Monday, January 23, 2012

A Date to Remember

Parashat Bo
Exodus 10:1 - 13:16
4 Shevat 5772 / Jan. 27 - 28, 2012

A Date to Remember
by Benjamin Singer, MH Chicago

Parshat Bo contains the last few plagues and the beginning of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt. It includes some beautiful passages, such as, even during the plague of darkness, there is light in every Israelite’s home. It also has a few troubling and confusing elements. As many parts of the Bible, they can leave us with more questions than answers. But I believe we can derive meaning from it nonetheless.

The first verse jumps out at us with God “hardening” or “strengthening” Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh thus not allowing the Israelites to depart. I have been troubled by this from the first moment I ever read it, years ago. After all, aren’t we taught that we have free will? Isn’t it our decision what we do: if we eat breakfast, if we follow a commandment, or if we choose to liberate a group of 1.2 million people? If so, how could God be responsible for Pharaoh’s decision?

This, I submit, is the theme of the parsha: the competing roles of individuals and a higher power.

An even more troubling verse in this respect comes right before the plague of the death of the first-born (no royalty, slaves, or non-human animals excluded). Here again, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he won’t let the Israelites go. This gives God the opportunity to demonstrate God’s greatness throughout all of Egypt.

But if, as we are taught in the Talmud, “whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world,” why would God interfere, particularly with free will, in a way that requires so many lives to end?

Fortunately, all the death and plagues and such take a break when we learn how to celebrate Passover (well, there is death involved with the animal sacrifices). Here’s the weird part: God tells Moses that this, the seventh month, is to be the first month of the year. It’s like saying July 1 is the first of the year—fiscal, perhaps?—or that the letter “M” is the first letter of the alphabet.

Now, if we take a step back from all this madness, I think we can find meaning in it. Think about this: the parsha says the Israelites have been in Egypt for 430 years. 430 years! And here, in this one parsha, the institution of the Israelites’ slavery comes crashing down. All these different events conspire to make it happen: Pharaoh’s heart being “strong,” the first-born dying, all the different plagues…on top of the past miracles, including Moses’ miraculous salvation and then adoption by Pharaoh’s own daughter, plus being recruited by God via a burning bush.

The point is, when all this craziness transpires—ending half a millennium of slavery, and starting a new era for our people—is it surprising that, well yeah, we should consider this at least the first month of our year? I believe this is in celebration of “everyday” miracles. While a few events coincide with our arbitrary calendar (think the Cuban revolution on January 1), most significant events happen when we least expect it. Dates that occur to me: July 4, July 14, September 1, December 7, August 6 and 9. And what perhaps resonates greatest for our generation, September 11, which happened one random morning when we were just going to school like any other day. All of the events on the above dates changed the world in meaningful ways, but didn’t happen along any preset timeline. It is important to note also that it was human actions, and the power of individual actors—Castro, Washington, Cahila, Hitler, Hirohito, Truman, Bin Laden—and in this week’s parsha, Moses and Pharaoh—who took initiative and made history.

Yet no matter the actions of individuals, we do not exist in a vacuum. We are told how to commemorate the Exodus on Passover:

“And it will come to pass, if your children say to you, ‘What is this service to you?’ / You shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for God passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when God smote the Egyptians, and God saved our houses.’”

No mention of Moses. No mention of Pharaoh.

Ultimately, a lot of different human and divine actions combined to create a situation and an outcome. How much divine intervention is there? No matter the answer, our actions have consequences. Yet no matter our actions, we are not alone.


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