Parashat Bo and Beshalach

I didn’t post last week, so this week I’m writing on both last week’s parasha (Bo) and this week’s parasha (Beshalach). And this post is le’ilui nishmat evelyne gabrielle bat dina, my grandmother.

Parashat Bo recounts the actual exodus: the final plagues; the instructions to the Israelites of the day to prepare for the exodus; the instruction to commemorate these events for the Israelites of the future; the death of the Egyptian first-borns; the actual exit of the Israelites from Egypt; more instructions regarding the commemorations.

Parashat Beshalach recounts the aftermath: God deciding and leading the way; Pharaoh’s second thoughts about sending the Israelites out, leading to a final show-down between God and the Egyptians at the Red Sea; the splitting of the sea and its closing again on Pharaoh’s army; Moses and the men’s poem of thanksgiving; Miriam and the women’s spontaneous celebration through song and dance. The second half of the parasha recounts the end of the honeymoon period between the Israelites and God, with the hungry and thirsty Israelites complaining that their basic needs aren’t being met, and God obliging them before getting fed up with the complaining.

A large chunk of Parashat Bo is spent with God describing the proper way to remember the exodus, and the symbolic acts and ceremonies that should happen, now and in the future, to mark the day. The story that is to be told on those future occasions will be one of success, of strength, and of triumph:

“And the blood will be for you a sign on the houses in which you are, and I will see the blood and I will pass over you and there won’t be a plague that will decimate you when I strike in the land of Egypt; and this day shall be commemorated, and you shall celebrate it, a festival for your God, for all your generations, forever.” (Exodus 12:13-14)

“And when your children shall ask you, what is this work for you? and you shall tell them, it is the Passover offering for God, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he struck Egypt, but our houses He saved.” (Exodus 12: 26-27)

“And Moses said to the nation: ‘remember this day that you went out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for with a strong hand God took you out of this; leavened goods should not be eaten.'” (Exodus 13:3)

The exodus is a big deal in the history of the Israelites, and must be commemorated accordingly: with symbolic acts, with ceremony, and with a narrative that tells of the triumph of God and the docility and ultimate rescuing of the Israelites. This is not so different from other nations’ “national day” (Fourth of July in the US, Bastille day in France, etc.) that come with their own symbolism and their official narratives about beating the bad guys and triumphing as the good guys.

However, this isn’t the only narrative that is presented. In fact, already in the following Parasha’s (this week’s Beshalach), we see a more complicated story emerge: the Israelites are in fact not so docile and appreciative, and actually complain quite a bit about their circumstances and even about the exodus itself; Moses gets annoyed at the people, and then at God; the people get attacked by Amalek, and must give a hard fight before prevailing instead of being easily saved by God.

The problems that emerge in the aftermath do not detract from the triumphant moment that is the slave Israelites leaving Egypt with the permission of the Pharaoh and the (maybe not totally freely given) blessing of the Egyptian people. And when we take one day, as a nation, to commemorate the exodus, we commemorate the triumph. But we, as a people, were also given the entire Pentateuch to study, so that we can become aware of the context for the exodus which we celebrate, and so that we can learn the history of our people beyond the simplified story of success in the face of adversity that we tell once a year.

My grandmother was a historian, and I remember wondering as a child why it mattered what happened hundreds of years ago. We know the basic chronology; what’s the point of digging deeper? But if we only have a basic grasp of the foundational events in our history, we risk caricaturing ourselves, our opponents, and our past. If we only learn about the exodus once a year, at the seder, and we learn that we were slaves and God intervened and saved us, we have a different image of ourselves then if we also learn that before we became slaves, Joseph had all the Egyptians enslaved in exchange for food in a time of hunger (Genesis 47:19-25); or that after God took us out of Egypt we complained that we missed it there (Exodus 16:3).

I don’t want to conclude with a lesson as to what exactly we’re supposed to learn from studying the history contextualizing foundational events, because I don’t think there’s only one lesson to be learnt, and I think that the lesson is different depending on the person who’s studying the history and the time period in which it’s being studied. My point is more that it’s important to study history, period, because that’s the only way to truly understand where we come for and what we are made up of in the present. And it’s the only way that we can really try and see the world that we live in, with its messes and its complications. If our history is simple, how can we make sense of and accept a complicated present?

If we don’t study history, we are relegating our present stories to be overly simplified. We are forcing onto ourselves a myopic view of the present in which every complication, every bit of data and every experience that doesn’t fit in with the abstract narrative that frames our present is simply ignored. Only by accepting that the past is multicolored will we be able to stop seeing the present as monochrome.

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