Archive for Bo

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

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

“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
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

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
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

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

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.”
-of God and each other- is the highest joy, and so it’s quite astounding to
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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Bo 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Bo (Ex. 10:1-13:16)


The dramatic contest of wills between God and Pharaoh is coming to a climax: the plagues upon Egypt become steadily more punitive, culminating with the death of the first born. Before the final plague, Moshe and Aaron are given instructions by God to make a sacrifice, and to place the blood on the doorposts of the Israelite houses. Further instructions are given to eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs; this becomes the source of our Passover traditions. The firstborn of the Egyptians are struck dead; this is the final blow to Pharaoh, who sends the entire Israelite people in the middle of the night. Commandments concerning Passover and the sanctification of the firstborn are given as a remembrance of the Exodus.


“Pharoah called to Moshe and said: ‘Go, worship God! Only your flocks and your herds will remain; you little ones will go with you.’ ” (Exodus 10:24)


Pharoah is stubborn, and will not admit total defeat, even after nine afflictions upon his land and people. After the “plague” of darkness, he grudgingly allows the Israelites to leave Egypt; however, he wants them to leave their cattle behind, perhaps as the price of their freedom. Moshe won’t hear of it, and tells Pharoah that they need the cattle to make sacrifices to God out in the wilderness. Pharoah’s heart is hardened once again, and he does not agree to Moshe’s demands.


The exchange between Moshe and Pharoah at the end of chapter 10 is, on the simplest level, a battle of wills between political opponents, each trying to get the best deal for their side. Not unlike other famous negotiations in the Middle East, the two parties don’t trust each other, and each tries to give up as little as he can to the other.

The Hasidic master Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak from Pshi’scha, also known as the Yehudi HaKadosh [The Holy Jew], proposes a reading of the story far removed from the realm of political revolutions. The Yehudi imagines Pharaoh challenging Moshe over his understanding of spirituality in worship:

    Pharoah said: “It is possible to worship God [only] in thought and in feeling. So if, in truth, you really desire to worship God – what do you need your flocks and herds for? ‘Go, worship God’- with an upright heart and pure intentions, and you won’t need to make any physical offerings, so ‘only your flocks and herds will remain.’ “

    Moshe answered him: “Intentions alone, without any actions connected to them, aren’t important, aren’t anything! The main thing is real action, and thus intentions depend on actions and are deepened through them. Therefore, ‘our cattle will also go with us,’ (v. 26) because ‘we will take from them to worship Adonai our God.’

    From actions one is aroused to worship God with great feeling and to embrace the Divine. (Source: Itturei Torah, translation mine.)

Clearly, the Yehudi doesn’t think that Pharoah was all that concerned with the Israelite’s spirituality- this is a parable about contemporary concerns. I understand the Yehudi to be addressing those people who want a purely internal spirituality, going deep inside themselves, spurning the physical world. The Yehudi, speaking through the character of Moshe, seems to be suggesting that the proper way to deepen one’s inner life is to align it with your physicality, your embodied being.

An example that comes to mind is ritual action, something often derided by those who seek a purely internal, detached kind of spirituality. (Think of the negative connotations of the word “ritualistic.”) A simple ritual is making a blessing before eating, which can help bring us to feelings of awe and gratitude. One might think that the best thing is to go directly to the proper feelings, and bypass the ritual, but I think it doesn’t really work that way. The action of the blessing can bring us to a depth of emotion and spiritual understanding unreachable by thought alone; sometimes we don’t even understand, on a spiritual level, what the ritual is all about until after we’ve done it many times.

I think I’ve quoted before one of my favorite teachings from another tradition: “It’s easier to act your way into right thinking than think your way into right acting.” Of course, a certain amount of intellectual preparation is crucial for Jewish practice, but I think the Yehudi reminds us that religious growth can’t happen only “from the neck up.” It happens when we bring physical and spiritual together, when we bring our whole being into the quest, when our actions in the social and religious realms become entirely aligned with our higher goals.

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Bo 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

The dramatic contest of wills between God and Pharoah is coming to a climax: the plagues upon Egypt become steadily more punitive, culminating with the death of the first born. Before the final plague, Moshe and Aaron are given instructions by God to make a sacrifice, and to place the blood on the doorposts of the Israelite houses. Further instructions are given to eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs; this becomes the source of our Passover traditions. The firstborn of the Egyptians are struck dead, and this is the final blow to Pharaoh, who sends the entire Israelite people out in the middle of the night. Commandments concerning Passover and the sanctification of the firstborn are given as a remembrance of the Exodus.

“He [Pharoah] called for Moshe and Aaron in the night and said: ‘Up and depart from among my people, both you and the Israelites with you! Go and worship God as you have spoken! Take also your flocks and your cattle, as you said, and go- and bless me too! “
(Exodus 12:31-32)

The death of the first born is the final, most terrible plague that God brings upon the recalcitrant, stubborn Egyptian monarch and his people. After the previous afflictions upon Egypt, Pharoah had offered partial freedom or small concessions to Moshe, but now, finally, even the deified king Pharoah must admit defeat. He surrenders almost unconditionally, allowing Moshe to take all the Israelites and all of their property and leave behind forever the bonds of slavery.

That Pharoah should finally concede to Moshe, as the agent of God, is not surprising; we knew that was going to happen from the very beginning of the slavery narrative. What we might not have expected was Pharoah’s request for a blessing from the man who has humbled and frightened him, the man he had previously scorned and ignored. It’s true that Pharoah had already conceded Moshe’s ability to mitigate particular plagues; for example, he asks Moshe to plead with God to remove the frogs (8:4-7). Still, one might have expected Pharoah, even in the moment of his defeat, to have sent Moshe and the Israelites out as fast as possible, simply to get rid of them- why does this tremendously proud man, revered as a human god, ask for a blessing? What does he think Moshe can do for him at this point?

There is no consensus among the commentators, either traditional or contemporary, as to what exactly this verse means. Rashi, basing himself on an earlier midrash, thinks that Pharoah is asking Moshe and Aaron to intercede and pray to God so that Pharoah, as a firstborn, will not die. This seems like a request for immediate action- i.e., pray for me right now, so that I won’t die like all the other firstborn.

Other commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, , think that Pharoah is asking Moshe for prayers and blessings when he and the Israelites make their sacrifices in the wilderness, as Moshe had spoken of several times before. (For example, 8:22-25) This interpretation probably takes into account the “flocks and cattle” mentioned in the same verse; since Pharoah knows the Israelites will sacrifice these animals to their God, he asks for a prayer at that time. Ramban seems to agree with this line of interpretation, only adding that the blessing on a king includes his kingdom. He also quotes a midrash from the same sources as Rashi that has a slightly different twist on it: please pray that all the retributions will end, that I will no longer be punished on your account [now that you are leaving.]

The 16th century commentator Chaim ben Attar*, known as the Or HaChaim [“Light of Life”], says that Pharoah’s request for a blessing- as opposed to simply a reprieve from the plagues- meant that he wanted something positive, a “cure,” as it were, not just the removal of the problem. Perhaps the idea here is that Pharoah wanted Egypt to be somehow changed for the positive after their terrible experience.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut, editor of the Torah commentary used in almost all contemporary Reform congregations, illuminates not only the practical meaning but the religious and literary significance of this verse:

    Pharoah now acknowledges that God has dominion over him. The first meeting of a Pharoah with Jacob, upon his arrival in Egypt, [cf. Gen. 47] brought words of blessing, and so does the last- with Moses, upon this departure from Egypt.

Whatever Pharoah is asking Moshe to do for him- and it’s not quite clear- the remarkable thing is that the man who hardened his heart and ignored the suffering of his slaves is now acknowledging (even if only for a moment) that he is not, in fact, an invincible god-king as he presents himself previously. Yaakov’s blessing of the earlier Pharoah seemed to be the friendly meeting of equals; the earlier Pharoah seemed to be more humble, more open, more down-to-earth. The later Pharoah’s asking for a blessing seems to be an act of desperation and fear, illustrating the tragedy of arrogance. The Pharoah who stands cowering before Moshe missed so many opportunities- opportunities to act generously, to change his mind, to soften his heart, to learn from others, to acknowledge spiritual truths. He didn’t, and now must beg for help.

I see Pharoah is a tragic figure, and not merely a villain, because one can almost sense the fear in his voice as he asks his former adversary for help and salvation as his world crumbles around him. He must know, even if he wouldn’t admit it, that this disaster is his own fault; as Plaut points out, asking for a blessing means that he finally understands who is the real Sovereign. Of course, another cruel irony in the story is that his hard-earned humility proves to be fleeting; once the Israelites are gone, and the present punishments removed, his arrogance reasserts itself and he decides to chase after them. (Chapter 14)

The tragedy of Pharoah is not so much that he is a great man brought down by that special kind of over-reaching arrogance that the Greeks called hubris, but that for all of his trappings of kingship and deity, he is just an ordinary person, with ordinary human stubborness, pride, and selfishness. Consider his final change of heart after sending the Israelites out; how many times have people resolved to change their behavior in the midst of crisis, only to revert to old patterns once the immediate dangers have passed? Pharoah is the alcoholic lying in a hospital bed after crashing the car, vowing never to drink again, or the abusive husband who pleads with his wife to come back to him, because this time he’s really changed. Pharoah almost grasped the truth: that transformation of the self for the better requires effort all the time, not only desperate prayers in times of crisis. He almost grasped the truth, but apparently he wasn’t willing to face the personal consequences of holding on to this crucial insight.

Consider also all the other aspects of Pharoah’s personality that seem all to common when viewed as extreme examples of everyday tendencies: How often do we only ask for help when it’s too late? How many times have we all come to realise the truth in somebody else’s words only after we’ve stubbornly rejected them over and over? How often has each of us waited until crisis strikes before approaching God? How many of us have let our egos and self-centeredness get in the way of our generosity and compassion?

Last week I presented the idea that the story of Moshe, a shepherd with a speech problem, can be understood as the story of every human being who is challenged by God to become an instrument of Divine service, despite our frailties and limitations. Pharoah is Moshe’s opposite- instead of answering the call of the Divine, he resists it at all costs. If Moshe is the exemplar of relationship with God, Pharoah is the exemplar of spiritual blindness and immaturity. The tragedy is that he had opportunity after opportunity to grow and change, but could not or would not overcome his own worst character traits. The cartoon figure Pogo’s words were never more true than in the case of Pharoah: “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Chaim ben Attar: born in 1696, died 1743 (Morocco). He is called the “Or HaChaim,” after his somewhat kabbalistically oriented Torah commentary of that name, included in many editions of Mikraot Gedolot.

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