Drash on Parashat Bo 2019
Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins
Freedom to serve
Parashah Bo is the penultimate portion in the narrative known in the tradition as “Yetziat Mitzraim”, or the Exodus from Egypt. At the heart of the story of the Exodus is not just our freedom from oppression but our freedom to serve God. In the opening of this week’s parashah we hear again how Moses challenged Pharaoh in last week’s parashah Vaera: “Thus says YHVH, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let my people go that they may serve Me.” Most of us know the refrain “let my people go”, far fewer recall that it is in order to serve.
Unfortunately, a growing number of Jews no longer even believe in God to serve. How can we be servants of God, how can we recite Shema Israel, if we do not believe? Yet how can we believe in God given our knowledge of history and science that contradicts aspects of the stories in the Torah, including the Exodus; moreover, how can we believe in God given some of the Torah’s unethical teachings, such as commanded genocide? We must come back to the essence of our teaching of God, understanding that the name for God, YHVH, is a form of the verb “to be” in Hebrew. Our ancestors are teaching that that which “is” and all that “is” is that which we call God. Think of God as a synonym for the “life force”, “conscious being”, or even “ultimate mystery of existence”. Understand that whatever it is, it is one, and thus all that is, including you and me and the universe itself, is part of the one as it is part of us.
While Torah is the foundational document in guiding us toward the service of God, it is the beginning of our ancestral wisdom and call to service, not the end. We must be careful not to turn the Torah into a false idol, which we do when we equate it with God’s literal word. Believing that God is the author of a book (whether our scripture or any other) undermines belief in and service of God. Nowhere in the Torah does it say God is the author of every word therein; that is a later rabbinic teaching that is now used by some in Orthodox communities to claim an exclusive on “the truth”. Our ancestors wrote the Torah and it contains our first memories of who we are as a people and our first principles of faith: there is only one God, the creator of all that exists, including all time and space.
That the Torah does not accord with history and science is irrelevant, because the Torah is not a book about history or science, but a teaching of how to live as a faith people. That the Torah has unethical passages is relevant, because it is our core teaching of how to live as a faith people. When we understand that these passages are the work of humans, our ancestors, we can constrain and contextualise them, just as did our rabbinic sages thousands of years ago (for example, changing the meaning of “an eye for an eye” and rendering inoperative the prescription about “the rebellious son”.) In our interpretation and adaptation of Torah, we follow in our ancestors’ path of attempting to understand how best to serve God. There being only One, no human being can ever claim the role of God (as did Pharaoh), and all human beings must recognise that we, and all in life, are interconnected and responsible for each other’s welfare. This responsibility for the other - the environment, other animals, and all humanity – is at the core of service to God. This is what Judaism teaches, this is what Jews are called to do.
It is arrogance to assert that any book is the literal word of God, or that any of us knows exactly what God commands, as some sectarians do. Human hubris must give way to humility. Today’s Pharaohs are not kings of Egypt but self-appointed kings of “the truth” who actually hold back others from believing in and serving God. “Thus says YHVH, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let my people go that they may serve Me.”