By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant The translation of this week’s Torah Parsha (CHAYEI SARAH) is ‘The Life of Sarah’. Ironically, only the first two lines of the Parsha pertain...
This week’s Torah Parsha (BO) continues with the story of Exodus. God had already inflicted seven devastating plagues on Egypt, subsequent to the Pharaoh’s perpetual denial to free the enslaved Israelites. In Parsha (BO), it becomes apparent that from the very first time that God approached Moses (behind the burning bush); He had a grandiose plan to punish the Pharaoh; and, to bring the Israelites to freedom.
In last week’s Torah Parsha (VA’EIRA), the words ‘God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart’ created a frenzy of opinions and suppositions, pertaining to the concept of ‘free-will’. In contrast, as Parsha (BO) leads to its conclusion, there is somewhat of a reversal in the minds of our rabbinical scholars and Talmudists: “One sin leads to another; and, the heart becomes more hardened with each negative action” (1).
Parsha (BO) begins with Moses and Aaron again talking to the Pharaoh: “Let the people go; and if you refuse, God will bring a swarm of locusts into your midst; and, your houses and those of all Egyptians, will be permeated with these vermin. They will obscure the view of the earth; eat all of the vegetation; and, all of the fruits of the trees” (2). The advisors to the Pharaoh implored him to concede to the wishes of the God of the Israelites: “Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?” (3). The Pharaoh remained unyielding.
Then, the Lord said to Moses: “Stretch forth your hand toward the heaven, and there will be darkness over the land of Egypt” (4). This darkness was doubled and re-doubled. If an Egyptian was standing, he was unable to sit; if sitting, he was unable to stand. Because of the Pharaoh’s stubbornness, his people were smothered by the darkness of inertia (5).
Suddenly, at this climactic moment, there is a shift in the narrative. In Chapter 12 of Parsha (BO), God proceeds to give instructions regarding the ‘Passover’ offering: “Each Israelite shall take a lamb; slaughter it at twilight; take some blood from the lamb to put on the doorposts; and, eat the roasted ‘sacrifice’ that same night”. He continued: “I will go through the land of Egypt…when I see the blood; I will ‘pass over’ the home, so that it will not be affected by the next plague” (6).
“And, it was at midnight, that God killed every first-born in the land of Egypt; and, there was a great outcry, for there was not a house, where there was not a corpse” (7).
Throughout Parsha (BO), woven in between the descriptions of the plagues, God makes frequent reference to future generations:
And when your children ask you: “What does this Passover ceremony mean to you?” Tell them, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of our people in Egypt; and, spared us when he struck down the Egyptians” (8).
In days to come, when your child asks you, “What does this mean?” Say to the child: “With a mighty hand, the Lord brought us out of the land of slavery” (9).
“To be Jewish is to ask questions. Our Torah, by insisting we question, allows us to doubt. To disengage from these in-depth questions, or not to participate in the re-telling of our history, is to declare apathy. To learn more, to think more, to challenge yourself to think more deeply is one of the central tenets of the Jewish religion” (10).
The author and historian, Paul Johnson wrote: “Judaism was, and continues to be a highly efficient social means for the production of intellectuals. From ancient to modern times, the Jewish people have persisted in positioning life-long learning from the Torah as the highest vocation of religious life” (11)….And Elie Wiesel wrote: “What other cultures have done through systems, Jews have done through re-telling stories; and, learning something new with each repetition” (12).
(1) Talmud (Ethics of our Fathers)
(2) EXODUS (10: 3-6)
(3) EXODUS (10: 7-9)
(4) EXODUS (10:21)
(5) Midrash Tanchuma (Va-eira, Chapter 14)
(6) EXODUS (12: 12-13)
(7) EXODUS (12: 26-27)
(8) EXODUS (12: 29-30)
(9) EXODUS (13: 14)
(10) Edgar Bronfman (The Washington Post)
(11) Paul Johnson, “A History of the Jews”
(12) Elie Wiesel, “Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends”