Torah Readings for Saturday, February 4, 2017
Bo (Go)10:1 - 13:16 Shemot (Exodus)
Bo is the third sedrah in the Book of Shemot (Exodus). The Hebrew word “Bo” means “Go.” The sedrah takes its name from the fifth Hebrew word in the first verse, “And the Lord said unto Moshe: Go (Bo) in unto Pharaoh.” Bo includes a description of the last three plagues, the Deliverance from Egypt, a series of laws including those relating to observing Pesach, Rosh Chodesh (the New Moon) and the Redemption of the First Born. Summarizing this sedrah is difficult because the material, as just described, does not always follow in a smooth narrative. Rather, these items are dispersed throughout the text. Also, the amount of material presented in the sedrah and its significance is almost overwhelming. Bo marks the beginning of the significant rollout of the 613 Commandments. The entire Book of Bereshit contains three commandments. The sedrah of Bo, alone, contains 20 commandments. The list of these commandments is at the end of this and subsequent weekly guides. Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the source for the wording and numbering.
Even though some commentators have divided the plagues into 3-3-3-1, the Torah readings divide them into seven (Shemot) and three (Bo). As we continue to see in our studies, the combinations of three, seven and ten are quite common, reinforcing the belief that these numbers have certain mystical “powers.”
Eighth Plague (10:1-20) - The Plague of Locusts follows the previous pattern with Pharaoh promising to obey God if the plague is lifted and then going back on his promise.
Ninth Plague (10:21-29) - The Plague of Darkness deviates from the pattern of the first eight. The other plagues supposedly each lasted a week. Darkness only lasts six days. According to some the seventh day of darkness will come later at the Sea of Reeds. The narrative of the ninth plague ends with Pharaoh threatening Moshe’s life. He still stands haughty in the face of the Almighty.
Tenth Plague (11:1-9, 12:29-30) - The Death of the First Born is divided into two parts. First comes the promise of the plague. Then comes a description of the plague itself. However, these two parts are separated by 25 verses pertaining to the observance of Pesach.
Rosh Chodesh (12:1-2)
The Commandment to Observe the New Moon is the second law given to the Hebrews. It is the first commandment given to the entire Israelite nation. This position of narrative primacy is probably an indicator of the importance of this commandment. Additionally, since the Jews have spent most of their time living without a land, the calendar is of supreme importance because we have spent so much of our existence dwelling in the fourth dimension - the dimension of time.
The Deliverance From Egypt (12:31-42)
Pharaoh finally gives in. He orders Moshe and Aaron to take the Israelites and leave. In the sparest possible language the text describes the hurried departure of the Israelites carrying their unleavened dough and the wealth of Egypt. Tradition states that 600,000 men plus their families departed Egypt. Others have translated the word “elef” differently so that the number leaving is more like 6000 men plus their families. Additionally, the Torah tells us that a mixed multitude departed with the Israelites. These were probably non-Israelite slaves who took advantage of the chaos to leave Egypt. According to some, this mixed multitude will stay with the Israelites until Sinai and the Golden Calf. Regardless, their departure at the time of the Exodus can be interpreted as proof that freedom is for all people.
The Laws of Pesach (12:3-28) (12:43-51) (13:3-10)
The laws themselves are listed below in the section entitled “Commandments.” The laws of Pesach can be divided into two parts. The first set of laws addresses the behavior of the Israelites at the time of the first Pesach, the actual deliverance from Egypt. Here we find the commands concerning the sacrifice of the lamb and dabbing the doorpost with blood. The second set of laws covers additional requirements for observing Pesach for all time. The laws are not mutually exclusive and are actually supportive.
Redemption of the First Born (13:1-2,11-15)
Since God spared the first born males of the Israelites, they now belong to Him. Hence the law comes to us requiring their redemption. This has given rise to the ceremony known as “Pidyon Ha Ben” or Redemption of the First Born.
The Sedrah ends with one of those strange sentences that seem to have no connection with what has gone before or what is about to happen. “And it shall be a sign upon your arm and ornament between your eyes, for with a strong hand Hashem removed us from Egypt.” This statement will give rise to the wearing of the Tefillin. In other words, when one dons the Tefillin each morning he is performing another ritual that reminds us of the Exodus.
4. The obligation to bless the new moon each month. 12:2
5. The slaughtering and preparing of the Paschal lamb. 12:6
6. The obligation to participate in the eating of the Paschal lamb. 12:6
7. The prohibition against eating the Passover lamb raw or boiled; it must be roasted. 12:9
8. The prohibition against leaving remains from the Paschal lamb. 12:10
9. The requirement to remove chametz from one’s possession before the beginning of Pesach. 12:15
10. The obligation to eat matzah during Pesach. 12:18
11. The prohibition against having any chametz in one’s possession throughout Pesach. 12:19
12. The prohibition against eating any food containing chametz during Pesach. 12:20
13 -14. The forbidding of certain individuals to eat the Paschal lamb. 12:44
15. The prohibition against removing any part of the Paschal lamb from the house in which it was first eaten. 12:46
16. The prohibition against breaking any of the Paschal sacrifice’s bones. 12:46
17. The stricture against an uncircumcised man eating the Paschal lamb. 12:48
18. The command to redeem the first born. 13:2
19. The prohibition against eating any chametz during Pesach. 13:3
20. The stricture against chametz being seen in any Israelite dwelling during Pesach. 13:7
21. The obligation to tell one’s child the story of the liberation from Egypt. 13:8
22. The requirement to redeem a firstborn donkey. 13:13
23. The obligation to break the neck of a firstborn donkey that is not redeemed. 13:13
The term itself can be translated as pass over and has given rise to the English name for the holiday. It is also the name of the sacrifice offered in observance of the holiday. In reading the laws of Pesach, one can see the outline of the Seder and hear words found in the Haggadah. Some of the practices that come from the laws found Bo include:
· The observance of Pesach on the 14th of Nissan in the evening for seven days;
· The Seder as a way of telling your children of the Exodus in a family environment;
· The eating of bitter herbs and Matzah;
· The placing of the Shank Bone on the Seder Plate;
· The removal of chametz from our homes;
· The eating of only Kosher for Pesach foods during the holiday; and
· The Fast of the First Born.
(There may be more, but there are space limitations.)
Creation and the ExodusThese are the two seminal events in the Torah. One marks the beginning of mankind; the other the beginning of the Jewish people. We are reminded of this in the Shabbat Kiddush when we invoke the commemoration “of the work of creation” and the commemoration “of the exodus from Egypt.” Also this explains how we can have more than one “new year.” Rosh Hashanah comes in the seventh month but is the New Year. It is the New Year marking the start of creation. The month when Pesach is observed is the “beginning of the months…the first of the months for you” (12:2). This is the “New Year” of the Jewish people. The Exodus marks the beginning of the Jewish people as a unique nation.
TefillinThe actual commandment concerning the wearing of Tefillin will come later in the Torah. But in this sedrah we read “And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as reminder on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt” (13:9). This is an obvious reference to donning Tefillin. We are being told that when we wear them we are doing so to remember the Exodus from Egypt. Since donning Tefillin is one of the first things a Jew does every weekday morning, we can see that remembering the Exodus is a conscious act that should infuse our thoughts and behavior on a daily basis.
Pidyon Ha BenThe ceremony for the Redemption of the First Born finds its origins in this sedrah (13:1-2). The ceremony is really a rare one. It must only be observed when a woman’s first born is a male. If a daughter was born first or if there has been a miscarriage the ceremony is not performed. Also, in the event of a cesarean birth, the ceremony is not performed because the commandment has to do with “the first issue of the womb.” Finally, the ceremony is not performed when the first male issue is of the tribe of Levi. The ceremony cannot take place until the youngster is at least thirty days old. Usually the ceremonial table is set with Challah and a Kiddush cup. The mother brings the youngster to the father and the Kohein, to whom the father has given five silver coins. A highly stylized dialogue takes places between the father and the Kohein that includes a special Blessing of Redemption and a Shehecheyanu. There is a legend I heard as youngster. Because of the Exile, there was a sage who was not quite sure if those who claimed to be Kohanim really were in the purest sense of that term. So every time he met a Kohein, he would go through the ceremony for his son just to ensure that at least one time it had been done right.
New Month/New MoonThere are two rituals connected with the lunar cycle. The most commonly known one is Rosh Chodesh, the monthly mini-holiday. Every month on the first day of the month (and some months we observe this for two days), Hallel is recited. An extra section is added to the Amidah. The Torah is read and Musaf is recited. On the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh, there is a special Blessing of the New Month, when the leader announces the exact time when the upcoming month will begin. There are no prohibitions against work on Rosh Chodesh. According to some traditional sages (and they base this on Rashi) Rosh Chodesh should be regarded as a “mini-mother’s day honoring women for their superior piety by which the Jewish people is eternally recreated.”
The other is the less commonly known Kiddush Levanah or the Sanctification of the Moon which is performed at the actual sighting of the new moon. Description of this highly stylized ritual which is based on the teaching of the Babylonian Talmud is not something that should be done by amateurs so here are two sites to look at for further information: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/blessing-the-new-moon/ and http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1904288/jewish/Sanctification-of-the-Moon.htm
The Tenth PlagueThe Tenth Plagues is different in many ways from the other nine. While the other nine are considered educational, the tenth is for punishment. The tenth is to come at a stated time, around Midnight. And the tenth requires active behavior on the part of the Israelites. They must put blood on their doorposts and they must stay indoors. The tenth plague also required an act of physical courage on the part of the Israelites. They must take lambs ahead of time, days before the actual exodus. But the lamb was sacred to the Egyptians. By taking the lamb in this way, the Israelites were being asked to risk death at the hands of the Egyptians so that they could be part of the Exodus. It is one thing to have faith. It is quite another thing to lay it all on the line including risking your own life.
The Coming of the MessiahThe Exodus from Egypt is a harbinger for the ultimate redemption. In the words of the prophet Micah, “Like the days of your exodus from the land of Egypt, I will demonstrate wonders.” As Rabbi Schneerson points out, “the deliverance from Egypt was a reward for the faith, which was…internalized by the Israelites.” “So, too, will the future redemption be a reward for faith - the faith which disregards the great concealments of God that our exile brings, and which still holds firm to the belief in the Messiah. A faith which does not hover at the outer edges of our minds but which constitutes our most inward certainty and extends to every facet of our being.”
PunishmentThe Tenth Plague troubles many people. “Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh…to the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the millstone…” seems to be a very harsh punishment. To the modern eye this seems to be punishing children for the sins of the parents, something later prohibited by Jewish law. Also, it seems to punish the powerless along with the powerful. This could spark a lively discussion should your Seder become routine or boring.
VisualizationsIn her commentary on “Bo” entitled Sign on the Door, Fredelle Z. Spiegel points out the role that visualizations play in the final act leading up to the Exodus. The Israelites were not just commanded to slaughter and eat the lamb, they were commanded to “take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it (the paschal lamb).” Why were the Israelites to do this? The popular answer is found in the second half of verse 13, “when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” In other words, the Israelites needed to put the blood on so that God would know that they had identified themselves as His Chosen People. But there is a second reason for this visualization, a reason that should affect our behavior today. In the first half of verse 13 it says, “And the blood on the houses in which you dwell shall be as sign for you.…” What does this mean that the blood will be a sign for you i.e., the Israelites? By marking the doorposts, the Israelites were letting God know that these were Jewish homes. They were letting the Egyptians know these were Jewish homes. But most important they were reminding themselves that they were Jews living in Jewish homes. Today we put a mezuzah on our doorposts. The mezuzah does let the world know that Jews live in the house. But more importantly, it reminds the Jews, as they kiss it on the way in and out of the house, that this is a Jewish home and that they are Jews. When parents adorn their homes with Jewish objects - Kiddush cups, seder plates, Chanukah menorahs and Jewish books - they are reminding their children that this is a Jewish home. At the Seder, it is the visuals, the items on the table, that trigger the Children’s Questions that lead to the entire recitation of the Haggadah. In the home, it is the visuals that trigger the children’s curiosity about their Jewish heritage. Just as the Blood on the Doorposts reminded the ancient Israelites that, despite all the privations of slavery, they were still Jewish, so it is that when we enter our homes, touching the mezuzah with our fingertips, we are reminded that, regardless of what we have experienced that day in the secular world, we are still Jews tied to the Promise of Sinai and the ultimate Redemption.
Promises Made/Promises KeptIn Bereshit (Genesis), God told Abraham that his descendants would be slaves for 400 years before He would punish their masters and free them from bondage. “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.” (15: 13, 14). The book of Shemot (Exodus) opens with a description of the first part of the promise. In this week’s portion we read the description of the second part of the promise including going free with great wealth. “Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold. The Lord disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people.” (11: 2, 3) “The Israelite had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing. And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people…” (12:35). The message to the our forbearers, and hopefully for us and our descendants, is that God makes promises and God keeps his word.
Passover CustomsFor those of you who are looking for new ways to enliven your Passover celebration you might want to follow the custom of some Jewish communities in which the people would create dramatizations of the Exodus based on this week’s Torah portion, as part of their Pesach observance. “So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders.” (12:34). After their Seder, the Moroccan Jewish men would “rush out of the house and run up and down the street shouting, ‘In this manner our forefathers went out of Egypt, their kneading-troughs bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders.’” As part of their dramatization, Jews living in the region of the Caucasus Mountains would dress “in their festive best” for the Seder and the women would “adorn themselves with jewelry of all kinds” possibly as visual reminder of the gold, silver and clothing that the Egyptians had given the departing Israelites.
The Haggadah and ShemotAs we saw last week, the creators of the Haggadah relied heavily on the Torah as a source for the actual text. “Maggid” - the lengthy portion that retells the story of the Exodus - includes several lines from “Bo.” In explaining the reason for the Pesach sacrifice, the text says, “You shall say, it is a Pesach sacrifice for the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when He struck the Egyptians and He saved our houses; and the people bowed down and prostrated themselves.” (12:27). In explaining the reason for eating Matzah, the text says, “And they baked unleavened bread from the dough which they had taken with them from Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not delay there; nor had they prepared for themselves any provisions for the way.” (12:39). As the Seder moves forward toward the first Hallel, the Haggadah again uses the words of “Bo” to explain why “in every generation” each of us should feel that we individually were freed from the Egyptian bondage. “You shall tell your son on that day saying: for the sake of this, the Lord did for me when I went out from Egypt.” (13:8). And for those of you who are looking for “extra credit,” read the section of the Four Sons and see how much of that interplay comes from this week’s Torah portion.
Problem with translationAt the start of Chapter 11, God tells Moses about the coming of the final plague. And then, according to the modern translations, He says, “Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” (11:2). The term “borrow” implies that the items will be returned to their owners after some period of time. But we know that there is no intention of returning these items to the Egyptians, so is this a case of God being disingenuous or deliberately misleading? I think not. A more literal translation says “Speak now in the ears of the people and let them request each man from his neighbor and each woman from her neighbor vessels of silver and vessels of gold.” The literal translation would seem to remove the moral ambiguity created by the use of the term “borrow.” Why would the Egyptians acquiesce to such a request? Possibly, because, unlike their king, they had come to fear the plagues and they might have viewed surrendering their values as a “bribe” that would bring them to an end. Regardless of what the Egyptians thought, this was a fulfillment of a divine promise that they “would go forth with great wealth.” These vessels of silver and gold will appear again in the Torah. They are the material from which the Golden Calf is made. Note that the command to “request” these items is sex-segregated. According to later commentary, the men surrendered their valuables for the Golden Calf while the women kept theirs and gave them to be used in the building of the Tabernacle. It is one of those examples of the higher level of spirituality which we attributed to women.
Sifting the FlourThere is so much going on this portion - so much action packed narrative, so many lessons to learn. So, how do we begin to rank order them? How do we, so to speak, sift this “flour” so we are left with Maimonides’ “finely sifted flour?” For Rabbi Jonathan Sacks it would seem that the following three verses are of great importance since he uses them in three separate commentaries on “Bo.”
And when your children ask you, "What do you mean by this rite?" you shall say, "It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses." (Ex. 12:26-27)
And you shall explain to your child on that day, "It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt." (Ex. 13:8)
And when, in time to come, your child asks you, saying, "What does this mean?" you shall say to him, "It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage." (Ex. 13:14). These verses remind us of what is really important to Jewish survival and growth. Taken together, they show that at the time of these great events, Moses was thinking of the future, not just savoring the present victory. They show the importance of education and training for all children. And it shows how we teach. We teach and we learn with questions. As the Nobel Prize winner’s grandmother would ask him when he came home from grammar school, “Did you ask good questions?” As Sacks pointed out, teaching like this led to the creation by the Jews of the first compulsory education system (1st century) that included providing opportunities for orphans who did not the wherewithal to pay tuition. While our ancient contemporaries were building pyramids, ziggurats and triumphal arches, Jews were creating an educational system. It is this system, based, in no small part on these three strictures that has meant the Jewish people continue to thrive while our ancient contemporaries are consigned the musty dust bin of history.
With so much to cover in the sedrah, we will keep this brief. As one of three Major Prophets, Jeremiah is worthy of a lot of time. He provides three of the haftarot for sidrot from the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), so we will have plenty of time to give him his just deserts later on.
The Man: Jeremiah lived at a time of great political and social turmoil during the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E. He was active during the last days of the Southern Kingdom and lived through destruction of the Temple and the early days of the Exile. He was born about 645 B.C.E. in small town outside of Jerusalem called Anatoth in the lands of the tribe of Benjamin. He was part of a priestly family that had found favor with King David but was subsequently banished from Jerusalem by King Solomon. So from his birth, Jeremiah appeared to be destined to play the role of the quintessential outsider. The Jews of Jeremiah’s time were confronted with the challenge of Babylonia. Jeremiah’s advice was to make peace with the Babylonians. His advice was repeatedly ignored. He was branded a traitor and imprisoned. His life was threatened on more than one occasion and he suffered the indignity of having his writings burned before his eyes. Jeremiah told the first exiles sent to Babylonia (pre-586) to become good citizens of their new home. After the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was taken to Egypt against his will. According to some he died there under questionable circumstances.
The Message: It is complex, multi-faceted and beyond what we can cover this week. He is the reluctant prophet who chastises the people. Some see him as the embodiment of harsh meanness and his name has come into the language in the word “jeremiad.” But he was also a man who put a premium on social justice and ethical behavior. He provided guidelines for identifying false prophets and is the prototype for those who are willing to challenge the military and foreign policy actions of their government while remaining a loyal citizen. Considering events in the United States, this is an excellent example of the timelessness of the teachings of the TaNaCh. Last, but not least, Jeremiah provided a message of hope when all that was going around him should have led to despair and hopelessness. If you want to swim against the stream, Jeremiah will show you how. More importantly, he will tell you when and why you should make the effort.
Theme-Link: The sedrah tells of the humiliation of Pharaoh and the redemption of the Israelites from bondage. In the haftarah, Jeremiah tells of the humiliation of a contemporary Pharaoh. He is relating his message to the battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C.E. when the Egyptians were defeated by the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar. This is the same Nebuchadnezzar who will become King of the Babylonians and destroy Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 B.C.E. This brief haftarah then ends with a message of restoration for the Israelites. It predicts a future redemption that will be even greater than the redemption from Egyptian bondage.
Copyright January, 2017 Mitchell A Levin