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Parashat Bo

January 8, 2007

By Barbara Wortman

This D’var Torah is written in memory of my father, Herbert Press (z”l) on the 2nd anniversary of his Yahrtzeit

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, we are instructed to observe the festival of Passover, and to tell our children: ‘God did this for me when I went out of Egypt on account of this.’ (Exodus 13:8) In fact, children are mentioned 3 times in connection with the Exodus from Egypt: 12:26-27; 13:8; 13:14. The special connection with children in this parashah emphasizes the things that we do on the night of Passover in order to arouse the inquisitiveness of children. Curiously, the questions asked by the children are set in the future tense, even though the answers refer to the past.

Perhaps, the key to this is found in the Song of Ha-azinu (Deut. 32:7): ‘Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations; ask your father and he will show you; your elders and they will tell you.’ The continuity of the Jewish people depends upon the passing of its traditions and experiences from generation to generation. But, we do not want our children to only ‘remember’ the Exodus. Our goal should be to cause our children to feel their Jewishness every day. The Mishnah (Pesahim 10:5) reads the verse, ‘For that which the Lord did for me when I went out of Egypt’ to tell us: ‘In each and every generation a man must see himself as if he came out of Egypt.

Rabbi David Hartman, in his introduction to the haggadah, A Different Night, emphasizes the importance of the role of parents as storytellers in ensuring Jewish continuity and Jewish identity. Parents have an obligation to bring their children into contact with their historical roots, and with a world other than themselves. Whether relevant or not, the child needs to be exposed to a history and a memory in order to realize that there is a dimension beyond the self. ‘In many ways we are human beings in search of a narrative who may find our personal story by reconnecting with our people’s great story of wandering and homecoming, of oppression and liberation, and of near annihilation and rescue.’ In retelling the Exodus, we learn to commemorate the moments of family and national crisis, and to celebrate with profound gratitude our emergence into a better life. It is every parent’s responsibility to educate, because our heritage must be one of action, not just memory.

In the parashah, just before the 8th plague ‘ locusts – was about to descend on Egypt, and after Moses warned Pharaoh – Pharoah began to show signs that he was willing to let the Jews leave Egypt for three days to pray to God. But before he would give final approval, he said to Moses: ‘Tell me exactly who is going.’ Moses responded without hesitation, ‘with our young and with our old we will go.’ (10:9) With these famous words, Moses proclaimed to Pharaoh and to all future generations, that for the Jewish people, religious service includes our children. Perhaps this is what was meant in the Psalm (148:12) ‘Lads and also maidens, old men together with youths.’

‘And Moses told the nation: ‘Remember this day that you went out of Egypt, from a house of bondage.” (Ex. 13:3)
It is with this powerful command to remember, that we conclude this phase of the experience of enslavement in, and Exodus from, Egypt. We are commanded to remember, but also to do. We are obligated to direct our memory to interpret the past in a way that it will properly impact our future. Our tradition urges us to remember our enslavement in Egypt, but only because of how it fits into our exodus from Egypt.

On November 1, 2005, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 60/7, designating January 27th as an annual International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Following the adoption of the resolution, the Secretary General of the U.N. characterized this days as ‘an important reminder of the universal lessons of the Holocaust, a unique evil which cannot simply be consigned to the past and forgotten.’ This day was chosen, as it marks the day on which Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated in 1945. Secretary-General Kofi Anan said that ‘the U.N. has a sacred responsibility to combat hatred and intolerance. A United Nations that fails to be at the forefront of the fight against anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, denies its history and undermines its future.’

This year, as we study Parashat Bo, and remember the victims of the Holocaust, we must commit ourselves to moving forward; to intertwine prayer, education and action. We must continue to honor our past, so that we can create our tomorrow.

Zion, Noam and Dishon, David. A Different Night.
Shalom Hartman Institute. 1997.