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Parashat Bo

February 2, 2017

by Rabbi David Almog

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more. 

Liberation Starts With Listening to the Oppressed

Our traditional image of Moses is the faithful transmitter of the word of God, Torah, and Mitzvot. Therefore, it is a bit surprising that, in both chapters 12 and 13 of Exodus, in the very first commands given by God to Israel regarding the marking of liberation, the words of God and those of Moses seem to differ in key ways.

In Chapter 12, God first declares a new calendar for the people, stating that this will now be the first month of the year. Moses doesn’t mention it here. God commands Moses to speak to the entire community of Israel. Moses speaks to the “elders.” God commands them to bring the Pesah offering for each house, and includes the dates for procuring the offering and slaughtering it. Moses says each “family” and doesn’t mention any dates at all. God describes offering and its consumption in detail. Moses just says to offer sheep. God tells the people to put blood on the doorposts. Moses says the same, but adds that they shall apply it by using a hyssop bunch and dipping it into a basin, and adds the admonition not to go outside that night. God states that this will become an annual commemorative ritual on this date, for future generations, and that it will be a festival, will last for seven days, and will carry prohibitions such as that against eating hametz. Moses only mentions that the offering itself will be a future observance, but makes no mention of an extended seven day festival, hametz, gives no date and doesn’t use the term “generations.” Instead, he speaks of the people and their children in a promised land, and details a mimetic transmission, in which children will see their parents offering the pesahlamb and ask them about it and learn that God saved them in Egypt.

In chapter 13, God merely gives a single line of command, stating that Moses is to tell the people sanctify their first born. It is here that Moses introduces many of the things he skipped in chapter 12. He introduces the calendar month, calling it “the month of Aviv” and speaks of commemorating “this day.” He introduces the seven day festival with no hametzHe repeats the promise of land, describing it as one “flowing with milk and honey.” He then explains the commandment of sanctifying the first born in the context of the miracle of the exodus and the plague of the first born, once again describing how their children will ask their parents.

Classical commentaries provide a few explanations for this phenomenon. Regarding the paschal offering in Egypt, Nachmanides states that Moses gave all the details, and that the Torah is just giving a “short version.” Additional details in Moses’s version are there to teach details of Jewish law, following rabbinic legal hermeneutics. R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch sees these differences as the Torah demonstrating the place of oral tradition in Jewish law. The Torah is showing us that the recorded word of God is not exhaustive of God’s will. Others, like Or Ha-Hayyim and Rav Paltiel note that the people had not yet accepted the covenant. Moses needed to be both persuasive and allow for information to be disseminated in established channels.

Using these explanations, I would like to suggest an additional possibility. Our traditions have long recognized that the Torah was given to people and not “ministering angels.” Moses is tasked with transmitting God’s will to Israel, but, one must recognize the context of slavery, which likely proscribed community organizing and education. How would the word of God be transmitted and interpreted to this group of slaves, and what would they focus on?

Some of the conversation may have been practical. One can almost imagine the people saying:

“Place blood on the posts? How?”
“What about hyssop? It’s a purifying agent.”
“When you say that it’s a sign so God will protect us, is it dangerous to go outside?”
“Yes! Don’t go outside!”

It is much more difficult to imagine a discussion about a new calendar or abstract national observances. These presume the establishment of a polity. It is the ideal outcome God envisions. The decree of a ritual commemoration is particularly unusual, in that it precedes the commemorated event. It seems like putting the cart before the horse. Even when they are predicted, like John Adams describing Independence Day in the opening quote, they fall short of establishing a detailed community practice. Indeed, Adams got the date wrong. Moreover, the founding fathers were in a much more privileged position vis-a-vis slaves in diaspora, whether in America or in Ancient Egypt. They could afford to be idealistic. For Moses, whose job was to lay the groundwork for liberation, it may have been too early to make such pronouncements. Would a people with no control of their own time, for generations deprived of basic liberties, much less self-determination, prioritize establishing a new calendar on the eve of their freedom? As to communal ritual, whereas God speaks abstractly, Moses is speaking tangibly about the present action, and uses it to depict a future where families will no longer be broken by oppression.

It is only after doing the work on the ground, listening and responding to the oppressed, that Moses begins to introduce God’s long term vision. Perhaps, Moses is reminding us that, in doing the work of liberation, we must follow the lead of real people.


Rabbi David Almog teaches rabbinic literature at AJR and is completing his PhD at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.