Parashat Bo

A Community of Shared Narrative: Dvar Torah for Bo

by Rabbi Len Levin

“You shall tell your child on that day: This is because of what God did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8)

“In every generation, a person should regard him/herself as if s/he had personally gone out from Egypt.” (Mishnah Pesahim 10:5)

This week’s portion is the focal point of the narrative extending from the enslavement of the Israelites through the exodus to receiving God’s revelation at Sinai. We read in this portion of the culmination of the plagues, the exodus itself, and the injunction to memorialize the liberation through an elaborate communal ritual.

It is clear from other regulations of this celebration that participation in it was a central requirement for membership in the Israelite community (see Numbers 9:10-14). An alien who becomes a member of the community becomes eligible to participate in the ritual. Conversely, an Israelite who neglects to participate in it becomes cut off from the community.

It would not be an understatement to define the Jewish people as a community of shared narrative. The events of the exodus and Sinai mark the formation of this peculiar people. The later history of the Jewish people, from inheritance of the land through settled life, exile, and restoration, all bear the mark of the original founding events.

A Jew is one who lives the Jewish narrative, and who has thus imaginatively participated in the transition from slavery to freedom in order to stand at Sinai and receive God’s commandments as a member of God’s covenanted people. Elsewhere I have discussed this “covenantal” conception of “who is a Jew,” which is complementary to the “sacramental” conception based on Jewish parentage or ritual conversion. The one describes the content, the other the formal criteria, of Jewish identity. (See my article, “It’s All In the Memes,” in Leonard Greenspoon, editor, Who Is A Jew? Reflections on History, Religion, and Culture, Purdue University Press, 2014, preview here.)

The secret of continued Jewish existence lies in the deliberate inculcation of group memory through participation in the ritual enactment of formative historical events. By participating in the Passover ritual, a person assumes the story of the exodus — and of subsequent Jewish history — as a deeply personal memory. By claiming this history as one’s own, one pledges to carry it forward — and thus to write the next chapter in Jewish history.

The founding events and later narrative contain the paradox of universality-with-particularism that is one of the central features of Jewish identity. The Israelite people is a particular folk that is enslaved by the Egyptians, becomes the special concern of the universal God, and is redeemed from slavery in order to pursue its unique, individual career as a nation. Yet the universal values of freedom and national dignity shine through this people’s narrative. It is because of these universal values that the narrative could later be picked up by the great religions of the world and become a beacon and inspiration to liberation for other peoples.

Every version and interpretation of Judaism holds the reading of the exodus narrative as a central component of its message. Traditional religious-centered Judaism stressed the importance of fidelity to the discipline of Jewish observance as a precondition for redemption. The optimistic Judaism of the Enlightenment stressed the universalist side, reading the narrative as tokening the message of liberation for modern humanity everywhere. Modern Jewish nationalism seized on the particular identity of the Israelite people in the narrative, drawing the moral that it is up to the Jewish people to stand on its own, to work for its own liberation against the obstacles of hostile powers. The socialist-Zionist kibbutzim combined the universal and particular elements, celebrating a Jewish renaissance in which the universal values of freedom would be realized in the particular form of Jewish national existence as an example for the rest of the world.

Which interpretation of the Exodus narrative do you identify with? Imagine yourself telling to yourself, your partner, or your child, how you came out of Egypt, and what lessons that event holds for yourself and for them. Include in your telling all the characters of the biblical drama — Moses and his parents and his sister Miriam, the midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter, Pharaoh himself, the ordinary Israelites who worked as slaves, the non-Israelites who joined them during the Exodus and attached themselves to the Israelite people. How do the Jewish and the general human parts of your identity play off each other in this telling? What does it reveal about how you conceive yourself as a Jew and as a human being, and how they shape your identity and your conception of the Jewish message for our time?


Rabbi Len Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and is the author of Why God Is Subject To Murphy’s Law.