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Parashat Bo 5784

January 16, 2024
by Rabbi Susan Elkodsi (AJR '15)
The saying goes, “you can take the kid out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the kid.” How and where we grow up has a huge influence on how we move forward and live the rest of our lives.

As we grow older and transition from one life stage to another, going off to college, getting married, ending a marriage or partnership, retiring from a career, becoming grandparents or caregivers… we might need to let go of our previous ways of doing things and operating in the world, and figure out how to navigate the next steps.

This week’s Torah reading, Bo, exemplifies this very idea, and helps us to understand that before the Israelites could become free physically, they had to begin the process of changing their mind-set and free themselves, spiritually and emotionally. Taking Israel out of Egypt was the easy part; taking Egypt out of the Israelites was another story! After all, as God pointed out to Abraham (Gen. 18:14), “Is anything too wondrous for Ado-nai?”

In March of 2022, my teacher Dr. Job Jindo, presented a Yom Iyun to the Long Island Board of Rabbis called, “The Exodus from Egypt, the Exodus in Egypt.” The idea was that before the Israelites could be redeemed from slavery and physically removed from Mitzrayim, they needed to take themselves out of mitzrayim–the narrow places.

In order for this to happen, the Israelites needed to be convinced that redemption was possible, which wasn’t such an easy task. They also needed to be ready and willing to take action; sitting around passively and waiting for God to do something wasn’t going to work. After centuries of subservience to the Egyptians, the Israelites finally cried out to God; they took the first step towards redemption, and the Holy Blessed One acknowledged their outcry. (Ex. 2:23-25).

When God initially commanded Moses to go to Pharoah, both he and the people needed convincing, but by now–after seven plagues have already been visited upon Egypt–one would hope that the Israelites would be ready to follow Moses and God and break the yoke of their oppression. But being ready and being ready are two different things. How do we take the acknowledgement that we need to make a change, and actually make it happen, especially when we’ve spent so much time being told what to do, and not needing to think for ourselves?

It’s no accident that the instructions for preparing to leave Egypt begin with God saying, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Ex. 12:2). Part of being a free people means having one’s own calendar and with it, the power to mark time for themselves.

Immediately after setting the calendar, the Israelites are given instructions for their first Passover “seder”–quite different from the seders we celebrate today! It took a lot of chutzpah on the part of the Israelites to slaughter lambs in front of the Egyptians (remember how Joseph told his family that shepherds were abhorrent to the Egyptians, and Moses, more than once, reminded Pharaoh that they needed to go out into the wilderness to offer their animal sacrifices to God).

As Egypt suffers the final plagues of locusts, darkness and the killing of the first-born, God, through Moses, is beginning the process of redemption by having each Israelite “borrow” from her Egyptian neighbor items of silver and gold, and garments. Asking for these items is a bold act that’s designed to give the Israelites confidence and a feeling of worthiness.

Following the devastating final plague, Pharaoh not only allows the Israelites to leave, he sends them out in a “here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” kind of way (Ex. 12:31-33), and they prepare to leave with dough in their kneading bowls and the bounty of Egypt in their baskets.

Most of us won’t have to overcome what the Israelites in Egypt did, but we’ve all been in our own mitzrayim, the places where our lives are constructed by internal and/or external forces. Passover is still months away, and parashat Bo is a wonderful way to start thinking about how we might clear out the internal chametz, the habits, thoughts and behaviors that might be holding us back.

Dedicated to the hostages still held by Hamas and praying for their redemption, and with appreciation to Dr. Job Jindo for his Torah.
Rabbi Susan Elkodsi  (AJR ’15) is the spiritual leader of the Malverne Jewish Center in NY and is immediate past president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis. Her writing has appeared on JewishSacredAging.com, and she has presented workshops for Limmud, NY, for AJR and in the community, and her book, Midrash HaZaK: Torah Wisdom by 70 Over 70 (but who’s counting), an anthology of divrei torah for older adults, will soon IY”H be published. Susan is passionate about helping Baby Boomers and older adults to find meaning and purpose in their lives within the context of Jewish tradition and teachings, and as part of a Jewish community. You can find her work on her website, www.babyboomerrabbi.com. In addition, she loves to knit, spin and weave, and she and her husband David recently added kittens Tiggr and Midnight to their family.