Parshat bo_landerBo, by Brad Lander
D’var Torah for January 28, 2012
Despite its short name, Parshat Bo has a lot going on. The 8th plague, locusts, and then the 9th, darkness – so much worse than they sound, with Pharoah at first relenting and telling Moses and Aaron the Israelites can go, but then that peculiar phrase that “God hardened Pharoah’s heart” so that he refuses, leaving them back in slavery where they started.
Then the final plague, the slaying of the first born, the bloody and troubling slaughter of innocents, “from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, to the firstborn of the captive who is in the dungeon, and every firstborn animal.” Then the Israelites rush to escape slavery, bringing their bread before it had time to rise. And then 600,000 Jews leave Egypt, after more than 400 years there.
Along the way, God issues the first mitzvah – the commandment to sanctify the new moon of the month of Nissan – leading the medieval commentator Rashi to suggest perhaps that the Torah should begin here. While Genesis covers the birth of the world, Parshat Bo marks the birth of the Israelites as a free people, heading out of slavery in Egypt. According to Rabbi Toba Spitzer: “In this new arrangement of time, the ‘first month’ is the one in which the redemptive moment of liberation from slavery and degradation occurs. It is as if time itself is beginning anew.”
Parshat Bo also contains commandments for how we should commemorate this founding moment. Before enacting the fateful final plague and opening the door to freedom at last, God issues commandments for the Passover Seder, making clear that throughout the generations, we should retell the story of our liberation and emergence as a free people.
But the commandments for how we should commemorate our founding moment contain a deep contradiction. God actually gives two quite different commandments for the Passover festival. In the first version, Chpater 12: 1 - 11, just before God gives the details of the 10th plague, each Israelite household is commanded annually, on the 10th of Nissan, to slaughter a lamb, paint the door posts of our houses with the blood, and eat the lamb roasted whole over fire in an all-night binge, as a commemoration of what happened on that night.
A few verses later, at Chapter 12: 14 - 20, we are commanded to observe a quite different version of Passover, this one a seven day festival of unleavened bread – removing leavened bread from our houses for a week, or else being removed from the Jewish community. The explanation for the focus on matzah is provided a few verses later, when we learn about the need to leave in haste, without time for the bread to rise.
These two different commandments for the Seder stand in stark contrast – one centering on the bloody lamb shank, the other on the unleavened bread.
For the most part, I’m guessing that the people here at Kolot prefer the feast of the unleavened bread to the feast on the paschal lamb. I know this has been true for me. We’d much rather celebrate the escape from bondage, and our willingness to give up personal comfort for freedom … and not look too hard at the blood of Egyptian first-born children and animals. Of course we’re uncomfortable with the mass killing of kids who had nothing to do with the decision to enslave the Jews. We prefer the God who criticized the Israelites for celebrating the drowning of the Egyptians in the sea to the one who commanded that the commemoration of their slaughter be at the center of perhaps our most important ritual.
But there’s an argument within the Jewish community about this – as I was reminded this week, after it was revealed that the NYPD used a hate-filled film to train officers. The Third Jihad argues that much of the Muslim community are terrorists and that we are locked in a centuries-long ongoing crusade against Islam, one which might be seen as going all the way back to the struggle between the Israelites and the Egyptians. The film was produced by people with close ties to Aish HaTorah, a right-wing Jewish organization.
I strongly criticized the NYPD, for showing the film and then lying about it, and also for the broader surveillance and spying program that it is part of, which I am convinced is racial and religious profiling and in violation of the civil rights of our Muslim cousins. For me, the commandment to speak out against persecution of this type comes directly from the Passover story, from our founding experience of the need to stand up against state-sponsored discrimination based on religion and ethnicity.
But I received comments from several leaders of Jewish organizations with a different point of view – not defending the video, exactly, but defending the NYPD’s program, arguing that it is appropriate for them to focus on the threat posed by Muslim extremists who are out to kill New Yorkers, and especially Jews.
What struck me in the context of Parshat Bo is the difference between what you might think of as “lamb-shank” Jews and “matzah” Jews – about whether the lesson to draw from the Passover story is one of vigilance against enemies, or about the miraculous escape from slavery.
For a few years, my family went so far in the anti-lamb-shank direction that, inspired by a reading from the vegetarian Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb, we replaced the shankbone and substituted olives, grapes and grains as Biblical symbols of the commandments of compassion for the oppressed. I know others use beets, whose red color at least carries some reminder of blood. Still others use a long, skinny sweet potato – a Paschal yam, in place of the paschal lamb.
After a few years, however, my family – convinced in part by a poem by Marge Piercy – put the lamb shank back on the Seder plate, and Parshat Bo persuades me that it should remain there, however uncomfortable we are with it.
Don’t get me wrong: I remain profoundly troubled by the slaying of the first-born. At this moment of our people’s creation, I want Moses to argued with God, as Abraham did at Sodom and Gomorrah, and to push for another few rounds of plagues – God still hadn’t tried international sanctions, irresolvable traffic jams, disabling the Egyptians internet connections & video games, or many other horrible afflictions. Or, at least, arguing for killing the Egyptian leaders actually enslaved them, rather than their kids and pets.
And I am certainly going to keep pushing for reform of the NYPD’s counter-intelligence program. We can keep our city safe without violating civil liberties, using racial profiling, demonizing Islam, and fraying the bonds of trust we need to keep our city safe and a bastion of diversity and tolerance. In short, in most ways I remain firmly a matzah Jew.
But I was willing to put the lamb-shank back on the Seder plate, and engage in some deeper wrestling with the commandment to do so. As Rashi points out, this commandment seems strange to begin with: “Does God, the All-Seeing One, need blood on a doorpost to know who is Israelite and who Egyptian?” Rather, Rashi notes, verse 13 says that "the blood will be a sign for you" – that is, a sign for the Israelites, not for God.
Why did the Israelites need this sign? Some argue that it is intended as a reminder of God’s awesome power over life and death. But Rabbi Toba Spitzer offers an explanation that I prefer. Up to this point in the Exodus story, she argues the Israelites have been essentially passive characters in the unfolding drama of their redemption. Marking their doors with lamb's blood is the first thing that the people of Israel are asked to do for themselves. This act thus becomes their first step towards freedom.
“In order to take a step toward becoming a free people, the Israelites had to mark themselves – to step up, to speak out, to mark oneself simultaneously as oppressed and as ready to break the bonds of oppression. By painting their doorways, the Israelites were both claiming their identity and at the same time making public their rebellion. They willingly risked the possibility that nothing would happen that fateful night, that their Egyptian oppressors might not be killed and would rise the next morning to see the signs of a slave revolt, with the doors of each participant blatantly marked. They marked themselves as slaves, and they marked themselves as free.”
Understood this way, I think it is possible to reconcile the two versions of the Seder commandment. We should not shy away from the blood of rebellion, from the painful truth that in this case, freedom required risk, struggle, sacrifice, and even killing. But we should not make it the sole or central focus of our feast of freedom, either. This is also the feast of the unleavened bread, of a people who fled quickly and endured 40 years in the desert, of the bread of affliction that reminds us of the pain of slavery.
We aren’t supposed to celebrate the slaughter, any more than we celebrate the slavery. We are supposed to remember and reflect – on our painful birth as a free people, already with a heavy set of debts and obligations, as people mindful of both the crushing evils of oppression, and the frightening costs of freedom and responsibility.
Let me conclude with that poem by Marge Piercy, The Art of Blessing the Day. Piercy has written frequently against oppression & violence, for redemption & reconciliation, but she does a powerful job of reminding us not to look at the lamb shank:
"It grosses out many of my friends.
They don’t eat meat, let alone
place it on a ritual platter.
I am not so particular, or more so.
Made of flesh and bone, liver
and sinew, salty blood and brain,
I know they weren’t ghosts who trekked
out of baked mud huts into the desert.
Blood was spilled, red and real:
first ours, then theirs. Blood
splashed on the doorposts proclaimed
in danger the rebellion within.
We are pack and herd animals.
One Jew is not a Jew, but we are
a people together, plural, joined.
We were made flesh and we bled.
And we fled, under the sign
of the slaughtered lamb to live
and die for each other. We are
meat that thinks and sings."
|Join Our Mailing List|