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.

Parashat Va’era

Last week’s parasha ends badly for the Israelites, Moses and Aaron. After Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh to demand from Pharaoh that he let the Israelites go so that they may worship God in the desert. Pharaoh feels that the Israelites – the slave class – is getting restless, and has enough leisure time to think about their situation, which could prove dangerous. As a result, Pharaoh decrees that the Israelites will hence forth collect their own raw materials, in addition to making their regular quota of bricks. The Israelites are distraught, and get angry with Moses and Aaron who upset the status quo. Moses questions God, who sent him on a mission that so far has only worsened the Israelites’ condition. But God remains confident, and tells Moses: “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a strong hand he will send you out and with a strong hand he will expel you from his land” (Exodus 6:1).

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Parashat Shemot

While the book of Genesis tells the story of individuals, the book of Exodus tells the story of a nation. The transition from individual to nation can be felt in the first couple of verses of this week’s parasha:

And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob; each man came with his household: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zevulun, and Binyamin; Dan, Naftali, Gad, and Asher. Altogether the descendants of Jacob numbered seventy, and Joseph was in Egypt.

And Joseph died, and so did his brothers, and so did that entire generation. And the children of Israel grew fruitful and multiplied and increased and became very great and the whole land was filled with them.

And a new king arose over Egypt, who had not known Joseph. And the king said to his people: Behold, the nation of the children of Israel is greater and more numerous than us. Let us outsmart it, lest it become more numerous than us, so that in the event of a war, it might join with our enemies, fight us, and expel us from the land” (Exodus 1:1-10)

The book begins with the individual names of Jacob, the last patriarch, and of his twelve sons, but the focus quickly shifts to the collective: “And Joseph died, and so did his brothers, and so did that entire generation” (Genesis 1:6). Already in describing the passing of the previous generation, the movement towards the collective and away from the individual can be felt. “And a new king arose over Egypt, who had not known Joseph” (Genesis 1:7). The new king does not know the individual Israelite. He only knows the children of Israel as a collective, and it is this collectivity, this nation, that is threatening.

The rest of the parasha switches off between the individual and the collective. We have the story of the “Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other was named Pu’a” (Exodus 1:15), whose names are mentioned explicitly, but whose only role in the story is to ensure that the next generation is Israelite gets born, and thus to help build the nation.

The story of the birth of Moses begins in chapter two: “And a man from the house of Levi went and took a daughter from the house of Levi” (Genesis 2:1). His parents are introduced only by the communal affiliations. Moses then is born, must be given away. Pharaoh’s daughter takes him in, and gives him his name, Moses, which is derived from the phrase “I plucked him out from the water” (Genesis 2:10). Figuratively, we could understand the water to be the Israelite collective – Pharaoh’s daughter took Moses out of the nation, and only then he could be an individual. Only after Moses grows up, can he go back out to “his brothers, and see their suffering” (Genesis 2:11).

In a similar way, the book of Genesis tells the story of the individuals whose descendants will make up the nation. Each link in the lineage is selected individually: Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, each has an individual story, but are not yet part of a nation. Joseph, whose individual story is the most fleshed out of all his brothers, doesn’t make it into the list
of the tribes of Israel; rather, his two sons, of whom we know almost nothing, become two of the tribes.

Indeed, there is a constant tension between the individual and the collective; the more individual experiences we have, the further removed we are from the collective; but the deeper we fall into the collective, the harder it is for us to stand up for ourselves when our individual rights are abused, and the easier it is to forget that we are owed, and owe others, respect as individuals. Indeed, the Israelites in Egypt cannot stand up for themselves: they need Moses, who was raised away from his nation, to come and save them, for they cannot save themselves.

The story of Genesis is the story of the individual in this world. The first chapter opens with the creation of the world, and culminates with the creation of man in God’s image. Man in God’s image is the individual par excellence. After all, God has no peers. Genesis chronicles man’s existential struggles, his urges, his passions, his desires, and his moments of transcendence. Exodus, and the rest of the Bible, chronicles man as part of a collective. But as this parasha shows, the collective needs individuals. And so, in order to be part of the collective in a healthy way, we need to pass first through Genesis – we need to learn how to be individuals.