Steven Jordan, January 30, 1998
This week's portion is called Bo. The word Bo comes from the same root as entrance, or gate, and this is the entrance to our rite of passage.
The story begins centuries before in Genesis 15:13 when God made his covenant with Abram. "Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but ... in the end they shall go free with great wealth." The word for stranger is "GeR," spelled gimel resh. This the same word as is translated "sojourner" and "convert" and "proselyte." I will talk about the stranger, GeR, some more.
We go from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph in Egypt. After Joseph is brought to Egypt, either 210 or 430 years pass, and the family of Jacob has grown to 600,000 men.
This is an Egyptian story. Sigmund Freud makes the strong case that Moses was a native Egyptian who took over the cause of Jews as his own. Even God seems Egyptian -- his displays of magic seem very natural.
One of the themes is the development of distinctions between Egyptian and Jew. This has started with the adoption of Moses, his slaying of the Egyptian, his realization that he belongs with the Jews and not the Egyptians, the escalating opposition of God and Moses to Pharaoh and the Egyptians; until they must face the overwhelming signs of God. Eventually, the consecration of the first-born to the Lord separates the Jewish sacrifice from Egyptian fate.
In the portion Bo, God tells the Israelites what unique things the Israelites must do to show God that they are different from the Egyptians, and we are told what rituals we must do for all generations to remember that God saved us from the Egyptians.
The passage Bo begins as Moses is concluding negotiations with the Pharaoh. It has begun with Moses asking Pharaoh for a religious holiday and retreat, and by now Pharaoh has acknowledged the existence and much of the power of God.
God says to Moses "Bo: Go [or enter] to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I may display these my signs among them."
Very interesting. Moses' job is to confront Pharaoh with a message. Again. For the eighth time.
Pharaoh is threatened with locusts that will devour everything. Pharaoh has already seen the magic staff, the plague of blood, the disgusting frogs, and the terrible power of the hailstorm. Pharaoh says to Moses, "Yes," you may go and take the men.
Moses negotiates in bad faith, refusing to take "yes" for an answer. We are waiting for a complete separation between Pharaoh and the Jews.
Moses says that he will take to the retreat the old and young, sons and daughters, flocks and herds. After all, they may need the children, cattle, and chickens in their service.
Pharaoh is, of course suspicious, and only agrees to the men. This by itself is a major economic and political concession, remember it is 600,000 laborers.
Immediately after Pharaoh says "no" to the children, flocks and herds, Moses stretches out his rod and the locusts come as threatened. The Torah says, "Never before had there been so many, nor will there ever be so many again."
Then there comes the awesome ninth plague -- imagine this: For three days there is darkness everywhere -- a darkness that can be touched. But all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. There are many echos of images of Creation in Bo.
Then the perpetual celebration of the Passover is institutionalized with strong and detailed instructions and injunctions. This voice to the future is heard repeatedly in Bo.
Israelites very carefully identify themselves with sacrificial blood on the doorposts of their houses. The GeR must observe the passover. This is very interesting -- the whole purpose is for the Israelites and mark themselves as unique -- and the GeR within their community should follow the same rules, and mark themselves the same way.
In the middle of the night the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt. And all of Egypt lets out an uncontrolled wail of anguish. Pharaoh has gone from acceptance of the reality of God to personal confrontation with God's power.
We have heard this wail before. The first Pharaoh heard it from Joseph. Joseph's cathartic wail allowed him to reconcile with his family.
So Moses' Pharaoh tells the Israelites to go, with their flocks and herds. Pharaoh is reconciled (for the moment) to the supreme power of God, and he says to Moses and Aaron, "And may you bring a blessing upon me also."
Observance of the Passover is crucial not only here in Bo, where infraction is punishable by exile, but throughout the Torah. In fact, it is not completely clear what is the sign of the covenant -- here it seems to be the Passover. Elsewhere it is circumcision. Elsewhere the Sabbath. The Torah emphasizes rules for the GeR. The Cantor chanted some of the complexities, there is one over-riding principle: "There shall be the same law for the natural born citizen, and for the stranger that sojourneth among you." Or as restated in Deuteronomy 10: "What does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. ...You too [like God] must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt."
It is disturbing that one is still a stranger in the land after 210 years or 430 years -- 17 generations. Yet this is an ongoing odyssey of Judaism, with exile from Eden, with wanderings in the desert, with exile to Babylon, with the Diaspora, with exile from Spain, and exile from Germany. The Rabbis were explicit: Even when you are in exile, the spirit of God, Shekinah, will follow you.
The Rabbis addressed the treatment of citizenship. They distinguished between a convert to Judaism and resident alien. In balancing issues of assimilation and the special role of Jews, they urged inclusion of the GeR. Rashi even advocated re-instatement of a kohen who had disavowed Judaism under the Crusades, and then returned to Judaism.
In Bo we have a archetype for willful separation and emigration, leaving our roots. There is the confrontation and radicalization between Pharaoh, and God with his prophet and his chosen people. The episode of separation is a defining one.
The Exodus represents a usual human event. It is the continuing story of America -- the flight from the Czars and from Hitler and from Cuba and from Cambodia. Separation from our home and roots happens to many of us -- leaving one's parents or brother or sister with confrontation, divorce, the breakup of families when they cannot accept a marriage or a gay child; escaping from exploitation or abuse; quitting a job, or breaking up a partnership. The negotiations may begin as reasonable and end up traumatic with a wail. The rite of passage defines our future and we will always remember the drastic change we made in our life.
The story of Bo is more than leaving home to go to graduate school, or to take a job in a new city. It tells of a separation, a confrontation, and a flight for safety, taking only limited possessions, with a very brief preparation. When we leave we are confronted with a choice -- what really matters to us? What should we take? What will we need for our future survival economically, psychologically and spiritually? What a decision. We may break bonds that were invisible to us. We have both a sense of purpose, and a sense of uncertainty. The future may be quite different than we ever anticipated. We may be soon close to starvation, we may be grumbling in the wilderness, and we may receive an amazing gift from God. We will be strangers in a new land.
This is what the Jews take with them from Egypt: Their community: their families, herds, and flocks Their survival: money, clothes, and food -- all three specially prepared for the Their symbols: The bones of Joseph, to complete the Egyptian story.
As they leave, they are guided by Moses, and by God, who goes before them in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Their life is changing in ways they never expected. Now the Israelites have a fragile sense of nation, and are being given rituals and laws for all time. In their future travels, the Israelites will also take the Ark of the Covenant in the procession. But first they will wander for 40 years, shaking off their Egyptian connections. Again they are about to be strangers in the land. To be true to the Passover, we go with them.