Rock and a Hard Place – Parshat Bo 5781

One of the moments I try to be so careful of as a rabbi is getting in the middle of a debate between two partners, or between parents and their children. When families used to stop by my office on their way out, I always made sure the parents gave permission before I offered snacks to students. Or when someone comes to me seeking validation in an argument, I also try to understand the bigger picture so I don’t end up in an uncomfortable position. There’s an often used phrase, “between a rock and a hard place,” describing a choice no one really wants to make or one that has negative consequences no matter how you look at it. Think about all the decisions you’ve had to make when you knew either option had potentially challenging outcomes.

This week we read from Parshat Bo. Parshat Bo details the Exodus from Egypt. In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites are steps away from freedom, but Pharaoh refuses again 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, packing up, and recreating these events by celebrating Passover in future generations. 

As you might recall from the text, the tenth and last plague is the most severe. Chapter 11, verse 5 teaches that in the plague of the killing of the firstborn, it was the firstborn of all Egyptians, from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the poor Egyptians working the millstones to even the firstborn of the cattle. This plague makes no distinction between ruling class and slave class, or even animals.

So why such a broad approach? One commentary reminds us that there were Egyptian slaves too, and the Israelites were slaves alongside the Egyptian slaves. Moses stood up for those who he saw being hurt or displaced, but we have no record of an Egyptian slave (other than the midwives) making any sort of prolonged protest against the treatment of the Israelites. This, perhaps, is why the plague does not distinguish them from anyone else in the community. No Egyptian, leader or slave, took action to stand up for the oppressed. Thus, their punishment was the same as those who were doing the oppressing. 

What made Moses different? Given the choice between difficult things, Moses chose the more difficult one. We’ve all been given choices that leave us trying to decide between the best of the worst options. However, the Torah this week reminds us that our job is to think beyond ourselves, and sometimes the “hard place” for us is the place of freedom for generations to come.

Distance Yourself – Parshat Bo 5780

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I have a love-hate relationship with Passover. This isn’t because of the cooking, cleaning, separate dishes, or any other preparation. But because Passover only comes once a year, past holidays stick out in my memory. My mind has this way of reliving the painful memories along with the joyous ones.

I have vivid memories of Passover, starting from when I was five and received a plastic toy camcorder, and I recorded Elijah coming into the house for his wine. Seders were a time of celebration and family coming together. We’d host as many as 35 of my relatives for a seder, and my father would spend months (literally) preparing a new game and working to make the seder fun. We’d laugh, sing out of key, and have the best time telling the story of our history.

As the years went by, my grandparents passed away, and the seder, while still fun, marked the years and the losses in our family. By far the most painful seder was the one the year after my father died. The seder was his gift to our family each year. No matter how ill he was in past years, somehow he managed to pull it together to create an experience that everyone looked forward to (perhaps even my mom, who still did the cooking and cleaning and preparation).  

But the year after he died, the seder was excruciating. A part of me wanted to cut myself off from the entire holiday. It’s hard to find personal space when the whole family is together, and I needed space from an experience I know would be raw, painful, and generally emotional. It turns out there’s a biblical precedent for this feeling, and it comes in this week’s Torah portion, Bo. 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, packing up, and recreating these events by celebrating Passover in future generations. 

Among the laws of Passover, chapter 12, verse 15 teaches, “For whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.” This may sound like a harsh sentence for simply eating bread; however, Passover is the fundamental story of Jewish identity. Its celebration and the purpose behind it are what it means to be Jewish. To not celebrate is to cut yourself off from the narrative of our people, to disregard the experience of moving from slavery to freedom. 

Of course it’s important to note that everyone celebrates Passover in their own way. And, as was the case for me, personal emotions and situations may make the experience painful and make you want to step back from your community. What I’ve come to learn, especially now that I have children of my own, is that the celebration is so much bigger than me. Despite the challenges we may face, I’m part of a larger, longer narrative, and the celebration of that is what I want to pass on to the next generation.

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.