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Parashat Bo

January 10, 2008

By Boaz Marmon

At first glance, we probably think of Parashat Bo, as a “middle.” It tells the middle of the Exodus story, beginning in the middle of the ten plagues and ending in the middle of the escape from Egypt. Perhaps, on second thought, it’s a tale of “ends”: the end of the plagues, the end of bondage. What’s easy to miss is how much Parashat Bo is about beginnings.

According to the sage Rabbi Yitzchak, as quoted by the Yalkut Shim’oni and famously cited by Rashi as his first comment on the Torah, the Torah need not have begun until the verse “This month shall be your beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you,” (Ex. 12:2) which appears around the middle of the middle aliyah of Bo. This is the first command given by God not to an individual but to the Jewish People. It instantly changes the Torah from a story book to a law book; from the gripping tale of the generations of a nomadic shepherd tribe to the constitution of a chosen, commanded, holy people. Parashat Bo isn’t the beginning of the Torah, but it is still the beginning of Jewish nationhood.

In addition to declaring the beginning of the Biblical year (which is the Spring month of Nisan [around April], not the Fall month of Tishrei [around September]), Parashat Bo is usually read on the first Shabbat of Sh’vat, the month known for Tu B’Shvat, the new year of the trees. On the secular calendar, Bo usually comes out in January, and this year Bo falls out particularly early and therefore very soon after the secular new year.

The midrash (B. Rabbah 1:10) teaches that the Torah begins with a “bet” rather than an “aleph” (the first letter) to show that creation is for a blessing (“brachah“) rather than a curse (“arirah“) Bo, bet-aleph, contains both. The final plagues in the beginning of the sidrah remind us that blessing and curse, beginning and end, are often sides of the same coin. Because of Pharaoh’s obstinacy and God’s justice, redemption for Israel must begin with retribution for Egypt. Our joy is inextricably bound to their suffering, as we recall each year at our Seder, an institution which begins in Parashat Bo.

Parashat Bo is integral to the Seder. It tells of the first Paschal sacrifice, the first Passover meal, and the first matzot. It provides the inspiration and the proof-text for much of the ritual of the Seder; and passages from its text are sprinkled liberally through the Haggadah. Except for the wise son (who quotes Deuteronomy), the questions and answers of three of the Four Sons are taken from Bo (Ex. 12:26, 13:8, 13:14).

Bo scores a near miss on inspiring the first sandwich – Numbers 9:11 (“eat it on matzot and bitter herbs”) is actually the verse Hillel takes as justification for eating the Paschal meat with maror between two pieces of matzah, but an almost identical phrase appears in Exodus 12:8 (“and [with] matzot on bitter herbs shall you eat it”) in our parashah, with just a couple of prepositions swapped around. Perhaps this is a result of a scribal error in transmission, as the Numbers wording seems a bit more sensible.

Speaking of scribes, Parashat Bo helps keep them in business as the first two mentions of tefillin in the Torah occur here (Ex. 13:9, 13:16), which are also, therefore, two of the four passages contained on the parchments inside the tefillin. The other two are the first and second paragraphs of the Shema.

Boaz Marmon is a rabbinical student at AJR.