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Bo 2022

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

Parashah Bo: United or Not?

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, opens in the middle of a story, the story that immediately precedes the greatest event in our people’s history. The final three plagues – swarms of locusts, absolute darkness, and the slaying of the first born – are visited upon the Egyptians because of Pharaoh’s continual refusal to let the Israelites leave Egypt.

God does not visit these scourges upon the Egyptians without purpose or without seeking some alternative. Indeed, before each plague, God sends Moses and his brother Aaron to Pharaoh in an effort to secure the peaceful release of the Israelites. Each time, Moses and Aaron fail. Although Pharaoh offers to let some of the Israelites leave, Moses does not accept, saying “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters.”

Who were these people – the young and the old, with their sons and their daughters? The Torah portion tells us that 600,000 “men on foot” made the journey out of Egypt. Biblical scholars estimate that 600,000 men on foot translate into a total community of around two million people – men on foot, older or infirmed men carried on animals or in carts, women, and children.

Put yourself in Moses’ position for a moment. Here is one man, arguing to the ruler of the country enslaving him, that two million people be allowed to leave. Do you think Moses really cared about each and every individual Israelite? Wouldn’t it have been easier to argue that half the community – or even just a quarter of it, a full 500,000 people – be allowed to go?

To begin with, some of the people were no doubt sick or injured from years of dehumanizing work and inadequate medical attention. These people would be a tremendous burden on the rest of the community. Furthermore, it’s probably fair to assume that the Israelite community had its share of people who were lazy, mean spirited, socially inappropriate, conniving, unjust, self-centered, abusive, irritable, stupid, unskilled, bigoted, and any number of other things, and who, quite frankly, might be better left behind.

And what about the Israelites as Israelites? Very little is required of the Israelites at this biblically-early stage in their development as a religious community. At the time of the Exodus, the people were to worship their God. Israelite boys were to be circumcised as a sign of God’s covenant with the Hebrew people; the parents were to give their children Hebrew names, and the community kept alive the Hebrew language. But even with all of that, this was a community of slaves. Imagine how difficult it was to observe even just a handful of commandments. The Israelites were the only monotheistic people in a world filled with pagans and multi-god worshippers. How easy it would have been to dismiss your own God in favor of another – or more likely, in favor several others. And perhaps even more so if you have known only slavery your entire life. It’s easy to doubt the presence of a just and loving God whom you are supposed worship and follow when you have never known justice or a loving world.

What a motley group! But it is this entire group that Moses insists leave together as one – the men and the women, the old and the young, the personally offensive, and the doubters. They are all to come. If any one must remain behind, all shall remain behind until the day that the entire community can leave.

Would a modern-day Moses make this argument to a modern-day Pharaoh?

We live in a time when the Jewish community has never seen such divisions. Despite the efforts to build bridges, so many still fall into camps – progressive vs. traditional; secular vs. religious; Ashkenazic vs. Sephardic; those who favor peace agreement efforts and those who do not. And progressive Jews are not of one mind on all the issues. Bring five progressive Jews together and ask them their opinions of mitzvot or commandments, synagogue attendance, conversion, patralineal descent, and social justice as a core value, and you are bound to hear ten opinions.

And so I ask again, would a modern-day Moses argue to a modern-day Pharaoh that the entire Jewish community remain as one?

Let us hope so. While others may exclude us – the progressive Jewish community – we must never fall prey to that same behavior. We cannot omit, or leave behind, those with whom we disagree, even if we know it would make our lives easier and safer. Once we all left Egypt, we all came together again, as one people, to experience revelation at Sinai. This is a part of our story we cannot ignore.

It is said that all was given at Sinai – the written Torah, the oral Torah, and the ongoing interpretations – and that the specifics are revealed over time. Our role as progressive Jews is to reveal what God gave to us at Sinai so that the Jewish world can come to embrace pluralistic minds, pluralistic hearts, and pluralistic laws.

Ken yehi ratzon.

Sun, April 21 2024 13 Nisan 5784