Parashat Bo, 5778

A D’var Torah for Parashat Bo
By Rabbi Bruce Alpert

The exodus from Egypt is understood in different ways: as a miraculous deliverance, as an escape from slavery, as a journey to freedom. Reading again this week’s parashah, Bo, I came away with a different understanding: as a divorce.

I took this understanding from the opening verse of Chapter 11: “The Lord said to Moses, “One more plague shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall send you forth from here,” k’shalkho kalah gareish y’gareish etkhem mi-zeh. What struck me about that final phrase was the juxtaposition of the words kalah and gareish. The former can mean bride and the latter, the verb meaning “cast out,” is the root for “divorce.” I initially read that last phrase to mean “like his sending out a bride, he shall certainly cast you out from here.” Rashi, citing Onkelos, tells us that kalah actually means “complete,” so that last phrase is commonly read to mean “his sending shall be complete, he shall certainly cast you out from here.”

Regardless of how we understand kalah, gareish strikes me as the key term here. Israel might not be a bride, but it is certainly a grushah – a divorcée. And the connection to divorce, I believe, is more than a turn of phrase. Between the revelation of the tenth plague and its actually being carried out, God reveals a completely new calendar to Israel: “This month shall be for you the beginning of months” (12:2). No longer will Israel mark time in the manner of other nations. It will follow its own calendar with its own sense of time and its passage. For those of us who, to this day, regulate our lives by the demands of that calendar, we well understand this to be a powerful mark of separation from our neighbors.

This separation – and not mere liberation from slavery – is the story’s underlying purpose. God makes this clear from His initial revelation to Moses all the way though the final plague: “Pharaoh will not heed you in order that My wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.”(11:9) Pharaoh and Egypt are mere foils opposite which God’s power and Israel’s election are shown. God’s power is being deployed here to affect an everlasting divorce – between Israel and the other nations and between Adonai and their no-gods.

Of all the purposes ascribed to the exodus – deliverance from slavery, journey to freedom – it is this separation, this divorce from the other nations that has proved the most enduring. In the millennia since the exodus, Israel has known slavery and freedom, abandonment and deliverance, but its separation from the other nations of the world has never waned. We celebrate this separation as the source of our distinct character as Jews. And we mourn it in the ever present reality of anti-Semitism. Indeed, the endless capacity of anti-Semitism to adapt and survive (today it takes the form of hatred for the Jewish State rather than individual Jews) is proof in itself of the enduring separation between Israel and the rest of the world.

We may bemoan our divorced status, but as we do so, we should perhaps recall that the opposite of gerushim is kiddushin – the holiness of marriage. In becoming the world’s grushah, Israel becomes suitable to only one mate – the source of kiddushah itself. In choosing to raise His mighty hand and outstretched arm on behalf this one despised people, God consciously and willingly becomes wed to that people and their fate. As the final plague shatters Egypt, we do, in a very real sense, become cast out not just of that country, but of the norms and the ways of the rest of the world. And through this casting out, we become inextricably bound to Adonai. Our gerushin becomes our kiddushin.

Rabbi Bruce Alpert is Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, CT, and is the Chair of AJR’s Board of Trustees.