Exodus 10:1-13:16 Haftorah Jeremiah 46:13-28
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.
Vayigash Gen. 44:18 - 47:27
D’var Torah by Judy Gross
January 2, 1998
Vayigash is the portion in which Joseph, apparently the most powerful man in Egypt, finally reveals himself to his brothers and brings Jacob’s entire family to Egypt to save all of Israel from the famine in Canaan. To me, the most interesting aspect of this portion is its theme of control: how Judah, Joseph, Pharaoh, and finally Jacob try to control other people, events, and even God. In this portion, for the first time, Jacob realizes that he cannot control God. He also realizes that he doesn’t need to.
Let us begin, as does this portion, with Judah. Judah in previous stories has shown more that his share of human frailties, including plotting to sell Joseph into slavery and acting disgracefully to Tamar, his son’s wife. But in this story, he appears after having pledged to Jacob his own life and freedom as surety for Benjamin, his youngest brother, Rachael’s child and Jacob’s favorite since Joseph’s disappearance. When Joseph pretends that he is going to imprison Benjamin for theft, Judah realizes that Judah, in fact, has no physical power. His family is starving and at the mercy of one who is like Pharaoh ( Gen.44:18; a comment that I did not think was intended as a compliment). Judah gives us a beautiful example of the song we sang last week for Hanukkah, "Not by might and not by power". Judah comes up to Joseph ("vayigash") and, using only moral suasion, manages to disarm Joseph.
Judah doesn’t threaten Joseph, even with God’s wrath, he merely reports that losing Benjamin will deeply hurt his father, perhaps leading to the death of both Jacob and Benjamin. Judah’s speech is powerful: "Now if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with me--- since his own life is so bound up with his --- when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief." (Gen.44:30-31) He fulfills his pledge to Jacob by offering himself as a slave in Benjamin’s place on the grounds that he could not stand seeing how distraught Jacob would be if he lost Benjamin: "For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!" (Gen.44:34). And it works. Granted it works because in fact, Judah’s father was also Joseph’s father, and Joseph was an essentially moral person. It wouldn’t work against true evil, but from this portion, we see that telling someone what is right may lead to his doing right.
Judah’s rather minor role shows us what is possible. Joseph’s behavior shows us major limitations on the control by even the most powerful. Joseph has been manipulating and controlling his brothers shamefully. Judah’s speech is necessary because Joseph planted a cup in Benjamin’s bag and accused him of theft. Joseph previously had exercised his control over his brothers to deny them food unless they brought Benjamin to Egypt, which they did most unwillingly. Finally, Joseph loses control of his brothers and himself because of Judah’s words. However, in one last attempt to maintain his power over the Egyptians and to save face before them, when Joseph realizes that he is breaking down, he sends the Egyptians out of the room. He fails. He so completely loses control of himself that his cries can be heard all the way to Pharaoh’s palace.(Gen.45:1-2) His inability to control himself limits his total control.
I don’t mean to paint Joseph’s desire for power and control too strongly because Joseph always recognized some major limitations: he told his brothers that God had sent him before them to ensure their survival on earth (Gen.45:7) and "to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance" (a statement foreshadowing the Exodus and simultaneously providing a wonderful example of the human action necessary to carry out the Divine plan and fulfill the Covenant). He further says that God had made him "a father to Pharaoh", ruler throughout Egypt, and lord of Egypt. So he attributed his acquisition of power to God, not to himself or to Pharaoh. But even after their reconciliation, he still chose to try to control his brothers and father. He sent his brothers to bring Jacob, told them how to behave on the journey, what possessions to bring and what to abandon, where they would live, and what they would do for a living. His power over his brothers was somewhat limited: his brothers did not become either Joseph’s or Pharaoh’s serfs.
Joseph’s exercise of power was not limited to his brothers. By the end of the portion, all the people of Egypt came to Joseph first to buy food, then when all their money was gone, when all they had left were their dying bodies and dying land, to beg food and to trade their freedom for food. (Gen.47:18) True, when Joseph made all the people serfs to Pharaoh, he was proving that his personal power had limits: he did not directly benefit from the transactions as he did everything in Pharaoh’s name, and the Egyptian priests received their grants directly from Pharaoh without losing their freedom. This portion also foreshadows the most obvious limitation on Joseph’s control. In just a few short chapters, all of Israel will be slaves in Egypt. Joseph cannot control events after his death, nor does he truly control all of Egypt.
It is interesting at this point to examine Pharaoh’s power. In this portion, Pharaoh’s power is shown to be quite limited. He, in fact, is almost a comic figure. He extravagantly invites Joseph’s entire family to live in Egypt, but in doing so, he is a puppet: he extends an invitation that Joseph had already given, telling them to live where Joseph has already told them to live. Everyone has already begun to act on Joseph’s word, without even waiting for Pharaoh’s rubber stamp. Moreover, when the famine becomes severe, Joseph, not Pharaoh, sets Egyptian land policy. Finally, when Jacob arrives in Egypt, Jacob blesses Pharaoh (Gen.47:7) - which might seem presumptuous, except that we were told that Joseph was made father to Pharaoh, so it is appropriate that Joseph’s father act like a crotchety old grandfather when speaking to Pharaoh. "The years of my sojourn [on earth] are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life....(Gen.47:9)" Indeed. This also foreshadows Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s sons, Jacob’s real grandsons, in the next portion.
So what of Jacob’s power? We see that Jacob exercised some power over Pharaoh. We know that he maintained power over his sons because he sent them to Egypt for food several times even though they did not want to go, and, when forced to send Benjamin with them, extracts a promise from Ruben that Ruben’s children will be hostage for Benjamin (Gen.42:37) and a promise from Judah to stand surety for Benjamin (Gen.43:7). In the next portion, Jacob controls his sons with blessings and curses and also chooses how to bless Joseph’s sons. Nevertheless, Jacob understands the limits on his power: he makes Joseph formally swear to bury him in Canaan, rather than in Egypt (something that, by the way, God had already promised would happen). Jacob understands that control ends with death.
Jacob also understands, finally, that he cannot control God. During the course of his life, Jacob had four encounters with God. In the first three, Jacob tried to control God. Only in this portion, his fourth encounter, does he do everything right.
In Jacob’s first encounter with God, Jacob was, well, Jacob. Jacob is fleeing from home and the wrath of both Esau and Isaac, both of whom he has tricked. He goes to sleep and is treated to the magnificent spectacle of angels going up and down a ladder to Heaven, with God at the top of the ladder (Gen.28:12 et seq.). God tells Jacob that Jacob will receive the blessings of the Covenant and that God will go with him on his journeys. So Jacob explains to God what God must do for Jacob in order for Jacob to worship God: give me stuff and I will worship you. "If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house -- the Lord will be my God...."(Gen.28:20)
Jacob’s second encounter is just as magnificent a story as the first: Jacob is fleeing Laban's wrath (whom he has tricked), returning to his homeland in fear of his brother Esau. Jacob was alone in the night and wrestled with God (or some aspect of God), literally trying physically to force God to bless him. It doesn’t work; one touch cripples Jacob for life. And Jacob explains it as a victory: after all, he did not die. God has changed Jacob’s name to Israel in this encounter, but generally, he is still called Jacob. Jacob’s wrestling did not change the Covenant.
Jacob’s third encounter with God, after the rape of Dinah and his sons’ massacre of the men of Shechem, when, you guessed it, Jacob is fleeing the wrath of the peoples around Shechem, is basically just a different version of Jacob’s name change, with God’s confirmation of the Covenant.(Gen.35:9) Between these encounters, Jacob continues to live his difficult life. God, in the meantime, has kept His freely granted promise to make make Jacob’s family a multitude, hence the long list in this portion of all Jacob’s children and grandchildren who go to Egypt. (Gen. 46:8-27)
On this trip to Egypt, Jacob encounters God for the fourth time, "in a vision of night."(Gen.46:2) And Jacob gets it right. God calls "Jacob, Jacob." Jacob does not bargain, does not try to physically overpower God, and doesn’t even calculate whether God gave him all the stuff he had demanded in his first encounter. Instead, he says "Hineni", "Here I am", the only correct answer in Torah to a call from God.
So why did Jacob change? He did change, that is certain. After all, directness was never one of Jacob’s attributes. The only other time Jacob had even used the word "hineni" was when he invented a dream to explain to his wives why he was leaving Laban’s household, to try to convince them that God was directing his fortunes. (Gen.31:11) But in this portion, Jacob finally learns what is important. Controlling God wasn’t it, and having stuff wasn’t it. It was, instead, Joseph’s life.
When Judah returned from Egypt to fetch Jacob, he told Jacob that Joseph was alive and a lord in Egypt. Jacob’s heart stopped from shock and joy, he cried "Enough", and then the spirit of Jacob reentered Jacob’s body. (Gen.45:26-27) The word used for "spirit" is "ruah", the same breath of God that brought life to Adam and Noah’s protection from the flood. In fact, the Zohar insists that this was the Shechinah (spirit of God) entering Jacob’s body for the first time since Joseph disappeared. (Zohar vol.1,216:6: Soncino Zohar, vol.2,p.302) I prefer to think that Jacob had been without the spirit of God even longer, ever since Jacob made the soup for Esau and began his life of trickery so long before this. This portion then is the story of Jacob demanding, and needing, less and less from God. He didn’t need the wealth for which he had cheated Esau and Laban, he didn’t need to demand a blessing or stuff from God. Without being asked or harassed, God had given Jacob the protection of the Covenant. And God had given him his son’s life: that was enough.