Shut Down in Darkness – Parshat Bo 5779

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I usually avoid straying into overtly political territory in my weekly writings. I tend to stick to moral issues that might allude to the current political scene, but rarely do I actively condemn or condone. However, the story of the government shutdown/standoff over the proposed border wall has been in front of us every day since the end of the year, and it’s increasingly difficult to ignore.

I keep coming back to the news of the migrant caravan that started working its way north several months ago from war-torn, gang-ridden, violent countries. When news broke that our borders were shut down, and the pictures of mothers and diapered children running from tear gas flooded the internet, my heart stopped. My entire family came to America as immigrants. They moved from Europe in the early 1920s to find safety and a better future. We are the “lucky” ones who were safely in America before World War II. Others did not have the same good fortune and were turned away, only to return to their peril and sometimes death in their countries of origin. Why do we vow “never again,” yet when we’re faced with the opportunity to save lives and create a safe haven, especially when there are thorough vetting processes in place, we say no?

Realistically, as citizens there’s only so much we can do. We can write our representatives to express approval or disapproval, and we can donate to aid organizations. But then what? The feeling of helplessness is paralyzing. The shadow of depression hovers low over the things we feel powerless to change. I have so many emotions, knowing that my family was able to seek freedom and security here, while countless others won’t have that opportunity.

This feeling of darkness is not mine alone to bear. We read in the Torah this week from Parshat Bo, which speaks of a similar feeling among the Egyptian people during the time of the plagues. Parshat Bo details the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites are a traveling people, and in Parshat Bo the Israelites are steps away from leaving Egypt. Pharaoh again refuses to allow the Israelites to leave, and each of the three refusals brings with it one of the three final plagues. The narrative continues with the procedures for leaving Egypt, including putting the lamb’s blood on the doorpost, and the instruction to recreate these events by celebrating Passover in future generations.

During the plagues, there was nothing the average Egyptian could have done to end the misery. That’s the case for all of the plagues except one: darkness. Why is it, our Torah scholars ask, that during the plague of darkness, no one thought to light a candle? Wouldn’t that have ended the darkness? The commentary answers this question by imagining an entire group of people in a deep depression, a psychological or spiritual darkness. People suffering from depression often lack the physical energy to move or the emotional energy to get out of their own heads. This is exactly how the Egyptians are described. We can only guess what the emotional state of the Egyptians might have been, but the Torah is clear in its message. When we are enveloped in the plague of darkness, we lose reason, we lose compassion, we lose ourselves.

The stalemate that resulted in the current government shutdown feels like a plague of darkness. From the federal employees whose payroll has been affected, to the complicated issue of border security versus humanitarian aid, the lack of movement is paralyzing.

I certainly don’t claim to have all the political answers for how to solve the immigration crisis, but I know that darkness is not it. I know that an immobile, uncompromising Congress is not it. I know that verbally and physically attacking people who are simply looking for a better life for their children is not it. I don’t have the solution, but I remain hopeful that at some point soon we will remember we still have the power to end the darkness by turning on a light.

 

Broken Record – Parshat Bo 5778

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When Shiri was nine months old we made the trek via car from Dallas, Texas to Portland, Oregon. Those five days left Duncan and me with frazzled nerves, to say the least. We’d wake up every morning praying for an easy day in the car, and what usually got us through was singing the same three songs and reading the same book over and over again. By the end of the trip, we were confident we knew Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by heart. (Feel free to stop me in the hall – I’m happy to recite it for you on demand.)

When I was younger I remember my mother saying she felt like a broken record, repeating herself over and over again to relay the simplest of instructions. As a mom myself, I totally get it now. Repetition can be annoying, but it’s necessary, from the comfort of a well-worn (played) CD to practicing a new skill to having to hear the same reminder more than once.

Adults can find comfort in repetition too, which is why this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bo, is so relevant to our lives and Jewish tradition today. The Israelites are a traveling people, and in Parshat Bo the Israelites are steps away from leaving Egypt. Pharaoh refuses to allow the Israelites to leave, and each of the three refusals brings with it one of the three final plagues. The narrative continues with the procedures for leaving Egypt, including putting lamb’s blood on the doorpost and packing up.

Parshat Bo ends with the commandment to tell the story of Pesach year after year for generations to come. It’s about repetition. A fledgling nation needs to hear the story of their birth over and over in order to remember it, internalize it, and cherish it just like our children need the comfort of the same song, same story, and same routine to find their compass. We repeat these stories to commit them to memory, thus creating a communal history and story that guides us into the future.

 

Remember When – Parshat Bo 5777

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What advice do you hear most often just before a major life event? “Live in the moment because the memories will last a lifetime.” We spend so much time anticipating the birth of a baby (months of mental preparation, getting the house in order, picking a name, planning the welcoming ceremony), but the moment of the birth itself quickly fades, as do future milestones of childhood. So what do we do? We tell the birth stories, we make note of first words, and we take tons of pictures so that the memory will remain. Similarly, with a wedding we spend months planning out every detail, and we hire videographers and photographers to hopefully capture those beautiful moments so that the memories of that special time together will last a lifetime of marriage.

This week we read parshat Bo, which details the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites are a traveling people, and in parshat Bo the Israelites are steps away from traveling again, this time leaving bondage. Pharaoh again refuses to allow the Israelites to leave, and each of the three refusals brings with it one of the three final plagues. Our story continues with the procedures for leaving Egypt, including putting the lamb’s blood on the doorpost, packing up, and recreating these events by celebrating Passover in future generations.

The style of the Torah up until parshat Bo is mainly narrative. There are very few commandments given until the Israelites leave Egypt. In chapter 12, verse 14 however, the Torah shifts from the instructions given to Moses and his contemporaries to the listing of the mitzvot to be followed by later generations of Jews. These aren’t instructions on how to leave Egypt, but rather instructions on how never to forget this time in our history when we left Egypt.

Even the Torah, well before smartphones, Instagram, and Timehop, understood that the most important part of sharing our history is how we preserve the memories. The laws of parshat Bo remind us that while the moment itself has significant power, the memory, if passed down, will live on forever.

 

Leftovers – Parshat Bo 5776

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As an executive chef, my Uncle Larry gets culinary inspiration from a variety of places, including my Nana’s recipe box.  Of course in order to use family recipes for commercial purposes, he has had to make some serious measurement conversions. This means that when I want to make one of Nana’s famously delicious family recipes at home, Uncle Larry sends it to me with instructions like: “Divide by 40 to get a reasonable size recipe.” Somehow I still always end up with enough food to feed an army.

Maybe it’s the stereotypical Jewish mother in me that’s to blame, but whenever we host a dinner or event, I stress over having enough food. “I’ll just make one more side dish to go along with the other four, just to be safe,” I’ll rationalize. Inevitably, we have leftovers for days.  

Oddly enough, there are leftovers in the Torah. It makes sense when you think about it. When you’re feeding an entire Israelite nation, there’s no way to anticipate the precise needs of every meal. Our parshah this week, parshat Bo, is notable for containing the commandment to observe Passover, but it also contains helpful hints about what to do with seder meal leftovers. The narrative picks up with the final plagues that God is sending to Egypt and continues with the holiday of Passover, teaching the Israelites what it means to build a community, beginning with the first laws of their calendar. The text ends with arguably one of the most important commandments we have – that of telling the story of the Exodus in every generation.  

In Exodus chapter 12, God gives the commandments for the Passover sacrifice, specifying that each family is to sacrifice their own lamb. But in verse 4 God states, “But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat.” The Torah teaches that Passover, like a great number of our Jewish traditions, is a family celebration. Specifically, it is meant to be celebrated communally, not in isolation. An abundance of food is simply another reason to share the celebration.

According to Samson Raphael Hirsch, the paschal sacrifice teaches that we are to “let those whose households are too small to absorb all the blessings that God has given them seek out their neighbors and share the bounty with them.” It is our responsibility to sustain others in our community with our “leftovers.”

Nowhere is there a better reminder that we celebrate best when we celebrate together. Every time I make one of Nana’s recipes (thanks to Uncle Larry’s assistance), it takes me back to the big dinners I remember with family and friends. These shared experiences are just as much a part of living Judaism as anything else. By the way, does anyone need two kugels and a challah?