January 8, 2011 / 3 Sh'vat 5771
Peter Dale Scott
I want to thank the congregants of Netivot Shalom for this honor of giving a drasha, and especially the honor of a drasha on this particular Torah portion, Bo.
Bo is a pivotal parsha in the Torah; it describes the beginning of the liberation of the Jews from their enslavement in Egypt. It is thus the crux in the great human narrative in the Torah, powerful both as history and as allegory. That human narrative begins with the loss of Paradise in Bereishit, and concludes in Devarim with the Jews on the point of returning to the promised land.
For the Jewish people, this narrative has provided a compact identity for cultural preservation, one that has endured, quite independently of the rise and fall of kingdoms. Unlike the root texts of most other cultures, the Torah tells about a people, not just that people’s heroes. Instead of celebrating the power of a ruler with an army, it celebrates the liberation of a people from the power of a ruler with an army.
With this unique message and promise of liberation, the Torah has become a root text for more than half of the world’s believers, not just for the Jews who constitute one fifth of one percent of these believers. The Passover story whose crux is in Bo is central to the liturgy and theology of Christianity. It is referred to no less than 27 times in the Qur’an.
But when we look at Bo in particular, we see that the Passover story is not only inspiring and dramatic – with the rushed departure at midnight, the dough taken before it was leavened. It is also quintessentially problematic.
Imagine for a moment that we did not have the full liberation story, and that all that had survived of the Torah was this one parsha. I doubt that there is anywhere in the Tanach a more difficult and challenging account of God’s justice. Most of us have to wonder: why did God arrange things to harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that all the firstborn of the Egyptians (except Pharaoh himself) had to die?
There was a 13th-century king of Castile, oddly remembered as Alfonso the Wise, who is supposed to have commented, "Had I been present at the creation of the world I would have proposed some improvements." I suspect there is a little Alfonso inside most of us, wondering, “God, couldn’t you have softened the heart of Pharaoh, instead of hardening it? Wouldn’t it be better to have had the Jews escape from the house of bondage without having innocent children die?
There was certainly a little Alfonso inside Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment Ivan Karamazov, representing one aspect of Dostoevsky’s psyche, tells his devout brother Alyosha that he rejects God’s divinely created order of things, which promises "eternal harmony" by a plan making innocent children suffer. Ivan wants no part in this plan. But if we choose instead (like Alyosha) to love God rather than to judge him, I think that choice is fortified by this parsha’s insight into evil.
In the Passover narrative the “broken spirit” of the enslaved Israelites (Exodus 6) is revived, while the heart of their oppressor is increasingly hardened by his own perversity. The Israelites, at first broken, are eventually made resolute by God’s message through Moshe. Meanwhile we are told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart after the release from the frogs and the flies (Exodus 8), but that “God hardened his heart” after the plague of the locusts (Exodus 10). In this way Pharaoh, through his persistent cruelty, was losing his freedom of self-determination even as the Israelites were gaining theirs. I believe that the parsha thus aptly depicts the relationship of freedom to evil in our own difficult time. As Plato also taught, it is worse for the psyche to inflict injustice, than to be a victim of it.
Our parsha thus presents us with two contrasting kinds of power. One is the liberating power of God’s commandments, including those in this parsha, which have united the Jewish people, and have survived to this day. The other is the top-down violent, dictatorial power of the Pharaohs, who (as we read in our Haftorah portion) had already been brought low by the time of Jeremiah. This distinction between two types of power, religious and secular, inspired Roger Williams, the founder of the colony of Rhode Island, to endow the colony with the world’s first charter separating church from state and guaranteeing religious freedom.
This distinction is enhanced by the sense of dynamic change and development in Bo as in Torah. Once again the Hebrews are on the move, just as Abraham, the first man to be call ivri or Hebrew (Gen. 14:13) was on the move when he received God’s covenant. In fact we read that “The word Hebrew comes from the verb (abar) meaning to pass over, through, take away.” It is striking to me how accurately the Torah narrative of movement through history prefigures Jewish destiny.
Many books have been written in the west, by authors like Hegel and John Stuart Mill, which contrast the evolving nature of western societies with the more static cultures (at least until recently) of India and China. I would suggest that a major reason is the unique quality of Torah, and of Bo in particular, with its capacious picture of a destined development both through space, and above all, through time.
As I said earlier, many cultures are built around their root texts, but no other root text has Torah’s special sacred qualities. It is precious, and indeed worthy of being taught diligently to our children. It is an honor to add my own small voice to an inspiring chain of transmission that is now more than 2,500 years old.
At the risk of going over time. I want to acknowledge my gratitude and debt to all of you in Netivot Shalom, and to Rabbi Kelman and Rabbi Creditor in particular. For many years, Netivot Shalom has given me a religious home not corrupted by Pharaoh’s power, and a profound religious tradition that allows me, for just one example, to recite kaddish later this morning during Musaf for my father, Frank Scott.
Thank you all! And Shabbat Shalom.