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Parashat Bo 5780

January 29, 2020

A D’var Torah for Parashat Bo
By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

“This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.” (Exodus 12:2) This has to be one of the most jarring verses in all of Torah. After eleven uninterrupted chapters of perhaps the most dramatic story ever told – the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh – we find ourselves in what quickly becomes a detailed discussion of the observance of the festival of Pesah. Gone is the ratcheting tension of human obstinacy in the face of divine wrath and in its place, twenty-eight verses of calendars, cooking instructions and details for future observances.

And yet, in this mass of interrupting detail, I find the answer to what I consider a particularly troubling verse in this week’s parashah, Bo. It too concerns the celebration of a festival. Faced with yet another plague, Pharaoh asks Moses who among the Israelites will depart with him should he be allowed to leave. Moses answers that essentially the entire camp will leave “for this is, for us, the Lord’s festival.” (Exodus 10:9)

I am troubled by what this festival might be. We associate the term “the Lord’s festival,” with fixed times and defined observances intended to create historical memory. This festival does not appear to have any of that. Indeed, were the Israelites to be released from Egypt in any way that could be construed as being by Pharaoh’s leave, than the celebration that follows might well be construed a festival to him rather than to God. This cannot possibly be Moses’s end.

Rabbeinu Bahya partially addresses my concerns when he says the festival of which Moses speaks is Shavuot. He reasons from Exodus 3:12 where, at the burning bush, God tells Moses that “when you have freed the people from Egypt, you will worship God at this mountain.” The first Pesah is to be celebrated in Egypt, and Sukkot makes no mention of celebrating at a mountain. Hence the festival must be Shavuot.

I see in Rabbeinu Bahya’s analysis a desire to bring Moses’s demand back within the bounds we would recognize as “the Lord’s festival.” Still, it begs the question of whether there can be a Shavuot without a Pesah – can one receive God’s Torah without being liberated by God? The very name of the festival derives from the idea that we count the weeks between one holy day and the next. Rabbeinu Bahya only takes us so far.

For the rest, I turn back to my rattled reaction to Chapter 12. I think there is a deeper reason why the Torah interrupts its narrative of the plagues just at its most dramatic. The effect of this interruption – so cool and dispassionate after the tense action and reaction of the preceding drama – is to remind us that this story has played out exactly as God intended. We may have found ourselves caught up in the ever-escalating battle between Pharaoh and Moses, but in the end, it has all been leading us inevitably toward “this month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.” Ever since God promised Moses that he would redeem Israel with an outstretched arm and with great judgments (Exodus 6:6) we have been heading inexorably toward what would become the Lord’s first festival. It can be no other way.

So when Moses tells Pharaoh in 10:9 that the Israelites must depart in order to observe the Lord’s festival, I think he is actually speaking passed Pharaoh. He is speaking of a time that Israel will mark by their deliverance into God’s hands. He is speaking of a moment celebrated with symbols of Israel’s own history. And he is speaking of a story that Jews, countless generations hence, can recall as their story. That will be the festival that Israel must observe. That will be the Lord’s festival.
Rabbi Bruce Alpert (AJR ’11) is Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, CT