Bo: Leaving in Haste, but Walking with Love

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

Greetings from rainy Massachussetts! I’m back in the USA, and although I’m
not altogether displeased at sleeping in my familiar bed, there is definitely a
feeling of “coming down” from time spent in Israel. Somehow life just seems
less intensely lived on this side of the Atlantic; even the small New England
states feel so big and roomy compared to Israeli travel distances!

Well, enough geographical rumination, there’s a Torah portion awaiting our
attentions.

The Torah portion Bo tells of the increasingly severe plagues brought upon
Pharaoh, his court, and his country. Nevertheless, as many of us remember
from childhood versions of the Passover story, Pharaohs heart was hardened
and he did not let the people go. Not until death itself appears in Pharaohs
house does he relent, and even then, perhaps more out of fear than moral
reflection. Upon the death of the first-born, Pharaoh lets the people go-
practically chases them out- and the Israelites then gather their possessions,
“borrow” garments and gold from their Egyptian neighbors, and skedaddle in
great haste toward their freedom.

One small detail in the story of the Exodus is both well known and also worth
revisiting:

“The people picked up their dough when it was not yet leavened, their
leftovers bound in their garments on their shoulders.” (Exodus 12:34)

Many of us remember this part of the story as the explanation for why we eat
unleavened bread- matzah- during Pesach; since our Israelite ancestors had
to leave in such a great hurry, the bread hadn’t had time to rise, and they had
to bake flat bread on their way. To me, this traditional meaning given to the
act
of eating matzah (remembering the haste of our ancestors) helps me connect
the mitzvah [commandment] of matzah with the struggles of peoples
worldwide who are aching for freedom and security, and who may only have
the barest essentials for sustenance. Matzah, in this understanding, is
“refugee” food, symbolizing the need to travel light and fast on the way to
freedom.

So far, so good. Yet our teacher Rashi notices one other detail in the verse
above. The Torah tells us that the Israelites carried the “leftovers” (Rashi
says
this means the leftover matzah and bitter herbs from the first Pesach feast, in
Egypt, that night) on their shoulders.
He points out that the Israelites were traveling fast, but they were also
bringing animals out with them, which presumably carried some of their
possessions. So why carry the matzah on their shoulders, rather than on the
pack animals?

Rashi’s answer is taken from earlier sources:

“Although they took many animals with them, they [carried the remaining
matzah and bitter herbs on their shoulders because] they loved the mitzvot
[commandments].”

This is the other side of the Pesach story: yes, our ancestors were bitterly
oppressed and in dire need of freedom and security, but they were also able
to find within themselves a core of faith, hope and love of God which
transcended their physical condition. The internal liberation from Pharaoh
may have preceded their physical liberation; as long as they felt commanded
by God, they knew that Pharaoh’s rule was only temporary, and ultimately
ineffectual.

In this reading, the matzah is not only the symbol of being refugees, it’s also
the symbol of being part of a community of faith; the Israelites could love the
mitzvot and bear witness to that higher calling even in Egypt. The image of
bearing the matzah on our shoulders is a challenging one, for it compels us to
ask how we too might make public our love for the mitzvot and desire to live
in their light.

Notice, too, that Rashi says “love the mitzvot,” not “fear of transgression.”
Love
-of God and each other- is the highest joy, and so it’s quite astounding to
think
of our ancestors finding within themselves the capacity for the joy of love even
after years of oppression. Think of all the kvetching people do about the
smallest things, and here are the Israelites leaving Egypt, with their capacity
for inner grace rekindled, carrying the matzah on their shoulders in an act of
joyous service!

Along with the image of our ancestors as refugees leaving in haste, the image
of carrying the matzah on their shoulders, in joy and love, also needs to be
part of our sacred memories. Serving God out of joy, from love of the mitzvot,
brings light into darkness, and raises up the human spirit- this too needs to be
part of our spiritual consciousness and daily practice. Such love and joy
would transform ourselves and our communities- so what are we waiting for?

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