We live in the space between birth and death, between death and birth. For some, the span between our entrance into and our departure from the world is brief. Others are granted days that grow into years and decades. Parshat Bo reminds us how the life spans of individuals both mirror and challenge the life spans of nations and peoples.
Parshat Bo describes both the birth-pangs of the Jewish people and the directions for future generations to remember that birth. This third portion of the Book of Exodus includes the culminating and most devastating of the 10 plagues, the death of the first-born Egyptians. The portion concludes with directions to sanctify every first-born Israelite as part of the ritual remembrance of coming out of Egypt.
Parshat Bo is the second portion in the Torah named with a divine charge. God directed Abraham to "Go forth" in Lech Lecha. In Bo, God speaks to Moses and tells him to "Go" to Pharaoh. Both commands reverberate through Jewish history. Parshat Bo challenges Moses to stand before Pharaoh, that incarnation and symbol of evil, even though God has hardened Pharaoh's heart against Moses' pleas. What softens hardened hearts?
For some of us, it is joy when meeting a newborn child; for some of us, it is grief when a loved one's life slips away. Pharaoh's fear led him to decree the death of every infant Israelite boy. Will his heart break open when he is threatened with the death of his own first-born?
The biblical narrative juxtaposes two distinct stories: Moses' encounters with Pharaoh, and God's directions for the preparation for and the memorialization of the Exodus. In the shadow of impending death and destruction, God promises a future when pain will be only a memory. God establishes "the feast of unleavened bread" as "an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants."
Passover continues to bind Jews to one another, enabling us to reconsider, each year, how hardened hearts and the objectification of other human beings leads to the erosion of humanity, for both slaveowners and slaves themselves. Our annual commemoration of liberation from slavery, detailed for the first time in this portion, challenges every hardened heart. God asks: "And when, in time to come, a child of yours asks you, saying, 'What does this mean?' "
Parshat Bo instructs us to tell our children that we were slaves. The text makes it clear that the price of freedom is advocacy. Our celebration of freedom, essential to Jewish practice and identity since the Exodus, demands that those of us who live in freedom must work for freedom for all who are enslaved, in every land across the globe.
Can we, like Moses, follow God's directive and "Go," challenging systems and individuals that treat humans as chattel? Slavery continues to cripple millions in today's world, particularly in South Sudan. Can we, who inhabit this space between life and death, rededicate ourselves to working toward a society where every birth is celebrated as a gift and every death mourned as a loss?
As the sun begins to soften the earth in this new month of Shevat, may we work to soften and open our hearts, and honor the birth of our people by reclaiming our ancestors' dream: a world where no one is forced to serve another.
Watch Rabbi Joseph Polak's meeting with newly freed slaves in South Sudan:www.iabolish.org.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: slelwell.@urj.org.