Bo: The Road to a Future

In past week’s I’ve done 5 faces of Torah: inspirational, political, trivial, structural and my answers to common questions. This week, I’m shifting that just a touch. The inspirational and structural are going together and I’m going to do the symbolic as a standalone section.

We’ll see how it goes. Let me know in your feedback.

In addition, this week’s divrai Torah are dedicated to two people who passed away in the last two weeks. One was ישראל בן אברהם (Israel son of Avraham) a teacher of many students from South Africa. The second, מרים בת משה יעקב (Miriam, daughter of Moshe Yaacov) was a survivor of Aushwitz for an amazing reason. I’ll discuss their connection to this parsha at the end of the podcast.

Inspirational

Two weeks ago, I spoke about the Exodus from Egypt as being a continuation of the flood. The flood is brought because the entire world is corrupted by the sons of the powerful – called elohim. They are called the bnei elohim. Everybody seeks fame and glory and those on top take whatever women they choose.

Hashem destroys that society, but humanity creates those people again. One of them, an earlier Pharaoh, does what the original sons of the elohim did. He sees Sarah and takes her – no questions asked. The Torah says Hashem brought plagues, but it never says he lifted them.

With the Exodus, Hashem has created the greatest of the sons of the powerful. These Pharaoh’s, because of Joseph, own all of Egypt – the people included. And they’ve forgotten where their power came from. They think it belongs to them. In this telling, Hashem will crush the greatest of all men, and demonstrate that the bnei Elokim – His children – will be ascendent.

Last week, I expanded on the theme of Hashem’s power. I talked about the first seven plagues showing Hashem’s power from the waters below to the waters above – in a clear order with some plagues chosen to contrast with particular Egyptian gods. The last three plagues show Hashem’s power in time from the past to the future. The locusts brought with a Ruach Kadiima – an early wind – they eat everything that was already planted and then return to the sea. In a popular Egyptian mythology, the world started as just water – just the sea. This is the destruction of the past. The middle plague, with darkness so thick you can’t move, shows death in the present. And the last plague, the death of the firstborn, shows death in the future.

But last week, I also explored another theme. I spoke about the theme of responsibility. The plagues don’t end when Pharaoh acknowledges Hashem’s power. They end when the Egyptians and the bnei Yisrael alike act. The Bnei Yisrael take the action of the Pesach offering while the Egyptians actually push the people out. Remember, the Egyptians were enslaved by Yosef and the Bnei Yisrael by Pharaoh.

Both people are freed through the plagues and then the plagues end.

The lesson here is one of responsibility. Reaching back to the expulsion from the garden and the challenges of Cain, the Exodus is there to teach responsibility.

The lesson is that we will learn responsibility – whether it is forced on us through pain or taken by us without that pain.

This week, I want to tie it all together. If I had to capture the centerpiece of this week’s reading, it is the contrast between the death of the firstborn and the Pesach offering. The Torah continues with related commands, demanding that we only let the circumcised take part in the Pesach offering and telling us that we must dedicate our first born to Hashem – to remember that Hashem took Egypt’s firstborn.

The obvious question is: why do we focus on the death of the firstborn? Why can’t it just be the worst of the plagues. Why does it have to play such a central role in our religious life?

The answer, I believe, must start with the Pesach offering.

With the Pesach offering, we offer up a se. A se can be a lamb or a goat. It is a very young and very vulnerable animal. A se only comes up twice prior to this offering. The second time is when Yaacov is trying to change the stripes of Lavan’s flocks. This use of the word is nothing but a useful description of what was happening. It is the first use that is critical. Here it is:

Then Yitzchak said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the se for the burnt offering?” 
And Abraham said, “Alokim will see to his se for His burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together.

In this reading, the se is Yitzchak.

Avraham is offering up his son. He is offering up the entire future of the Jewish people.

And that offering is called a se.

If we cast the Pesach offering in the same light, then we see a clear parallel. With the Pesach, we are symbolically offering up our entire future so that Hashem does not take it.

There is a concept of dedicating ourselves and our future to Hashem that runs throughout the mitzvot of this reading.

In the present, we put on Tefillin – coloring what we see and what we do around the divine perspective.

And in the future, we dedicate our firstborn to Hashem, but we also circumcise ourselves, dedicating our biological imperative to reproduce to the service of Hashem (we’ll get to circumcising children another time).

The very concept of time is introduced to us in the creation of the first of the months. The Exodus, not coincidentally, has the first dates used since the flood.

Boiling it down: we are granted a future by Hashem because we dedicate our future to Hashem. The Egyptians fail to do so, and so some part of their future is taken from them.

These concepts allow us to tie everything together.

Week one was the limits of the sons of the powerful – and the ascendency of the children of Hashem.

Week two was the concept of responsibility being engendered through blessing or curse.

And this week, we can see that the children of Hashem are ascendent because they take responsibility – not because of pain and death, but because, in that first small step, they are able to symbolically dedicate their future to G-d.

This isn’t a lesson that occurs once, long ago. We learn it again and again, year after year. With every Seder and every child’s questions, we remember that we have future because we dedicate that future to G-d.

That is why we the Torah says:

כֹּה אָמַר יְקוָק, בְּנִי בְכֹרִי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

“So said Hashem, my first born is Israel.”

Political

In today’s day and age many advanced and advancing nations share a common problem.

They owe enormous debts. The greatest of their debts aren’t even on the books. The greatest of their debts are to their own people. For the US Federal government, these debts are debts to Americans through Medicare and Social Security. Just to give context, the US Federal Government has an official debt of $27 trillion dollars. But these unfunded liabilities, according to the US Treasury, would add another $46 trillion dollars. And other estimates suggest these unfunded liabilities are as high as $222 trillion.

Let’s set aside the dangers of these levels of debt and ask another simple question: how did we get here?

In almost all western countries, and China, the recipe is quite simple. It is not just massive spending, it is a lack of children. The ratio of elderly vs. working-age population, corona aside, is expected to get worse and worse with time. Fertility has plummeted.

What we’re seeing is a tragedy of the commons on a massive scale.

All it took was two ingredients: government pension systems and the pill.

With the pill, people could opt out of having children while not opting out of related activities. And with government pensions, they could rely on other people’s children to provide the goods and services they themselves would need when they got older.

Remember, money is just a construct. You can’t eat it. If people aren’t producing the excess goods necessary to support life after work, then those who are no longer working can’t survive.

The traditional formula is that your own children take care of you in your old age. But if you can rely on other people’s children, then – as we’ve seen – you stop having your own.

Children become just another life choice. A luxury. You aren’t dependent on them for your own well-being.

Related activities become just that. Activities. Pleasures to participate in. Relationships as a tool for your own happiness.

And, often, nothing more.

You end up with a population not creating bnei elohim – sons of the powerful. You end up with a population deciding not to have children at all.

Hashem doesn’t take their future, they simply give it up.

Sadly, in many countries – from Russia to China to the US to Japan – the die seems cast. Short of robots providing for the old, the future is deeply frightening.

And it all comes back to a tragedy of the commons. The on-the-books debt is the debt for programs we are paying for now. The off-the-books debt is the debt that exists because we don’t have children.

Given the opportunity to pass a responsibility off – the responsibility of actually establishing a future yourself – people will pass that responsibility off.

Like the enslaved Egyptians and Bnei Yisrael, the decision not to take the most fundamental responsibility for the future will have vast consequences.

We are already seeing the suffering brought on by the economic implications. It is the social, political and spiritual consequences are yet to be understood.

Trivial

#1 Why were the Egyptians afraid they were all going to die? Babylon was based on 12s and 60s. They apparently had very advanced math based on base 60. We were cross-over people. So, our G-d might have been planning 12 plagues. With the first one of each set being the only one the Egyptians could opt out of, the plagues to come after Maccat Bechorot were a threat to everyone. After all, how much worse could it get? The answer is in the Torah: “We are all dead men.”

#2 Immediately after the commandment of the Pesach lamb, the people are commanded not to eat leavened bread for seven days. Unlike the commandment to eat the Pascal Offering with Matzah – which we’ll get to – this commandment doesn’t commemorate their affliction.

Instead, it represents their separation from Egypt. Egypt was the source of bread in the ancient world. They invented effective yeasts and breads that rise like ours do. Of all the aspects of Egyptian culture, only their bread was widely adopted. Their calendar and art and religion never took hold in other places. By rejecting leavening, as opposed to embracing Matzah, we reject Egypt itself. For an entire weekly cycle, we cleanse ourselves of Egypt’s quintessential contribution to humanity.

#3 As covered last week, it is possible the Egyptians gave up their wealth because they too had been freed – albeit through pain – and the gifts were an acknowledgement of the freedom the bnei Yisrael had been a catalyst of.

#4: Moshe says:

“And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you: What mean you by this service that you shall say: It is the sacrifice of Hashem’s Pesach, for that He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when He smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.'”

And how do the people respond?

“And the people bowed their heads and worshipped.?”

Why do they react so strongly?

The most important thing to take from a slave is the future. A slave who plans is a dangerous slave. A fundamental part of slavery is robbing the slave of initiative, of planning, of a concept of the future. This is one reason why slaves don’t tend to be terribly productive – with few exceptions, the productivity that can be realized by planning is taken from them. Moshe is promising these slaves a future – he is promising them children who ask them questions that they can answer.

This is a fundamental distinction of the Jewish slavery we see later in Chumash – the Jewish slavery has time limits. The Jewish slave, from the very first day of slavery, can plan.

#5: Slavery was rare in Egypt and nothing like the slavery of Rome. We can see this in this reading. Even at the worst of times, when children are being drowned, the people have their own houses, families, neighborhoods and even animals. Slavery isn’t necessarily physical pain. Slavery is a mindset. A mindset without a future, without initiative and without responsibility. We see this in one aspect of the Matzah. The people had 14 days warning of the Exodus and nobody thought to prepare a few sandwiches.

Unless commanded, they don’t do anything.

#6: When it comes to the Jewish people, the first born are identified as the “opening of the womb.” In a more literal translation of the Hebrew phrase Pet’r Rechem, we can read: the “release of mercy.”

The granting of the future is the greatest mercy Hashem can give us.

Symbolic

As I mentioned at the beginning, we covered the structural in the opening. So here I’m going to focus on the symbolism of the Pesach offering.

SymbolMeaning
The people are to take a se (which is a lamb or baby goat) to their father’s houses.We bring the animal into our father’s houses so it can, in a sense, be part of the family. This helps reinforce the connection to the Akeidah – which was, after all, about a father sacrificing his son.    
The se has to be younger than one year.The se is young because it represents the future.
They are to take it in on the tenth of the month and live with it for four days.There is no se for ten days .
Then the se lives with the family for four days. Then the se if offered.

As I see it, each day stands in for a miracle of G-d.

The first ten are G-d’s miracles before the people leave the land – the plagues.

The people begin to see a future with the tenth plague. That is when the se if brought into their houses, on the tenth day.
The crossing of the sea, together with the miracles of the bitter waters, the Mahn (bread from heaven) and the water from the rock form four miracles during which the people recognize they have a future. These are represented by the four days with the se in their houses.

Then the people dedicate their future to G-d with their declaration that ‘all G-d has spoken, we will do.’

They do this just before the next miracle – the giving of Torah – at dusk. This declaration is represented by the offering of the se.
The se must be male.The se is male because the male represents the will to reproduce – and thus continue into the future. On a simple biological level, a woman can bear a child, but unfortunately, a woman can be raped or denied access to male reproductive capability. So, in Chumash, the female represents potential and the male will.
Then each house is to slaughter their se, placing the animal’s blood on the sides and top of their doorway using Azov.Blood, in a living body, connects all the cells of the body – providing oxygen. The blood that is placed on the doorways serves the same role. It is a method of identifying the households of the Jewish people as its cells.

Later, with the Mezuzah, the blood of the people will take the form of words – but at this point, the people are not ready for words yet.

The cells themselves are not individuals. There must be enough people to consume the se. So each cell is formed of a small social circle; the building block of a larger society.

We sprinkle the blood not with our hands, but with ayzov. People argue about what it actually was. Its very definition seems shifty. This is appropriate.

Just as aDam seems to capture another aspect of Dam – ayZov seems to capture another aspect of Zov. All the Zov – or Zob – imply the same thing. A process of change. Israel is a land of Zavat Chalv u’Dvash. Flowing milk and honey. To leave something or someplace is to Azov (with the letter eyin). The thing that converts the physical into the spiritual is a Mizbeach. They are marking their houses as belonging to G-d – it is a marking of change.
They are then to roast the se over fire and eat it with Matzoh and bitter herbs.The offering is eaten with Matzah and bitter herbs and the eating is done as in haste. As discussed above, the Matzah in this context is the sign of a lack of initiative.

What about the bitter herbs? When you eat bitter herbs, your time horizon shrinks. For that short and intense time all you can think of is the taste. You lose your sense of the future – for an instant, the future vanishes and you can have an appreciation of what slavery is like.
The entire animal has to be roasted.The se is fired because it is a transfer offering (oleh). Burning is how an offering is sent to Hashem. The Akeidah was to be an oleh offering.
None of it can be left until the morning. If anything remains, it too has to be burnt.The se is totally consumed during the night. Whether through fire or eating, every part of the se is consumed. As meat, the se represents short-term sustenance. By totally consuming it, we dedicate that short-term sustenance to the service of G-d – and we show that we trust that He will provide what we need afterwards.   Which is why households that are too small to eat the entire se have to join with others to eat it.
It has to be eaten with shoes on the feet and loins girded and with a staff in the hand.This demonstrates again, our trust in redemption – like packing a suitcase for Moshiach.
Finally, it has to be eaten quickly.This reinforces our haste, despite forewarning. It captures our inability to act independently.
With the se prepared, G-d will then pass over Egypt and He will kill the first-born, but not the first-born of those with the blood on the doors.Those who are willing dedicate our symbolic future and to trust Hashem to take care of and provide that future, like Avraham did with the Akeidah, are the ones who have that future.

Taken together, through the Pascal Offering the people are dedicating their future, forming a body politic (a nation) and recognizing their dependence on G-d.

Answers to Common Questions

#1: There is a counting problem in this reading. The Torah says, twice, that we were slaves for 430 years. But elsewhere, the number is years is far lower. So what’s going on?

I think the answer goes back to the dark covenant I discussed two weeks ago. Avraham is told that his descedents will be enslaved for four generations but it doesn’t say who will enslave them. Near the end of the quasi-vision there are furnaces and smoke and a darkness describing using a word used nowhere else in Chumash.

Perhaps Avraham was not promised a slavery in Egypt, but simply four generations of slavery. The people left Egypt early because they were at risk of having no future. The midrash says they stopped having children. The text itself can point to all boys being drowned. One could suggest that they cried out using the same words as those used to describe the crying of S’dom. It is a cry of those who don’t want to continue.

They had to be rescued. Hashem had to Zocher them. He had to act not because they deserved it but because he had a contract with Avraham. He was obligated to rescue them – early.

But the remaining years do not go away.

The words used here are used in a place called Sukkot.

It is a magical place in that it seems to be in many places. It is a word, which we’ll discuss elsewhere, that suggests timelessness. The text itself does so. That night is described as a night of watching for all of bnei Yisrael throughout their generations.

Perhaps we can read this passage not as a telling of the past, but as a telling of what is to be. When our four hundred and thirty years of slavery are complete – and I hope they are – then, we will finally be redeemed.

(a note post podcast: there is no past and present tense. There is, to use non-technical terms, complete and incomplete. Perhaps this use of the complete suggests that this eventual redemption is a done deal)

Conclusion

I said at the beginning that this episode was dedicated to two people who passed away in the last two weeks. When I go to a shiva call I always ask the same question: tell me one thing about the person who passed away that you would want to spread. It could be a character trait, an action, a belief or a story or whatever.

The stories of these two people are tied closely to the story of Yetziat Mitzraim, or the Exodus.

Yisrael ben Avraham was a teacher. He taught enormous numbers of young men and women. Many moved to Israel on the basis of his influence. The characteristic his daughter told me about was that he gave up on no one. Others might have said a child had no future, but he insisted that there was a future to be had. He never gave up on himself either. He acquired his Ph.D. at 77 years of age. Yisrael ben Avraham was a man dedicating to establishing a future which was dedicated to Hashem – and he never gave up on doing so. The connections should be obvious.

Miriam bat Moshe Yaacov’s son told me a remarkable story. Miriam lost her parents and her two sisters in the Shoah, in the Holocaust. But she and two other sisters survived. They survived by sticking together. At one critical point, they ran away from a death march at Auschwitz. This story captured two beautiful contrasting ideas: By depending on her sisters, Miriam found the independence to make an incredibly difficult choice.

As you know, as I discussed earlier, I see the Shoah as a continuation of the story of the Egyptian slavery. This was a woman who found a future because she leaned on a tiny sliver of a community and took the responsibility of making a real choice in a world in which choice was only an illusion.

May Yisrael ben Avraham and Miriam bat Moshe Yaacov serve as examples to us all.

Finally, if any of the ideas in this episode help you or appeal to you, then share them. You don’t have to share them in my name; go ahead and steal them. They’ll serve their purpose just a well.

Thank you and Shabbat Shalom,

Joseph Cox

Photo by Bill Fairs on Unsplash

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