Monday, January 18, 2010


It's always a challenge to find new ways of seeing familiar text.  Parashat Bo is well-known as one of the foundation texts for our celebration of the Pesach seder - the questions, the matza and maror, the Pesach itself.  Here are some things you may not have thought about before:

  • According to Rambam, this whole experience was really a test for those Israelites who were living as assimilated people in Egypt.  How was it a test?  What made it a challenge?  What do you think this felt like to the Israelites?
  • Many of the traditional commentaries refer to the idea that only 20% of Israelites chose to leave Egypt with Moshe and Aharon.  In fact, there is an opinion (, paragraphs 7 and 8, referring to Rashi's interpretation) that the 80% who were not willing to leave were killed during the plague of darkness.  I did not see a reference to this in any of the liberal commentaries I read.  Why do you suppose the more traditional commentaries talk about this and not the modern, liberal commentaries?
  • According to Dr. Eliezer Diamond, in his commentary from February 2006, it is challenging to think of ourselves as obligated to God's service - especially in our individualistic culture.  Where is our autonomy if we are obligated to God?  What does it mean to be free?  Is there a purpose to the ending of Egyptian slavery beyond the immediate release?
  • This section of Torah coincides with the celebration of Martin Luther King Day.  There is a wonderful photographic essay on the Jews and Blacks in America that illustrates the roles Jews played in the civil rights movement in the United States.  The last few pages also highlight some of challenges to the relationship between Jews and Blacks that have developed over time.  Your students might be interested in seeing this article.
  • Here are some customs you may not be familiar with (from  How do they express the big ideas of Passover?  Which of these customs might you want to incorporate into your own celebration of Passover?
"The Samaritans in Erets Israel observe the Passover rites on Mount Gerizim near Shechem. To this day, the slaughter of the paschal lamb is the climax of their ceremony. A number of sheep are set aside on 10 Nisan. On the eve of the 14th they are slaughtered, roasted for six hours in ovens dug in the earth, and distributed to the families to be eaten in their homes with bitter herbs, to the accompaniment of song and dance. 

"The Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel) cease to eat leaven three days before the festival, consuming only dried peas and beans until Passover eve. Then they fast until their high priest slaughters the paschal lamb on an altar in the courtyard of the synagogue. The blood is sprinkled around the entrance to the building. 

"In the Caucasus, the Jews wear clothes of "freedom" with wide, loose sleeves, some with a dagger or even a pistol in their belt. They reenact a drama in which one of their number goes out, knocks on the door and pretends he has just arrived from Jerusalem. All the others ask him for news of the Holy City and whether he has a message of liberation and redemption.

"Certain Sephardim and Oriental communities also enact a drama, eating hastily, standing, with loins girded and staff in hand, like the Israelites in Egypt. Some wrap the afikoman in a cloth which they put over their shoulder and leave the room saying, "This is how our ancestors left Egypt."

"The secret Jews of Spain and Portugal, the Marranos, observed the festival on 16 Nisan in order to avoid suspicion on the previous day. They clandestinely baked unleavened bread on that day and held a secret Seder at which they consumed a whole roast sheep while wearing traveling shoes and holding staffs in their hands. Marranos in Mexico smeared their doorposts with the blood of lambs, like the ancient Israelites, and beat the waters of a stream with willow branches to symbolize the crossing of the Red Sea.

An afterthought:
This parasha happens to be my own Bat Mitzvah portion.  Interestingly, as my Bat Mitzvah observance was held on a Friday night I never actually studied the Torah portion - only the Haftorah.  In retrospect, what a shame I missed the opportunity to be aware that this powerful text was to be read the following morning!!  On the other hand, perhaps when I was younger the power of the words would not have been as impressive to me as it is today.  And here is one of the challenges I believe is at the heart of the Jewish educational system as it is today, particularly in pre-Bar/Bat Mitzvah settings.

How do we find the opportunity to support mature understanding of Jewish wisdom, thought and experience if the only people we encounter in our educational programs are children?

It's a big question.

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