoh balks. “May God be with you the same as I mean to let your descendants go with you,” he sneers. He knows that it’s not possible to serve two masters, and that if he lets us be in relationship with God, we will no longer be completely under his thumb.
The Hebrew words for slavery and for service come from the same root, ע / ב/ ד. This root is a recurring motif in this week’s Torah portion; it appears, in various forms, 21 times (an average of once every three verses!)* In the haggadah we read avadim hayyinu, “we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt…” And once we enter into covenant with God at Sinai we become avdei Adonai, servants of the Most High. The word denoting service is the same…but who or what are we serving? That’s what makes all the difference.
In the Jewish understanding, we don’t shrug off Pharaoh’s chains in order to be completely unfettered, free of responsibility to anyone or anything. The truest freedom comes in choosing to serve: to serve the greater good, to serve creation, to serve the source of love in the universe. Either our lives belong to Pharaoh — to overwork, to empire, to power-over, to that force which seeks to dominate and to own us — or they belong to the Source of all, the Wellspring of creation, the One Who speaks and the world comes into being.
The gift of Shabbat is that it removes us from Pharaoh’s domain every week. No matter what our obligations — to our jobs, to the bank which holds the mortgage, to social pressures or unrealistic expectations — on one day each week, we let all of that go. We stop serving our bosses and instead remember that we are truly servants of God, blessed and enlivened by that enduring relationship with something greater than ourselves.
And that is true no matter who we are. Young and old, righteous and wicked, rich and poor, all of these binarisms and everyone in between — all of us are called to offer our hearts and our hands.
After two more plagues, Pharaoh changes his mind again. “Fine,” he says, “all of your people can go, but leave behind your flocks and herds.” And Moses says no, we need to take everyone and everything. “We shall not know with what we are to worship God until we get there.” The simplest understanding of that line is that he’s talking about animals for sacrificing. In those days we offered praise and thanksgiving through animal sacrifice; the Hebrews needed all of their livestock in case God asked for more sheep or goats. But I think this line from Torah has a deeper truth which is clear to us today in our post-sacrificial world: when it comes to divine service, we have to bring all that we are.
We never know which parts of ourselves will be needed, which talents or skills or ideas or yearnings will fit the bill. We won’t know, we can’t know, how we will serve God until we reach each new moment, each new challenge. That’s why we have to bring all of us: not only the whole community, but also all of each individual person’s body, mind, heart, and soul.
If we leave any person behind — if we leave any part of ourselves behind — we won’t be able to serve wholly (or to serve the Holy.) When it comes to serving God, all of us have to bring our all.
*The source for the citation on 21 appearances of עבד is this My Jewish Learning commentary
From Rabbi David Ingber
Borrowing Gold Vessels: The Gifts we Take (Make) from Suffering
From Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks
Ignoring Ignorance- Parshat Bo
Sometimes you might be fooled into thinking that spiritual freedom is a delusion, that in order to have it you would need to ignore your real problems. Actually, the opposite is true. When you lose your happiness and freedom because you are thinking about your problems, isn’t that the delusion? Is it not delusion to think that by making yourself miserable you are somehow addressing or improving your situation? In reality, you now have two problems- the difficult situation and the inner tension and negative energy generated by your thoughts.
In this week’s reading, Parshat Bo, Moses has been presenting plague after plague to Pharaoh, but Pharaoh just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t realize that his refusal to let the Israelites go free is bringing plagues upon himself. What does he think he is accomplishing? But that is exactly what the ego does: it brings suffering upon itself, rather than allowing liberation to happen.
The remedy is in the opening lines in which G-d says to Moses, “Bo el Paro- come to Pharaoh.” G-d doesn’t say, “go to Pharaoh” but “come to Pharaoh”, indicating that G-d is there with Pharaoh, telling Moses to “come”. In other words, the Divine is found in the suffering itself, not in trying to avoid it.
Bring your awareness into your suffering. Don’t look out into the future from your suffering, imagining that things will be better once you get what you want. The end of suffering and the beginning of liberation is the un-knotting of the Pharaoh, and that begins with bringing your attention into the Pharaoh, becoming conscious of the energetic knot of resistance within. Once that knot is broken, liberation is immediate; it is a leap. Don’t try to be too prepared. When it’s time to go, just go. Unleavened bread and all. There is only one chance, and that chance is now… and yet “now” never ends!
There is a hint of this in the word “bo” which means “come”. It is composed of two letters- bet and aleph. The bet has the numerical value of two, and can mean “house”. The aleph as the value of one, and among its many meanings are “chief” and “ox”. In the movement of consciousness toward any contraction that is arising within your body, the contraction can release and the duality between consciousness and contraction of consciousness can shift into unity. Rather than there being suffering on one hand, and resistance to suffering on the other, there is just presence with Being as it is unfolding. To do this, you have to be like a bayit- a welcoming home for whatever arises within. Then, you can evolve into an aluf- a “chief” of self mastery, unified within, strong and rooted like an ox.
May this Shabbat see the un-knotting of all contracted separateness and may we come close to the Divine Presence in sweet intimacy for healing, peace and wisdom. Amein.
From JTS Community Learning
Rabbi Lisa Gelber
Lighting the Darkness
It’s difficult not to notice darkness at this time of year; so many of us set out for work in the dark and leave our places of business long after the sun has set. In these cold and potentially dreary winter months, the dark may feel heavy, and we long for a few rays of light.
But darkness is a part of the natural order of things. Our Torah tells us we emerged from darkness: “the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep . . . (ve-ha’aretz hayta tohu va-vohu, ve-hoshekh al p’nai t’hom . . . )” (Gen. 1:2); “and God separated the light from the darkness (va-yavdayl Eloheem bayn ha’or u-vayn ha’hoshekh)” (Gen. 1:4). Notice, God does not destroy the darkness; rather, it is pulled back, separated to expose the light and the dark, each in its own time and place.
The absence of light, in its literal sense, may designate a time for rest. Dark is a time to be—without the glare of computer screens, television sets, the Wii. We close our eyes, notice our breath, and bring things down a notch (or more). In these moments, darkness may bring awareness, even comfort. Yet almost all of us can think of a time when we were afraid of the dark. We imagined monsters under our beds and in our closets, we heard noises and footsteps in the house. Whatever grounded us, whatever made us feel safe, secure, and protected, disappeared within the dark. Darkness signaled fear, uncertainty, and a loss of control, not a way in which we wanted to live.
Parashat Bo introduces darkness, the penultimate plague to afflict the Egyptians before the Israelites are freed from slavery, as something that could not be mitigated. This hoshekh, an extreme darkness, not only highlights the potentially terrifying nature of the dark but also demonstrates the capacity for darkness to become a plague, affecting physical and spiritual well-being.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. (Exod. 10:21-23)
The darkness for the Egyptians in Egypt is not merely an absence of light; it has substance that remains for an extended period of time. In his commentary, Ramban (1194-1270) suggests that the darkness was composed of such a thick, foglike substance that it extinguished all of the lamps; there was no fire at all. No light. No way to see up or down; no means of telling day from night. No opportunity to see oneself in relation to others.
The Torah reminds us that the Israelites were afflicted with hard labor and spiritual strain. The Egyptians did not see the despair of the people of Israel. They could not look into the eyes of their fellow human beings and acknowledge their pain. They stumbled about in the darkness, tripping over the core institutions of respect and freedom. “No one could see the other. And no one could rise from his or her place for three days (Lo ra’u ish et ahiv. V’lo kamu ish mitachtav shloshet yamim)” (Exod. 10:23). These were a people blind and rooted to the ground, a people engulfed by spiritual and emotional darkness. How does darkness become a plague? By blocking the light, turning off our awareness, shutting down relationships, and preventing us from becoming agents of change.
Think back, for a moment, to those times when you were truly afraid of the dark. What brought you back to the safety of your surroundings? Calling out for a loved one, turning on a light, checking under the bed and in the closet, thinking outside of yourself, finding the spiritual and intellectual proof that you were not alone. What prevents our own experiences of the dark from filling us with terror and cutting us off from one another? Honesty, about how and where we are. Ongoing awareness of God. Commitment as a people to remain in relationship with one another and our Creator.
Honesty with self: We remain mindful of our vulnerability in the dark each evening when we recite the second blessing after the Shema’. Hashkeeveinu (Siddur Sim Shalom, 292) offers the space and context in which to articulate our fears, both personal and communal, and to call upon God’s presence in our lives as companion and protector. We need not do this alone. God may help mitigate our fears and our demons.
Ongoing awareness of God: In his negotiations with Pharaoh, Moses insists, in verses twenty-five and twenty-six, not only that the people go up to worship the Lord, but that the flocks and herds accompany the men, women, and children as well. He maintains that “not a hoof shall remain behind; for we must select from it for the worship of the Lord our God.” Why must they take the animals as well? “We will not know with what we are to worship the Lord until we arrive there (va-anachnu lo-nayda mah na’avod et Adonai ad boaynu sha’mah).”
Rashi, our eleventh-century commentator, suggests we understand these words in a literal manner—we don’t know how many animals we will need. Thinking more broadly and, for our purposes, somewhat anachronistically, one might say there is no way to know if their service to God will be different or not when they get to where they are going. The Etz Hayyim Humash notes that we cannot know what God wants of us until we encounter God in each new stage of our lives. More than that, we don’t know with what we will serve God until we are in that placecalls on us to be mindful, as a people and as individuals, of how God resides in our world (whether that be a communal or a personal space), so that moment to moment, as our journey unfolds, we may have the wisdom and the energy to engage.
Commitment to relationship: How do we end Shabbat each week? We light a braided candle to illuminate the night. The torchlike flame helps us to see through the dark, to identify the people who fill our celebrations with life, and to help guide us into another week, another opportunity to elevate ourselves and our world through acts that express kindness and motivate justice. In order to survive, in order to move forward and grow, one must see the other not as other but as an-other: another being critical to our society and our world.
In the book of Proverbs we learn, “ner Adonai nishmat adam”—”the lamp of God is the soul of the individual” (20:27). Each of us carries God’s spark. May we have the courage and the wisdom to illuminate the dark, shining light on the blessings we have to offer the world.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
The Anatomy of Fear
With what we are to serve – a dvar Torah for WCJA 2017
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses argues with Pharaoh about letting the people go.
It’s framed as “let the people go so they may worship Adonai.” Torah doesn’t speak in terms of freedom for its own sake. Moshe seeks his people’s freedom from servitude and oppression and hard labor — and, it’s not just about being freed from, it’s also about being freed toward.
Pharaoh suggests he might let them go, but only the men, which Moses rejects: no, we’re not leaving women and children behind. Then Pharaoh suggests he might let them go, but says they can’t take herds or flocks with them. And Moshe says no, because:
וַאֲנַ֣חְנוּ לֹֽא־נֵדַ֗ע מַֽה־נַּעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־ה׳ עַד־בֹּאֵ֖נוּ שָֽׁמָּה / “We shall not know with what we are to serve until we get there.”
On the surface, he’s making a practical point. The request was to let our people go so that we could worship God in the wilderness, and the way we did that back then was through animal sacrifice. In the physical world, when he says “we shall not know with what we are to serve” he’s talking about goats and sheep. But in the worlds of emotion and spirit, Moshe’s highlighting a fundamental truth of every new undertaking: we never know what a journey will ask of us.
Going from slavery to freedom, from servitude to Pharaoh to service to the One, from narrow straits to liberation: it’s the core story of Jewish peoplehood. We retell it every year at the Passover seder. We remind ourselves of it every Shabbat when we sing Mi Chamocha, and when we make the kiddush over wine. Those of us who have the practice of daily Jewish liturgical prayer remind ourselves of it every day.
It’s also a core story of our lives. We move from constriction to expansion, from unconsciousness to consciousness, from calcified habits to transformation, over and over again. As we grow up and leave a childhood home for college, or leave the Purple Valley for the wide world outside. As we outgrow old circumstances and start over. As we discover that we can be more than we have been, and then pursue that becoming.
Hold that thought, because I want to pause and look at what it means to serve. I said earlier that Moshe’s request is to free the people, but not so they can be accountable to no one. He seeks to free them from Pharaoh so they can serve God instead. That may sound like trading one master for another. But I think it’s not, and here’s why.
Pharaoh dehumanized us. He signed an executive order to have our baby boys murdered. Pharaoh believed that we were inferior to “regular” Egyptian citizens. Pharaoh saw us as teeming masses of foreigners, people who prayed differently and dressed differently and therefore deserved a lifetime of slavery in the pyramid-industrial complex. When describing how Pharaoh saw us, Torah says “the Israelites were fruitful and they swarmed” — swarmed, like bugs. Being enslaved to Pharaoh meant working for the betterment of someone who saw us as equivalent to cockroaches.
Service to God is the opposite of that. To Pharaoh we were indistinguishable insects, but in God’s eyes each of us is infinitely precious. Torah teaches that every human being is made in the image and the likeness of the One — regardless of race or religion, shape or skin tone. To serve God means to serve the source of love and liberation. It means to choose to align ourselves with the force that brought us out of slavery, and to seek to break the shackles of those who are still enslaved.
But maybe you don’t believe in God, not even the one I just described. That’s okay. We can talk another time about why I’m more interested in engaging with — talking to, wrestling with, demanding things of — than believing in. No matter what you “believe in,” there is service that awaits you, if you’re willing to hear the call. Leave the world a better place than you found it. Work toward justice and human rights for all. Feed the hungry, protect the powerless, speak up for those who are victimized by structures of power and domination. That’s the calling to which Judaism summons us.
And you won’t know what resources you’ll need for that work until you get there. You can learn. You can study. You can prepare with all your might. But the work of making the world a better place will require all of who you are, and you’ll have to reach for strength and courage and conviction that you didn’t know you had. Not once, but over and over again.
Every new chapter requires us to grow and deepen what we can offer to the world. It’s true of a new semester. It’s true of a new relationship, or a new job, or a new Presidential administration. We won’t know with what we are called to serve until we get there. We won’t know what this new adventure demands of us, what internal qualities of kindness or strength, courage or resolve we’re going to need — until we get there.
And “getting there” may be a misnomer. Because every moment asks us to dig deep and draw on the best of who we are. I know what resources I needed for yesterday, but yesterday’s over. I know what resources I needed an hour ago, but that’s then, and this is now. וַאֲנַ֣חְנוּ לֹֽא־נֵדַ֗ע מַֽה־נַּעֲבֹד֙ אֶת–ה׳ עַד־בֹּאֵ֖נוּ שָֽׁמָּה — We won’t know what this new moment asks of us until we reach it. And then there will be another new moment, and another after that.
Right now it’s Shabbes, a deep dive into holy time. This is the time to soak up what nourishes us, to set aside the pressures of the week. This is the time to remember who we truly are — not when we’re defining ourselves through what we do, or what we’ve accomplished, or what’s on our to-do list, but through who our hearts and souls yearn to be.
And when we emerge from this Shabbat, life will ask things of us. The new week will make demands on us. Our professors, or bosses, or families, will make demands on us. The world at large will make demands on us. May you be blessed with the ability to dig deep and find the reserves you need for whatever liberation, whatever new adventure, whatever challenges lie ahead. Shabbat shalom.
Exile and expansiveness – a d’varling for parashat Bo
Right now in our cycle of Torah readings (parashat Bo) we’re reading about the plagues and the start of the Exodus. Looking for inspiration on this week’s parsha, I turned to the Hasidic master known as the Me’or Eynayim, “The Light of the Eyes.” (His given name was Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl.) He writes about Egypt as a place of existential exile, and about what happens to us spiritually when we are brought forth from there.
Slavery in Egypt is our tradition’s ultimate example of גלות / galut, existential alienation from God. It’s the paradigmatic example of constriction. When we talk about being slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, we’re also always talking about experiences of constriction in the narrow places of our lives now.
For the Me’or Eynayim, galut is a state of not-knowing God. It’s a state of having fallen so far from unity that we don’t even realize we’ve fallen. This, he says, is what we experienced in the Narrow Place. And Pharaoh is the exemplar of exile. He saw himself as a god, and had no awareness of a Source greater than himself.
When one is in this kind of galut, it’s hard to know the difference between what will give life and what will deaden us. Torah instructs us to “choose life,” but it’s hard to know what will enliven us when we’re in a place of alienation from our Source. What the Exodus offers us is the opportunity to leave existential exile, and in that leaving, to regain the capacity for moral choice.
In the state of galut that we experience when we’re in life’s Narrow Places, there’s only katnut-consciousness, small mind. It’s a vicious cycle, because exile creates small mind, and small mind makes it hard to imagine breaking free from exile.
Emerging from the Narrow Place means being reborn from katnut into gadlut, from small mind into expansive consciousness. The words גלות / galut and גדלות / gadlut are similar, but there’s one letter of difference between them: the letter ד / daled, which — as I was powerfully reminded by Rabbi David Ingber in his extraordinary sermon on doorways and welcoming the stranger last night — is a delet, a door. Galut is exile; gadlut is greatness, or expanded-mind. We begin in exile. We go through a door, a transformation, a state-change. And then we reach gadlut, “big mind.” And once we’ve reached expansive consciousness, we can seek to know God wholly. That’s why we were brought forth from Egypt, says the Me’or Eynayim: in order to know God wholly.
We were brought forth from Egypt in order to see beyond the binaries of our own constriction. Once we begin to glimpse gadlut, the constrictions of exile fall away.
Exile can be self-perpetuating, because when we’re in it, it’s hard to see a way out. Depression is like that. Despair is like that. Overwhelm is like that. Sometimes if I look at everything that’s wrong with the world, exile rushes in and washes me away. But if we can open our minds even for an instant to glimpse the prospect of a better life, the fact of glimpsing a redemptive possibility makes that redemption possible.
Shabbat is our chance to glimpse the world redeemed — to live for one day a week not in grief at the world as it is, but in celebration of the world as it should be. May we emerge from Shabbat ready to roll up our sleeves, to combat small-mindedness wherever we find it, and to choose to bring more life everywhere we go.
From Brian Yosef Shachter-Brooks
The Sweet Roll
People of the Door
From the Hebrew College
By Jordan Schuster Rabbinical Student
On Approaching the Tyrannical Heart
There is this scene from a tale by Rabbi Nakhman of Breslov that’s been hounding me lately. In it, the world has fallen under the sway of a handful of tyrants. Each tyrant claims a different moral truth. Each truth-claim begets a different moralizing discourse. As these discourses proliferate, the world divides, polarizes, rends itself apart. Mountains quake. The earth comes undone.
Into the midst of this trembling, tyrannical world, Nakhman places the figure of a zaken – an elder – bearded, pious, frail – who draws a circle of protection around himself and his family. One day, Nakhman tells us, one of the world’s royal tyrants approaches this elder and begs him for healing. A healer by trade, the elder welcomes the tyrant into his circle, then restores his vitality. In thanks, the tyrant yields to the elder a weighty tome: “This book contains a list of all the demons known to rage in the heart of the human-being,” the tyrant says. “By identifying which demon is active in which individual’s heart, you will be able to seize control over that individual.”
The elder smiles, thanks the tyrant, but refuses the book. “My power does not come through naming the demons that possess the human heart,” the elder replies. “My power comes from the faith I have in the human heart’s divine potential, from my ability to see that potential in each individual, then raise it up to the supernal root from which it was hewn.”
Nakhman never describes the process by which the zaken of his tale develops this capacity to unearth from the tyrannical heart a sense of buried divinity. For this, one needs to turn away from Nakhman’s tales and towards Nakhman’s torot – Nakhman’s teachings. The following teaching Nakhman bases upon the first two verses of this week’s Torah Portion, Parashat Bo:
And God said to Moses: Approach Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart…in order that I might place My signs in his midst [be-qirbo]…that you might know: I am God…(Exod. 10:1-2)
When read within the context of the Exodus narrative, the “signs” God intends to “place in [Pharaoh’s] midst” refer to the plagues God intends to inflict upon Pharaoh’s kingdom. As a result of witnessing the execution of these plagues, Moses will come to “know…God.” This seems to be the basic, contextual reading of the above passage. When Nakhman confronts these verses, however, he replaces their contextual meaning with a kind of hyper-literalism. Indeed, in Nakhman’s hands, “the signs” God “places in [Pharaoh’s] midst” allude not to plagues placed within the midst of Pharaoh’s land, but rather to slivers of divine potential placed within the literal “midst” of Pharaoh himself [be-qirbo]. In relocating God’s divine signs from the external sphere of Egypt to the internal sphere of Pharaoh’s psyche, Nakhman effectively redefines the phenomenon by which Moses will come to “know…God” as well. Instead of “knowing God” through the physical experience of witnessing a series of supernatural plagues, Moses will now come to “know…God” through the spiritual revelation of how – even in the darkest and most tyrannical of hearts – traces of God still exist.
There is something beautiful to Nakhman’s claim that there dwells within all existence a constant, underlying capacity for transformation, growth, redemption, godliness. That said, Nakhman’s claim carries with it an extraordinarily problematic implication as well. It feels painful, if not entirely manipulative, to expect a victim to detect, then “lift up,” the “divine potential” of his or her oppressor. And yet, in the midst of our trembling and tyrannical world – where truth claims collide and moralizing discourses generate seemingly unbridgeable ideological chasms – there is something to Nakhman’s vision I can’t quite let go of. For while I deeply believe that we must continue to call out injustice and fight actively for the execution of what we deem is “just,” I also can’t help but linger – again and again – on this image of an elder refusing to exploit the demonic in others, on this depiction of an ancient leader gazing into the hardened heart of a tyrant to find – buried “within its midst” – something human, something divine, something infinitely worth approaching.
Jordan Schuster is in his final year at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, where he will be co-teaching a course on the tales of Rabbi Nakhman of Breslov this spring with Rabbi Arthur Green.
 Adapted from my reading of Sippurey Mayses, A Mayse Vegn a Higer (#3).
 See Nakhman’s Likkutei Moharan 1:64.
Miracles of Biblical and Everyday Proportions
BY RABBI JOEL ALTER
Last week, God pummeled Egypt unprecedentedly with hail:
The LORD sent thunder and hail, and fire streamed down to the ground, as the LORD rained down hail upon the land of Egypt. The hail was very heavy—fire flashing in the midst of the hail—such as had not fallen on the land of Egypt since it had become a nation. (Exod. 9:23–24)
On the combination of fire and ice, Ibn Ezra comments that this was “a wonder within a wonder.”
As this week’s portion opens, Moses and Aaron announce:
If you refuse to let My people go, tomorrow I will bring locusts on your territory. They shall cover the surface of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land . . . something that neither your fathers nor fathers’ fathers have seen from the day they appeared on earth to this day. (Exod. 10:4–6)
And so it was. “Locusts invaded all the land of Egypt in a thick mass; never before had there been so many, nor will there ever be so many again” (10:14).
The Torah emphasizes the unprecedented nature of these two plagues. Neither hail nor locusts are miraculous. Naturally, some bouts are more severe than others. But the unique severity of these assaults, and their onset and cessation at God’s directive, places them beyond the natural order.
Hail and locusts are followed by impenetrable darkness upon Egypt while light shone upon the Israelites. The plagues culminate with the horror of the selective deaths of the firstborn, in which the Israelites shield themselves from danger by smearing blood upon their door posts.
And finally, following the Israelites’ release, the great coda of the splitting of the sea. These, the Torah practically shouts, are miracles. Signs of God’s power and unbounded sovereignty. Instructive events down through the ages both to Pharaoh (Exod. 7:17) and the Israelites (e.g. Exod. 11:7 and 13:14): to Pharaoh, who sees himself as god and sovereign, and to the Israelites, who through the Exodus are meant to grow out of degradation in servitude to their slave master and into redemptive and sacred service to God.
These cataclysms are what we have in mind when we talk about events on a biblical scale. I’m thinking of historic weather events like Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. Such storms’ enormous scale, destructive force, and fatefulness feel “biblical.”
However, absent the biblical antecedents’ will and purpose, catastrophic weather in our day is not miraculous. Fearsome winds or waters are neither orchestrated nor deliberately unleashed. Harvey and other megastorms last summer are, indeed, telling us something, and they feel biblical in scale, but the Torah is after something else when relating its miracles.
As a rabbinical student, I had the privilege to study Bible with Moshe Greenberg, one of the great scholars of Bible of the last century. By the second semester I got up the courage to meet with him privately to ask some questions. “I have no problem,” I began, “that the Torah as written is a human document and I am untroubled that its events are neither historical nor scientific reports. But I don’t know what to do with the miracles. Why does the Torah need them? Why does it relate them that way?”
“When one experiences a transformational event in one’s life, it takes on enormous scale,” Greenberg replied. He related that once he was invited to the Johnson White House to sit on a panel of religious scholars. He recalled the awe he felt waiting in the Cabinet Room, overwhelmed by his august surroundings. All of a sudden, in walked President Johnson, a very tall man. Greenberg saw Johnson that day as a giant. Larger than life.
And he recalled, too, watching TV reports of the Freedom Riders in 1961. Greenberg was so moved by the righteousness of their cause and the courage of their journey that the young activists on the screen were, he was sure, the most beautiful men and women he had ever seen.
Whatever the (unknowable) events of the Exodus, Greenberg taught that that Torah’s miracles are animated by a transformational, lived experience of redemption.
I came to understand that the Torah seeks to bestir in me, and in every listener or reader, the Israelites’ leap to faith and fealty that is an explicit aim of the Exodus, but which so famously fails in the desert. “And when, in time to come, your child asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that the LORD brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage” (13:14). It astounds how much weight the Torah places on the telling. What alternative is there? Miracles don’t happen every day.
Or do they? Just before the morning Shema, the Siddur proclaims: “With kindness, You illumine the earth and all who dwell on it; in Your goodness, You renew creation day after day.” Embedded in Birkhot Hashahar, we extensively recount the crossing of the sea, and recall it yet again in preparation for the Amidah. By reciting Mi Kamokha, “Who is like you, God?” as the Israelites sang out on the far shore of the sea, we embody them. The Siddur challenges us to regard each sunrise as the recreation of the world. And to feel that being awake another morning is no less than the crossing of the sea.
The Torah’s telling of the Exodus is gripping. I experience a chill each time I read, “And Pharaoh rose at night, he and all his servants and all Egypt—and there was a great outcry in Egypt; for there was no household in which there was no dead” (12:30). Those miracles pulse with every telling.
But upon the first wakeful breath of every morning, to inhale hope from God’s love, and to exhale with wonder over renewed creation? Every day? To feel the exhilaration of redemption daily? These are the challenges of the religious life. Breaking through to gratitude is miraculous. Plain and simple.
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