Drash on Parashat Bo
Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black
Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism
East Kew, Victoria
The plagues in this portion are especially problematic because "God hardens Pharaoh’s heart" (so the suffering brought on the innocent Egyptians seems like collective punishment against Pharaoh, extended by God’s actions). By the middle of the portion, the plagues are nearly over (we can wish!). But the final plague is of course the worst of all, the only one that kills people rather than significantly inconveniencing them. By the end of the portion, the Israelites are finally free, and if the numbers are to be believed (Ex.12:37), and we pick a low average of four children per family, then about six million Israelites start their journey from Ramses towards Sukkot, aside from the mixed multitude who went out with them!
But before the final plague, the Israelites are told to prepare themselves for their departure, including preparing a lamb, and using its blood to mark their doorposts so the angel of death should "pass over" their houses, and eating as much as they can, dressed with their sandals on and their staffs in their hands, ready to leave. They are also told that this should be observed for all time. Finally the terrible last plague arrives, and does its job – Pharaoh now summons Moses and Aaron and demands that they leave, with all the people and their flocks and herds. And the portion concludes with a repeat of the instructions to observe the annual seven-day festival of the Exodus (13:6-10).
Congregants are often puzzled by the fact that we read about the Exodus from Egypt several months before Pesakh. But the tradition of reading through the Torah in one year was only introduced in Babylon around the seventh century. For perhaps a century before that, in Palestine, it was read through in three years – but prior to that, it seems only to have been read through on special occasions – apparently the entire Torah in one go (first mentioned in Deuteronomy). Yet through all this time, Pesakh was still being celebrated as the 14th day of the first month wanes and the 15th day commences (Ex.12:18). And the original instructions, including those found in this section, are among the proof texts referred back to as Pesakh approaches.
In our portion, we find the injunction to eat matzah for seven days (Ex 12:15) which is in itself interesting as Deut.16:8 seems to say something slightly different: "For six days you shall eat matzah". The seven-day injunction is one of the commandments in the Torah which the Rabbis modified. They said that if, as Deuteronomy suggests, it is only optional to eat matzah on the seventh day, then so are the other days. So the obligation is only to eat matzah on the first night, at the seder. Is this an indication that matzah played havoc with some people’s digestive systems in the past just as it still does today, and just as much as some people love matzah and look forward to it, others hate it?!
In the portion, at Ex.12:18, it says ‘from the 14th day of the month, at evening you shall eat matzah’, from where this rule to eat matzah on Seder night is derived. However, the verse continues "until the 21st day of the month at evening". So at least the straightforward meaning (p’shat) seems clear: "(when you would eat bread-like food), eat matzah from prior to the start of the fifteenth day, through to the end of the twenty-first day (i.e. through all the seven days of Pesakh)." And the next verse says "no leaven shall be found in your home for seven days". The prohibition on eating regular bread is therefore very clear. But the command to eat matzah is not quite so obvious as it may seem. After all, we know we can’t eat pork, or shellfish. But nowhere (except for matzah) are we told what we MUST eat – nowhere does Torah say "eat meat", or "eat greens" or "eat fruit". Nowhere are we given a frequency to eat either, e.g. "eat an apple every day".
So when Torah instructs "eat matzah", what exactly does it mean? Even in my "straightforward" translation above, I needed to use brackets to say "(when you would eat bread-like food)’", because Torah clearly doesn’t mean "eat matzah continuously for seven days". And if it doesn’t specify the frequency, that leaves the question "then when?" – and the answer "at least once, on the evening (after) the fourteenth day" (once being the minimum needed to satisfy the commandment to "eat matzah"). Hence, we arrive at the rabbinic ruling: "At Seder night you must eat some matzah". And therefore we also have the blessing for eating matzah – just at Seder night: "… al akhilat matzah". At any other time, we simply say the regular blessing for bread.
Ex 12:24 tells the Israelites to observe "this statute"’ for all time – them, and their descendants. But the next verse qualifies this to: "observe this service when you enter the land". Since we know that virtually all those who observed the first Pesakh were to die out in the subsequent 40 years, before entering the land, the "seder" would only apply to their descendants, but perhaps the statute (khok), which applies immediately, is to abstain from khametz for this week every year. But the positive commandment, to observe this service (Seder), is only to start once they are settled in the land, when their descendants, who have not themselves experienced the Exodus, have more need to enact and recreate and discuss this momentous event. In this regard it brings to mind the Shoah – so enormous and traumatic an experience for the survivors that it took a generation to process it and before much was written or spoken or studied, and about 40 years before, perhaps in the ‘80s, services and liturgies and rituals and museums really began to be developed and observed, so that the next generations could mark and remember a taste of the terror and trauma which, like the ancient slavery and Exodus, left such an indelible mark upon all who followed. May we learn from the suffering and stories of our ancestors, and be spared from the plagues and tragedies of our own times.