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Torah Sparks

Parashat Bo
January 24, 2015 – 4 Shevat 5775

Annual (Exodus 10:1 – 13:16): Etz Hayim p. 374; Hertz p. 248
Triennial (Exodus 11:4 – 12:28): Etz Hayim p. 379; Hertz p. 252
Haftarah (Jeremiah 46:13 – 28): Etz Hayim p. 395; Hertz p. 263

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

God afflicts an eighth and ninth plague upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. God speaks to Moses to announce the first commandment for the Israelite people: to offer a Passover sacrifice on the anniversary of their impending exodus, and to commemorate the occasion annually in a festival.

The final plague results in the deaths of all Egyptian firstborn. Pharaoh asks the Israelites to leave, and this time, he does not change his mind (at least not immediately). The Israelites leave Egypt quickly, taking Egyptian goods as they depart.

God commands that the firstborn of every Israelite family be assigned to God.

Theme #1: New Month, New Rules

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. ... They shall eat the flesh [of the Passover sacrifice] that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs. (Exodus 12:1-2, 8)

The first commandment given to Israel as a nation asks its people to mark the time of the Exodus with special rituals.

How could Nisan also be Rosh Hashanah? We have an argument in [Talmud] Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a as to whether the world was created in Nisan or Tishrei. Rabbi Eliezer says that in Tishrei the world was created … On Rosh Hashanah the slavery of our ancestors in Egypt ceased [six months before the redemption]; in Nisan they were redeemed and in Nisan they will be redeemed in the time to come. Rabbi Joshua says that in Nisan the world was created. They’re both right. The head of the year in Nisan is for the kings of Israel, which is to say that the children of Israel are called the children of kings, for they are free people, free at last from serving the Other Side, no longer under the control of the laws of nature. … After God chose Israel, God set the new month of redemption. For also in Tishrei is a time for judgment, but this is a special intimate judgment just for God. -- S’fat Emet

The initial command of Yahweh to Moses and Aaron begins with a calendar stipulation. The month of the exodus is to mark the first month of the Hebrew year. Although there is considerable evidence to suggest that historically this form of the calendar marked a change from an earlier practice, the stipulation is given as a straightforward description of policy without emphasis on the element of innovation. Moreover, there is nothing to suggest a distinction between the civil and religious calendar. Rather, the new beginning of life for Israel is remembered by marking the beginning of a new year. -- Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus

Eating and drinking [in the Hebrew Bible] created community, often involved political dimensions related to contracts. They were part and parcel of standard cultic procedure in the context of religious feasts and belonged to the general sphere of social interaction, such as marriages or non-specific events. Eating and drinking expressed joy -- often in the context of groups or community. Lack of food and consequently lack of eating and drinking together could indicate climatic problems, emotional affliction, or military conflicts. -- Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible

Questions for Discussion:

The Sfat Emet echoes a popular idea -- that the month of Nisan is so important because the Exodus from Egypt is one of Jewish history’s few "paradigm shifts," moments that changed the Jewish destiny forever. What are some other examples of paradigm shifts? Does the Shoah qualify as one? The creation of the modern state of Israel? The destruction of the Temples? The Spanish Expulsion? What is the criteria for Jewish paradigm shifts?

Childs sees the description of the beginning of the month of Nisan as an opportunity for a new beginning for the Israelites, and subsequently for modern Jews as well. The idea of a holiday representing a new beginning is widespread; for example, many look at Rosh Hodesh as a monthly chance to re-evaluate ourselves. Is it possible for a calendar to have too many “new beginnings?” Is it possible that we can’t just start over at every opportunity? If we could, would we risk forgetting the past?

Klingbeil puts an academic context on something many in the Jewish community learned a long time ago: the centrality of food. It's no coincidence that Israel's first collective commandment involves a communal meal. Why is this so appropriate? Why is it so important for us to not only eat, but also to eat together?

Theme #2

Moses then summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover offering. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. For when the Lord goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the Lord will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.” (Exodus 12:21-23)

Israel is commanded to display its uniqueness by a sign that will enable its firstborns to live, while Egypt will not avoid this fate.

This is to teach you that even if you should be as lowly as the hyssop which grows low on the ground, as long as you will be bound together into one united group, ready to give of your life-blood for Judaism, you will be able to “strike the lintel;” you will be able to attain to high places. -- Nehmad Mizahav

The festival depicted in this chapter is, in the opinion of many scholars, a combination of two ancient holy days: a shepherd’s festival, in which each spring a lamb was sacrificed to the deity in gratitude and for protection of the flock, and a celebration of the barley harvest, at which time all leaven/fermentation products were avoided. … Each has numerous parallels in other cultures. What has apparently happened here is that the two days have been fused together and imbued with history meaning. -- Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

[The Israelites’] departure from Egypt is not, despite its later use in liberation movements, a victory for justice. It is simply a victory, a demonstration of the power of the Lord to pursue fertility for his chosen people and wreck it for their enemy, a proof that “the Lord makes a distinction” when and as he chooses. This is also the meaning of the “passover offering to the Lord”. Moses instructs the Israelites to splash the blood of a ceremonially slain lamb on their doorposts and lintels and quotes the Lord’s reason: “When I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt”. This, rather than any more conventionally benevolent sentiment, is what Moses instructs the Israelites to celebrate in generations to come. That the Lord could have slain the Israelite firstborn too -- that they also belong to him -- is the meaning of the legal duty, inserted into the narrative at this point, to consecrate all firstborn to the Lord. -- Jack Miles, God: A Biography

Questions for Discussion:

Nehmad Mizahav expresses the hope that communal consciousness always will enable the possibility for upward mobility. Does this idea still resonate today, or is today’s society less partial to upward mobility? What about today’s Jewish community? Do we have a meritocracy? To what extent do other forces impact the odds for a newcomer to make a big impact on the community as a whole?

Fox teaches that Passover is a combination of two common ancient festivals -- one having to do with the sacrifice of a lamb, the other relating to the barley harvest -- which are bound together with the common thread of the story of the Exodus. Might there be other commonalities between these festivals besides the Exodus story?

Miles wonders if the story of the Exodus is not a victory of the “good guys” over the “bad guys,” but rather a story of how one group survives and the other suffers, simply based on the will of God. Contained within this theory is the expectation that the Israelites should be exceedingly grateful that they, not the Egyptians, are chosen to be the survivors. Is this view of God beneficial for the Israelite psyche? Might it explain some of their subsequent behavior in the wilderness?

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