Parashat Bo -5782

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Bo
By Rabbi Michael Rothbaum (’06)There’s a well-known rabbinic discussion in the beginning of the Torah about the book of Genesis. The question is asked: why start there, when the mitzvot, the sacred obligations of the Jewish people, don’t appear until Exodus?

The conversations around that question are fascinating. (See, for instance, Rashi’s discussion here). But it’s in this week’s reading, Parashat Bo, that those mitzvot show up — primarily among them, the first Passover meal. In that elemental mitzvah, we see a template for all mitzvot to come.

First, some context. The first Pesah lands in between miracles. The Israelites have just witnessed nine plagues, as the once-great Egyptian empire has been brought low. Though they don’t know it yet, they are about to experience redemption at the Red Sea. For now, they are in their homes.

God gives Moses a series of instructions to pass along to the Israelites in preparation for the tenth plague, the slaughtering of the Egyptian firstborn. The first is to live according to their own calendar. No longer living under Egyptian time, their time will now be their own. Further, the Israelites are to slaughter lambs, and consume them as a community.

These first acts are those of a people asserting their freedom and independence. The Ramban, for example, argues that the animal chosen for slaughter is not an accident. The lamb, he posits, corresponds to the astrological sign of Aries, worshiped by the Egyptians. “God would have brought low [the Egyptian] god,” says the Ramban, “at the very height of its ascendency.” For the Israelites to slaughter an Egyptian God is an act of bold courage, both emotional and spiritual.

But this assertion of their freedom has a greater purpose. Moses is told that each family is to slaughter one ram — unless, that is, the household is too small to consume an entire lamb. In that case, the family is instructed to create a just distribution of wealth, by seeking out others who can help them eat it. “[Passover] is an occasion for families to join with other families and create a community,” teaches Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch. “More than the poor need the rich, the rich need the poor.”

True freedom, true community, requires solidarity and a commitment to collective responsibility, to look after the needs of all the members of the community. This stands in stark contrast to the values of Pharaoh’s Egypt, built on economic exploitation and abuse.

One notable detail appears later in the chapter. When Moses reports God’s instructions to the Israelites, he adds an additional wrinkle: none of the Israelites should go outside their homes until morning. While the Israelites will soon experience physical freedom, this instruction is an invitation for them to exercise their ethical and moral freedom.

Just like the command to share their wealth was a corrective against Egyptian economic exploitation, the command to stay away from the door during the killing of the first-born serves to counteract the Egyptian fetishization of brute force and physical power — an inclination that lives in all people, including the Israelites. In the words of 20th century Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares of Poland, the Israelites’ “abstention from any participation in the vengeance upon Egypt will prevent the plague of vengeance from stirring” within themselves. The Israelites (and, by extension, all of us) are to derive an essential lesson from the events of that first Passover eve; in Rabbi Tamares’ words, “not to put their trust in wealth, and not to put their trust in might, but rather in the God of truth and justice.”

Like the Israelites, we are living in between miracles. We know of great wonders that have occurred in the past, and — in this moment of profound uncertainty and anxiety — we pray for miracles to come. Like the Israelites, we are in the room, facing a moment of both fear and anticipation.

Some voices encourage us to give up on our God, mocking the divine promise of redemption. Others urge us to put our trust in wealth or might. Still others are struck dumb, having fallen victim to despair.

A world of possibility lies on the other side of the door. May we remain true to our principles, support each other in body and spirit, and hold fast to our eternal values. And, in doing so, may we all emerge as one, in peace and freedom, met by a world of joy and wonder.

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum (’06) is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, Mass. He serves on the advisory boards of the Jewish Alliance of Law and Social Action (JALSA) and the New England Jewish Labor Committee, and is a member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He lives in Acton with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell.