2007Parshat Bo is one of the most influential and important parshiot we read all year. It tells of the last three plagues God brings upon Egypt , including the killing of the first born. We are given our first commandments as a community– the keeping of the new moon and a Jewish calendar-- as well as the holiday of Passover. We are told of tefillin. We see the inclusion of a "mixed multitude" of other peoples fleeing Egypt with us. And we head for the wilderness which brings our redemption from Egypt .
The Five Senses of Jewish Memory
The parsha begins immediately with God declaring to Moshe why the plagues are happening to Egypt: so that you (the Hebrews) will tell, in the ears of your children and your children’s children that God acted upon Egypt and put signs (the plagues) in their midst to let them know it was God that was acting on their behalf. (Exodus 10:2)
Alcalay's dictionary tells us the Hebrew word for acted here implies a wickedness, a false accusation, or a cruelty. Rashi, the Medieval commentator, tells us that this act is one of God mocking Egypt for God’s own amusement.
On first look, I was troubled and disturbed by a God who brought down destruction and death onto an entire people for the sake of amusement.
When I read the verse over again, though, another point shines brighter: "so that you will tell, in the ears of your children and your children’s children…"
I first came to Hillel as a sophomore in college after admitting that I want to lead a family Passover Seder someday as a dad. As someone who was bar mitzvah-ed out of Judaism, I realized I needed to seek resources in this journey. Hillel became the place for me to begin my new quest for Jewishness.
Eight years later, I find myself a Hillel professional writing a d'var Torah for the parsha in which the Torah tells us to have a Seder. And at a Seder, we should feel as though we, ourselves, are slaves in Egypt.
Parsha Bo tells us how to recreate this experience calling upon our five senses throughout the story.
We are first told experience the story with our ears: into the ears of our children. (Exodus 10:2)
We are then reminded to use our eyes in experiencing the story. The ninth plague of darkness reminds us of sight and the word "eyes" appears in the text multiple times throughout the parsha. (Exodus 10:22-11:3)
Next we are told to use our nose. As Moshe tells Pharoah of the tenth and final plague, the killing of the first born of Egypt, we experience the great emotion Moshe feels as his "nose was burning" (Exodus 11:8). One can image the intensity of this scene as we are reminded of the heat of Moshe’s heavy breathing and the smell of death that surrounds Egyptat this time.
We are then instructed as a people, with the impending doom of the tenth plague upon us, to use our hands and to touch death and blood with the Pesach offering. By marking our doorposts we bring about our own redemption. This is the first time the Hebrews are called upon to do anything as a piece of their redemption and it serves as a crucial lesson in the quest for social justice and change in the story, that while we must be awakened to bondage with our eyes, nose, and ears, only action will bring deliverance. (Exodus 12:3, 12:7, 12:13)
Finally we are told to use our mouths. More than the eating of the Pesach offering (Exodus 12:4, 12:8, 12:9-12:11, 12:15, etc.) we are told to speak. As we are given the commandment of tefillin (Exodus 13:9), we are told that "God’s Torah will be in our mouth." For some of us this alludes to daily prayer, for others informal conversation, and still for others, it may be a speaking that occurs within – no matter which way, the act serves to bring closure to the process of redemption while ensuring an evolving continuity.
The brilliance of the Torah, divine or not, in bringing the use of our senses as an act of remembrance, enables us to fully experience but also pause and reflect. In being told to use each sense in a sequence: hearing, seeing, smelling/emoting, touching/doing, and tasting/speaking, we are able to spend time with each enabling for a deeper experience.
As we as Jews work for social justice and change in the world, let us not forget our own history and the reminders it gives us to relate to ourselves and others. We see in the beginning of the parsha that God acts for reasons that may not make sense or even seem just. Let us not forget that though our own memory of oppression is unique, we are not alone in experiencing it.
Written by David Basior, J-Connect Seattle
For more information on Parshat Bo visit myjewishlearning.com