Drash on Parashat Bo
Rabbi Paul Jacobson
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, New South Wales, Australia
Lisa Genova’s 2011 bestselling novel Left Neglected features the story of Sarah, a successful, high-powered, business executive, wife and mother of three young children. Driving to work one morning, Sarah takes her eyes off the road and fumbles through her purse to find her mobile phone. As a result of her actions, she totals her car in an accident and suffers a brain injury, incapacitating the left side of her body.
The remainder of the novel focuses on two different subjects – Sarah’s efforts at recovery, as well as her exposure to a simpler, gentler form of life, with more time for her family and interests outside of the working world. Having grown accustomed to a 70 to 80 hour workweek, Sarah is forced to reconsider, in her condition, whether she will capable of continuing to manage such a workload. Ultimately, Sarah learns a new set of priorities. Her husband Bob takes a little longer to come around. Watching as Bob goes off to work in the week between Christmas and New Year’s when his company is closed and he is supposed to be on leave, Sarah remarks:
I’ve never taken all of my allotted vacation time in a given year. Bob never uses all of his either. And this time doesn’t roll over to the following year; if we don’t use it, it’s gone forever. For the first time, this behaviour strikes me as absurdly sinful. Our employers offer to pay us to spend five weeks a year together, away from our desks and meetings and deadlines, and every year we basically say, “Thanks, but we’d rather work.” What’s wrong with us? (Genova, p. 219)
Besides the empathy that we feel for Sarah in reading this novel, it is downright painful to consider that Sarah is given a harrowing reminder, a life-altering condition, which forces her to slow down, to find a new perspective and focus in her life. Genova, through Sarah, is asking us a very significant question – one that resonates greatly in our time-poor universe. How far do we have to go before we take stock of our lives, before we re-organise our priorities, before we find time for what truly matters?
One of the most beautiful aspects of Jewish tradition is that we are given a system of timeless values, and a structure that enables us to prioritise our time. When we live by the Jewish calendar, we are living in sacred time, experiencing the rhythm of the seasons, the presence of Shabbat and festivals – special markers for rest, rejuvenation, reflection and celebration.
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, introduces us to the original Pesach. After witnessing the three most harrowing plagues – hail, locusts, and the slaying of the Egyptian first-born – the Israelites eat their Pesach meal as they prepare to depart from Egypt and leave the throes of slavery forever. The first Pesach meal was eaten hurriedly. But as Pesach becomes a celebration, a special remembrance throughout the generations, common practice has it that Jews throughout the world, at their annual family or communal Seder, will tarry for hours, retelling not only the story of their Exodus, but also reminisce about Seders and other experiences long past with family, friends, and other loved ones.
Pesach, as it will emerge from Parashat Bo, will come to serve as an example of living in sacred time – incorporating rest, reflection, family, community and celebration into our lives – all of which should be priorities in our very human experience. Through Parashot Bo we learn of the very beginning of the Israelite exodus from slavery. Today, we remain enslaved to work, to money, and to narcissistic materialism. We cannot afford to wait for a harrowing reminder to help us find perspective and refocus our lives. If our ancestors went free, why can’t we?