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Parashat Bo

January 28, 2009

By Jill Hackell

Parashat Bo is the climax of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Pharaoh seems on the verge of letting the people go; indeed his courtiers are already convinced that Egypt is lost. Yet, heart-hardened, he refuses permission again, and three more plagues are unleashed – locusts, darkness, and the most terrible plague of all, the death of all the firstborn of Egypt. The remainder of the parashah recounts the events of that night, when the Israelites prepared for their departure from Egypt, and ensures that this pivotal moment of our history will be recorded forever in the collective memory of the Jewish people.

How do we remember? Through signs and symbols, through conscious action, and through retelling. In my family, there is a ring that belonged to my grandfather’s sister, marked with the numbers 1913 (This is a sign). My mother received it when she graduated high school, gave it to me to mark my graduation, and I, in turn, gave it to my daughter at her graduation (This is an example of conscious action). The wearing of the ring recalled my great-aunt, the story of her journey to America, the meaning of the numbers on the ring, and the stories around the giving of the ring across the generations (Here is an example of retelling).

All these things – sign, conscious action, and retelling – are implanted in the story of the exodus. We’re told that the plagues are signs – signals to tell your children, and their children about how God dealt with Egypt, and also “so you may know that I am God.” There is no end of conscious action. The Israelites are told to ask their neighbors for silver and gold, to catch a lamb and watch over it for four days, then slaughter it and paint the doorposts and lintel of their houses with blood. This blood is also designated a sign – a sign for the Israelites that God is with them on that terrible night, and will pass over their houses, sparing them from death.

Next, the festival of Pesah is described as “a memorial” and “a law for all time,” marked by eating of unleavened bread, symbolic of the rapid flight from Egypt, and designed so that the children will ask, “what is this, that you are doing?”, so that you will retell this story, year after year, “it is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”

But there is more. In this parashah we are instructed to set apart the firstborn males of all animals for God, and to redeem our first-born sons (as we do in the pidyon-ha-ben ceremony). And we are told that when our children observe our ritual, and they ask, “what does this mean?” we will say to them “When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, God slew every first-born in the land of Egypt…”

And even more. For in this chapter we are also told to wear tefillin – a “sign on your hand and a reminder/symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand God freed us from Egypt.” Again we have a sign, married to an action, the binding of our hand, recalling God’s mighty hand; and we bind ourselves freely to God, in direct antithesis of our being bound in slavery in Egypt.

Judaism reminds us not to take any moment of our lives for granted. Of course this is true for the big event, the Exodus, where there are layers upon layers of symbols and actions and retelling. But it is also true of the tiny precious moments of life. Our rituals encourage us to make all our actions conscious ones, so that we will remember them, savor them, and share them with those we love.


Jill Hackell is a rabbinical student at AJR.