Divrei Torah

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January 22, 2021 - Parashat Bo 5781

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Bo
By Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (’16)

As I write this, the National Guard are gathering in abundance just a few miles away from me. It feels near impossible to try to plan ahead remarks for Shabbat this week, when our country and democratic institutions seem to be on unstable ground. I feel hopeful for a high probability of a relatively normal inauguration day, but I cannot ignore that there is still a distinct possibility for further violence and attempts to overthrow democracy, a reprise of the events of January 6th. By the time this is published, inauguration day will be history, but even if it does go smoothly, I implore you not to write off the concerns as hyperbolic or hysterical. That sort of dismissal has allowed for escalating violence throughout history, and we must be open to learning from recent events.

In the meantime, I sit poised waiting to make haste. This tension of panic, of needing to move, but not quite being able to until certain other events finish unfolding recalls this week’s Torah portion powerfully. Parashat Bo tells us of the final three plagues, including the quiet night when the Angel of Death stalked through all of Egypt. The parasha tells us that Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron to him that very night and told the Israelites to leave (Exodus 12:31). Just a few lines down, we are told, “That very day HaShem led the Israelites out of Egypt,” (Exodus 12:51), verbiage that is repeated throughout Exodus. Drawing from classical midrash, modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg suggests that while the Israelites were technically freed at night, their first act of freedom was to test out their ability to ignore Pharaoh’s command to leave at once and to instead show their allegiance to their new master – HaShem – by waiting for God to lead them out by day.

In her masterful way, Zornberg describes this night of the Israelites being free-but-not-free as a “motionless tableau of leaving,” a “tableau of release” (Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, page 165 and location 3752 in Kindle). This vivid image of our ancestors frightened yet excited, ready yet paused, frozen yet bursting to move, feels resonant today. As the Israelites sat in the dark, awaiting the call to action, we too tensely watch the events outside our doors and ready ourselves for change. For better or worse, The American government will certainly start moving in a different direction by Shabbat.

And so, without knowing yet what the new direction may be, my own call to action and blessing for this Shabbat is for us all to find ourselves free to move toward liberation and justice. In any imaginable future, such movement is still a possibility and a necessity, and in every moment is our most urgent call as Jews. May this night give way to a day of freedom, may the narrow spaces open up to deliverance, and may we release from this tableau pushing for Tikkun Olam.
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Rabbi Lizz Goldstein is the rabbi of Congregation Ner Shalom, a heimish Reform synagogue in Northern VA, where she lives with her husband and cat. She was ordained at AJR in 2016.