January 28, 2012

Parashat Bo

by Susan Landau-Chark

I am focusing on the reading of Bo that is in this year=s triennial cycle Exodus 11:4 to Exodus 12:28.

Within these few verses there is much to mull over.

First - why does Moses Aleave Pharaoh in great anger@ (11:8)? And its corollary (I think) in 11:10, that G-D had made Pharaoh=s heart obstinate.

Secondly - verse 12:14,@ this day must be one that you will remember.@ This idea that the day will be a law for all time is repeated three times in this section and the third time it is stated it is extended to include Ayour children forever@


Ayou must eat matzah for seven days@ (12:15) C

your home must be cleared of leaven by the first day -

having a leaven free home is insufficient B

the matzah still needs to be eaten for 7 days.

I will discuss these in reverse order

The third point of interest is the matzos B

the bread of distress B and also the bread of freedom.

Matzah can only be eaten once all leaven has been removed - matzah and leaven can not co-exist.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg comments that Ahow you view the matzah is what decides whether it is the bread of liberty or the bread of servitude.@

The matzah they ate in passivity was the bread of slavery. However,  when the Israelites refused to delay freedom and opted to eat unleavened bread rather than wait for it to rise, the matzah became the bread of freedom.

The injunction against leaven and matzah  is so strict that the person found eating leaven during this 7 days Athat person shall be cut off from Israel@ (12:15)

Why will that person be cut off?

The mere fact of eating leaven during this period is an indicator that the person has already removed her or himself from the Israelite community and being cut off %;9,1 is only an affirmation of their distancing themselves from the community.

The presence of leaven in a person=s possession represents a lack of knowledge on their part and also implies the person=s failure to participate in one of the primary memory events of the Israelite community. Ignoring this injunction to eat matzah signals indifference to the memory and identity of the community.


The second concern -

Why does G-D say Athis day must be one that you will remember@?

We must keep in mind how quickly the Israelites Aforgot@ what their eyes had seen once they were in the wilderness and Pharaoh was galloping up behind them.

G-D it seems is preparing to be somewhat disappointed at times by the Israelites.


Not only do we have to remember, but this day is to be celebrated in the same manner as it occurred. Note that the Sephardic tradition still encourages the festive meal to begin as if we were on the run.

B Ut is a law for all time.It is a mitzvah, obligation, given even before the laws that were given at Sinai; even before discussing the G-D=s connection to the Israelites the Passover was fixed forever more in the calendar of Jewish events.

Note that verses 12:24-27 state that when you come to the land and observe this rite. The holiday was not observed during the 40 years the Israelites were in the desert, only once they entered the land and were settled and memories had dimmed then the Passover was to be enacted thereafter. The manner of observation would be such that each time the festive meal was held the children would ask AWhat do you mean by this rite@?

The seder has evolved to what Zornberg calls Athe model of endless questioning, in which the answer does not totally silence the questioner@

From this passage and elsewhere the rabbis derived the basis for the four questions, and also for the Haggadah=s four children. Creating the space where children can ask the questions obligates the parent to create the rituals that will encourage children to ask on ad infinitum B by obligating the first parents in the land to celebrate the Passover

and encourage questions set the model which has continued to the present. We remember by being asked over and over and over.


And the first issue

So why does Moses leave Pharaoh in great anger? Moses knows that G-D will not retract the last plague - the killing of the first born - the only thing that could bring about a cease-fire so to speak would be Pharaoh=s total willingness to release the Israelites.

This was not going to happen. So we read these passages in dismay because it appears on first reading that Pharaoh is being setup - G-D after all is hardening his heart - Yes/No??

Irwin Keller, writing a blog called Itzik's Well provided a model for me to further explore this issue.

8'(* - variably translated as stiffening/obstinate but in my dictionary is translated as strengthening, and this word can even mean encouraging.

G-D strengthens Pharaoh=s heart; G-D encourages the heart of Pharaoh to be what it is Elsewhere where Pharaoh is shown to have hardened his heart - ie Pharaoh does the hardening - the word used is $", - which refers to heft, heaviness.     

As Arie pointed out to me $", also means liver - the organ that filters toxins.

Modern science has discovered that the liver converts DNA to RNA to protein, a process called Aprotein translation@. Medical conditions can arise where there might be too much or too little protein and these changes in the liver can alter one=s perception, depending on where the amino acid chains are assigned. This suggests that DNA considered as unchangeable in itself when it undergoes translation to RNA to create protein, endocronological changes can influence on a deep level.

Pharaoh=s heart is heavy - too heavy to change. G-D strengthening Pharaoh=s heart is a realization that all the plagues, and even this last one as dire as it is, will not affect change in Pharaoh. Pharaoh is stuck in place. Keller comments that viewing the reading B in terms of the heart=s heaviness says something about the nature of our hearts and the nature of power.

Pharaoh has become so accustomed to power, to ease, to privilege, that his heart is immobile, and he neither able to understand fully what is taking place nor is he able to respond in a way that will change the course already set. His inability to shift is not G-d acting on Pharaoh (so Irwin Keller interprets and I agree), it is really G-D acknowledging, or as Keller states, perhaps lamenting Athe human nature that God created.A

Yes, Pharaoh's heart is now immobile; and yes, that is the nature of the hearts of tyrants; and yes, AI (G-D) am responsible for the nature of the hearts of tyrants ‑ and of all people.@

Another point Keller raises is that kavod also means honour. G-D is resigned to the behaviour of Pharaoh. Keller speculates that God says, AI am forced to honor Pharaoh's heart.@ That is, I made it, I am prevented from changing it; all I can do is show signs and wonders.

So why is Moses angry? - because even while he is telling Pharaoh that he must change his ways, Moses now knows that Pharaoh is incapable of changing his ways; incapable of hearing G-D. Moses is aware that Pharaoh=s stubbornness will result in many innocent deaths.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, in his discussion of this parasha, asks isn=t this just human nature? He provides this example,

APassing a beggar on the street without responding to his need is impossible for children because they aren't used to it.

But for a hardened resident of any American (and would could also say Canadian) city, the person often gets to a point of no longer even seeing the humanity of the hungry person before them; no longer hearing the sorrow or despair in the voice that calls out to them.@


Artson states that Pharaoh wasn't evil; he was just apathetic.  Indifference is all it takes for evil to triumph.

We also must not be indifferent to the pain and suffering that is in our midst.

We also must guard against a hardening heart.