Bo: Telling Our Story, Enhancing our Senses
Rabbi Sue Live Elwell
When we turn to the texts that have accompanied many throughout the days of their lives, we look for directional signs that may be useful to us as we navigate our final days and years.
As we age, we become increasingly aware that our days are “numbered;” that our lives will end, and that our bodies and minds have an “expiration date.” Our perspectives on life, illness, joy, art, and relationships change. We may see a longer, more expansive view of everything we encounter. And, at the same time, many of us discover a new focus on details, questions, stories, and points of view that we may have previously missed, glossed over, or ignored.
As our bodies age, and for some of us, our sight and hearing are compromised, we may discover that we are actually more attuned to the beauty and pain of the world. We may be able, with greater clarity than ever before, to hear birdsong and human cries, to discover deep beauty in the faces of the diverse human beings with whom we share this planet, to see the natural world with greater clarity and gratitude.
For some of us, our own story-telling changes. We begin one narrative, and then find ourselves following what my beloved mentor Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus called “a tributary,” an alternative–perhaps related, perhaps unrelated–story. This parashah exemplifies that quality, as it circles between narrative and detailed ritual description and back again.
We arrive at Parashat Bo with a longer view and awakened senses, and perhaps a deepened sense of narrative process. In Bo, the third parasha in the book of Exodus, Moses continues to plead with Pharaoh to let the Israelites’ go amid the signs and wonders that fail to convince him to release them.
The name of this portion is significant. Bo, “Go,” is God’s challenge to Moses, who was initially reluctant to become God’s emissary. Although Aaron will accompany Moses to meet Pharaoh, Bo opens with a clear message to Moses alone: go by yourself to Pharaoh to present the Israelite plea. As elders, we may be all too familiar with what seems to be God’s reasoning: “For I have hardened his (Pharaoh’s) heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your children and of your children’s children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am Adonai.” (10:1-2) How many times might we have said–as parents, as teachers, as supervisors–“Do this because I said so,” and perhaps implied, “that you may know that I’m in charge/more important/have power over you?” As mature readers, we may wince at what may seem like God’s arrogance/insecurity/power play, and we may deeply identify with Moses, set up challenge the Egyptian ruler with a request that Moses knows will be refused.
After describing God’s charge to Moses, the text turns to the final three plagues. Pharaoh once again refuses to let the people go. God tells Moses “hold out your arm… for the locusts,” which arrive on a powerful east wind, and “hid the land from view” (10:15)
As elders, we may experience these “signs” that afflict the Egyptians but spare the Hebrews with particular sensitivity. We may know well the challenges of navigating when strong winds and obscured vision make it difficult to go forward. The subsequent sign, darkness, may also be familiar. When Pharaoh threatens Moses, “Take care not to see me again, for the moment you look upon my face you shall die,” Moses responds: “You have spoken rightly. I shall not see your face again” (10:28-9). When they do meet again, the reader discovers that this exchange is multi-layered; Pharaoh’s face has been altered by grief after the death of his first-born son, and Moses has returned with greater power and a clearer vision of his own and his peoples’ destiny. Do we “see” more clearly, with fewer occlusions, after loss?
The death of the first-born will be accompanied by “a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as never been or will ever be again.” (11:6) Are we more highly attuned to the sound of human grief, even as some of us become “hard of hearing” as we age?
After fairly straight-forward narrative, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites how their descendants will ritualize this story and create what will become the Passover observance, including instructions for the Passover sacrifice, and marking their doorposts with blood. “In the middle of the night, The Holy One struck down all the [male] first-born in the land of Egypt…” (12:29).
The text again moves seamlessly from recounting “history” to developing the Exodus story into “a vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages,” (12:42) concluding with a detailed description of the observance we pass down to our descendants. “And when, in time, to come, your child asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall reply, ‘It was with a mighty hand that the Holy One brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.’”
Although few of us gather at our Seder tables with “loins girded, sandals on (y)our feet… staff in… hand” (12:11), Passover sedarim remain the most practiced ritual in contemporary Jewish life. Many of us gather with family and friends and recount the Passover story, including descriptions of how our own ancestors observed the holiday. We may recite the text from the Haggadah, or tell a linear narrative with discursive interruptions and directions for practice, as does this portion. Or, we may improvise our own version of the ancient story. We Jews never seem to tire of adapting and interpreting our story of coming through narrow places to greater expanse, and towards the promise of freedom–adding songs, poetry, and symbols to deepen our delight in and appreciation of our ancient, constantly renewed telling, as the Haggadah teaches:
בכול דור ודור, חייבים אנו לראות את עצמנו כאילו אנו יצאנו ממצרים:
B’chol dor va dor hayavim anu lirot et atzmenu k’ilu anu yatzanu miMitzrayim, “In every generation, we must see ourselves as if we, ourselves, came out of Egypt.”
May we find strength in our Torah as we live each of the days of our lives, and may we be blessed to pass this precious legacy to those who come after us.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell has spent her career working with individuals and congregations to build and sustain healthy, vibrant Jewish communities. The Founding Director of the American Jewish Congress Feminist Center in Los Angeles, Elwell served as the first rabbinic Director of Ma’yan, the Jewish Women’s Project of the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side in New York City before joining the staff of the Union for Reform Judaism, where she served for 18 years. She now serves as a Spiritual Director at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and also accompanies a wide range of individuals as they explore their spiritual paths. Elwell is the editor of the award-winning Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Stories of Our Lives (2013),The Open Door Haggadah (2002), and served as editor of Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation (2001). She is co-editor, with Hara Person, of a forthcoming volume celebrating 50 Years of Women Rabbis, to be published by the CCAR.