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Parashat Bo 5778 — 01/20/2018

Parashat Bo 5778 — 01/20/2018

Shemot 10:1-13:16

They baked the dough that they took out of Egypt into unleavened cakes, for they could not become leavened since they had been driven out of Egypt and they could not tarry, and also, they had not made provisions for themselves (12:39)

The Israelites’ hasty flight from Egypt is given as the reason for our eating matzah on Pesach, and is repeated in the Seder, right before the “Hillel sandwich” and the festive meal. Abarbanel points out that there are some holes in the story however. First of all, they took the dough out of Egypt and didn’t bake it until they arrived at Sukkot! It surely had time to become leavened by then – when we bake matzah we have exactly 18 minutes between the time the flour is mixed with water and the time it comes out of the oven! In that time it has to be mixed, kneaded, rolled out, holes poked in it (you’ve always wondered why, haven’t you? It’s so that it bakes more quickly and more thoroughly) and baked.

Another problem: The Israelites were commanded to eat matzah at the Seder – the day before they got to a place where they were going to have to bake their dough. And we are commanded to eat matzah for 7 full days (nowadays outside of Israel, 8 days) – surely more than enough time for bread to rise!

Abarbanel explains that in fact, since the people had been commanded to eat matzot, they prepared dough with the intention of baking them as matzot (this would be the extra after making matzot for the Seder in Egypt). Since they were hurried out of Egypt, they didn’t get to bake that dough until they reached Sukkot, and Gd arranged that the dough didn’t rise in all that time, so that their intention could be fulfilled. And the reason we eat matzot for 7 days (or 8) is to impress upon us the suddenness of the Redemption. Since we might eat matzot for a day or two during the year, Pesach was made 7 days because it is out of the ordinary, and makes and impression on our awareness that “these nights are different from all other nights.”

The Exodus is the second example of a more or less instantaneous redemption in the Torah. Earlier, Yosef had been languishing in a dungeon for 12 years, when Pharaoh dreams, the wine steward remembers Yosef, he is “rushed” into Pharaoh’s presence, interprets the dream, and is immediately placed in charge of the entire country, and rules for 80 years! Why does redemption seem to come suddenly?
The Gaon of Vilna (d. 1796) gives an analogy with regard to prayer. He says it is like water building up against a wall. Nothing seems to be happening on the surface, but underground, unseen to any but a trained eye, the water is softening the wall until it finally cracks and the water comes flooding through. So all our prayer that might not have been said with ideal intensity and understanding of the meaning, those prayers that we feel are blocked from getting into heaven, build up and build up, until something triggers us to really connect with Gd in prayer, and everything that was once blocked floods into Heaven, where they are all received graciously by Gd.

I think the common thread behind all this is that there is a vast, spiritual realm underlying the world that we normally perceive, and that there are pressures that can build up in this world that can manifest very suddenly, sometimes frighteningly so. It’s like the pressure building up along a fault line, or the magma in the core of a volcano. The fault might be quiescent for a long time, the volcano dormant as far as we can see. But deep inside the pressure is building until the volcano erupts or the fault slips. The pressure is relieved, but the environment can be terribly damaged.

I believe we see the same thing on the social level. Human beings have been afflicted by greed for many millennia, and that greed leads to the oppression of the many for the interests of the few. We see this in ancient Egypt, we saw it in Greece and in Rome, in the empires of the east, and we see the same things in the modern day. Eventually, all the oppression builds up a mighty reservoir of negativity, and when the slightest crack appears, the dam bursts and everything is washed away in the ensuing flood. I think this is what happened in Egypt. Egypt was a slave society; the Jews were not their only victims, and indeed a multitude of other peoples (“the mixed multitude”) left Egypt in the aftermath of the 10th plague. The plagues themselves represent the release of the tension generated by the oppression; the Exodus itself is a natural byproduct of the purer state of consciousness generated by that release.

There are two ways to deal with negativity and darkness. The first way is to fight against the oppression. At times this is necessary, for example to preserve our life or the life of our community. Needless to say this approach requires a great expenditure of effort, of resources, and at times of life, and it is by no means guaranteed to succeed. Since it doesn’t alter the basic way of thinking that caused the problem in the first place, it creates a great deal of its own negativity, and generally only replaces one oppression with another – think of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.

There is a better way to fight darkness, and that is to bring light. Darkness cannot exist where there is light. We need to bring the light of Gd, the light of the transcendent, first of all into our own lives, and through us, to our environment and to the world as a whole. All differences and conflicts pale in the light of infinity. By getting rid of oppression and violence, stresses cannot get built up, which would require a catastrophic release. We can spare ourselves a lot of grief, not with a pre-emptive strike, but with a redemptive strike!

Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Bo

With the plague of the death of the first born and the death of his first-born son Pharaoh finally drives the Children of Israel out of Egypt to worship the Lrd, along with their children, flocks and wealth they have borrowed from their Egyptian friends.

Literally, “first born” refers to the first-born child; symbolically, I look at it as whatever is our most precious desire, our link between our present status and the future status we hope to achieve.

Our religion guides us to cherish most a first-born that can never die, making our most precious desire the desire to be restored to full awareness of Oneness, One with the One, One with Gd Who Is All There Is.

And our religion guides us to “worship Gd with all our heart and all our soul” and to “love our neighbor as our Self”, and thus to free ourselves from enslavement to limited values of life, which were the values of Pharaoh’s Egypt/Mitzraim/Restrictions, and to gently become fully aware of the Wholeness within which all limits are no longer experienced as limits but are experienced as expressions of the Wholeness within which they exist, flow, flourish.

This parshah reminds us to keep our priorities in order and to free ourselves from restrictions so we have time to worship the Lrd, and thus to transform restrictions into worship of the Lrd, worship of Wholeness.

Baruch HaShem