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Parashat Bo 5776 — 01/16/2016

Parashat Bo 5776 — 01/16/2016

Shemot 10:1-13:16

Sanctify to Me every firstborn… (13:1)

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein. (Ps. 24:1)

Everything we get, we get to give away.

We always have a special place in our hearts for things that are first. Our first love, our first child, the first robin of spring, our baby’s first steps. There is something fresh and new about firsts. There is something that is quite different about the number 1 than any other number.

The Torah takes a somewhat different view:

In the Torah’s narratives, only little importance is assigned to the firstborn … more prominent in these narratives is the tension between the firstborn son and the chosen son. … The overwhelming majority of the Torah’s great personalities, with the prominent exception of Abraham, are not firstborn: Isaac, Joseph, Judah, Moses, David, Solomon – the list goes on and is quite impressive.

Why are we so attached to our “first fruits”? R. Steinsaltz points out that

The answer to these questions lies not in the firstborn’s own essential worth, but in the special feeling and affection that we have for things that are first. The first fruit is not necessarily the choicest, but our connection to it is the deepest…

We are attached to firsts. I gave some examples above and you can probably think of many more. Go through your photograph albums. How many pictures did you take of your first child? Your second child? Do you love the first one any more? Presumably not. But after 100 pictures of the first one doing his or her first things, it’s not quite as fascinating when the second one does those same things. First things make a deep and lasting impression on us. In traditional Jewish education, a young student begins with the book of Leviticus – the detailed rules of the different offerings. Why not begin with the stories of creation and of our great forebears? The answer I have seen given is that if we learn those stories at age 3, then even at age 53, we’ll relate to them at a 3-year-old level, when in fact these “stories” are really manifestations of the subtle mechanics of creation and evolution. Why is this? Because they would have been the first things we learned, and those impressions stay lively for a long time. The hardest part of any kind of growth is unlearning the incorrect notions that you previously learned.

What does Torah enjoin us to do with our “firstborns”?

The essence of the firstborn, then, teaches us what a person should do in his life, how he should devote his primary energy and creativity: “I therefore offer to Gd all male firstborn animals, and shall redeem all the firstborn of my sons.” (13:15) The things to which we have the deepest emotional attachment, which can never be replicated, are the very things that should be given to Gd.

Cain offered to Gd “of the fruit of the soil” (Gen 4:3), surely consisting of fine, good fruit. In contrast, Abel “also (gam hu) brought of the firstlings of his flock” (4:4). Abel brought not only “firstlings” but “gam hu” – he brought himself as well. One who succeeds in offering his inner self to Gd will be able to experience “your youth will be renewed like an eagle” (Ps. 103:5), to approach the world through the fresh eyes of a child once again.

I think R. Steinsaltz has touched on a fundamental point here. The role of a human being is not simply to offer his “firsts” to Gd. We have to offer our whole selves to Gd. What does this mean? On one level it means that everything we do should be done “for the sake of Heaven.” Ideally, our motivation for any action should be that it is the correct thing to do, that it will further growth and integration of creation, that it will bring Gd’s plan for His creation closer to fruition. Our individual desires should, ideally, be completely negated before Gd’s Will, as it says in Pirke Avot: Make His Will thy will, so that He may make His Will thy will. (2:4) This is a very high level of course – it essentially requires that we reach a level of consciousness where our individual awareness has reached cosmic proportions.

How can we reach such a level? It would seem that we need a way to expand our mind by having it consciously contact its own infinite source. When we do that, we begin to identify ourselves with this infinity within us, rather than with the surface levels of our personality – our thoughts, ideas, opinions, our bodies. When this shift of identification occurs, then in a very natural way, our will becomes identified with Gd’s Will, because we know ourselves to be a “piece of the Divine” and we know our individuality to be simply an expression of that Divinity.

In the meantime, while we’re working to get to that level, we have our tradition to guide us – the words and the mitzvot of Torah include many practices that constantly bring to mind that Gd is the ultimate reality, and there is really nothing else besides Gd. There are practices that purify our minds and bodies so that this knowledge can become a living reality, undistorted by accumulated stresses and strains and impurities. May it be Gd’s Will that we wake up to who we really are, so that we may become faithful servants of Gd.

Haftarah: Yirmiyah 46:13-28

The Haftarah is a prophecy against Egypt, foretelling its impending destruction at the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia, who is the king who destroyed the First Temple. The Hebrew word for Egypt (Mitzraim) comes from the root tzar, meaning “narrow” or “constrained.” Nebuchadnezzar was a tyrant and an evil man, to be sure, but the Midrash recognizes some good qualities in him as well. After the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylonia, conditions ameliorated somewhat, and the community flourished. He was decent to Daniel and was glad to see him saved from the lions’ den, and gleefully threw those who had slandered Daniel to the lions afterwards. In this case, and perhaps in the case even of the destruction of the Temple, Nebuchadnezzar is condemned for his hubris, but is also seen as Gd’s agent in chastising his victims.

That is certainly the case in our Haftarah. As far as Gd is concerned, Pharaoh and Mitzraim are the guilty parties and Nebuchadnezzar is simply the means to give them an attitude adjustment. Truly, it’s an attitude adjustment we all need. Egypt was materialistic, technologically advanced, brutal, oversexed, dependent on slave labor. Sound familiar? Its narrow thinking caused it to see the world as a zero-sum game. Such a disconnect from the underlying reality of life cannot continue forever; Nebuchadnezzar saw to that. Lets see to it that we don’t need a similar attitude adjustment, because Gd has many Nebuchadnezzars He can send.