Thursday, January 26, 2012

Parshat Bo: Past, present and future

Anyone who has ever taken a public speaking or presentation skills class knows the principle:  Tell them what you are going to say, say it, then tell them what you said.  When you want to communicate something important, it is key to prepare the audience by letting them know what is coming, and to summarize at the end.

The Torah does the same with the Exodus.  The story itself of the actual leaving of Egypt is sandwiched between Moses' prepatory speeches (first a warning to Pharaoh, then a command to the Children of Israel) beforehand, and afterwards a command to observe Passover for the generations.  We are prepared for what is about to happen, it happens, and then we are told what happened.

This creates something of a paradox in the Exodus story.  The Children of Israel are commanded to eat the Paschal lamb on Matzot and Maror, and to remove leaven from their homes for seven days.  The command is given on Rosh Hodesh Nissan, a full 2 weeks before the Exodus.  Yet, in the story of the Exodus itself, we are told the reason for the Matza and prohibition on Chametz:

וַיֹּאפוּ אֶת-הַבָּצֵק אֲשֶׁר הוֹצִיאוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, עֻגֹת מַצּוֹת--כִּי לֹא חָמֵץ:   
כִּי-גֹרְשׁוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לְהִתְמַהְמֵהַּ, וְגַם-צֵדָה, לֹא-עָשׂוּ לָהֶם) שמות י"ט ל"ב(

"And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual." (Exodus 12:39)

If the Matzah was scripted, what are we commemorating?  Which came first, the command to reeanact or the act itself?    Were the Children of Israel really in a hurry, or was the hurry scripted as well?  The whole thing reminds me of Battlestar Galactica: "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again."

I once took a Bible class with one Sister Mary (whose last name I am ashamed to say I have since forgotten) when I attended a Catholic college.  She started the class with Exodus and then we went to Genesis. When we asked why, she explained that Exodus is the crux of the Hebrew Bible.  Everything that comes before is foreshadowing, and everything after refers back to it.  It is the central story of the Hebrew Bible. The insight has stayed with me, and helps me understand what is going on in the Parsha.  The moment of the Exodus is the mirror moment, so immediately before and after reflect it.  In other words, the command to the Children of Israel before the Exodus is just the culmination of everything that has led to that moment, and we are now close enough that all the details are becoming clear.  Immediately afterwards, we move into the commemoration of that moment, while it is still fresh in our minds.

With that in mind, let’s try to understand that commemoration.  Rashi has a shocking interpretation of the following verse from the Parsha:

 וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר:  בַּעֲבוּר זֶה, עָשָׂה יְהוָה לִי, בְּצֵאתִי, מִמִּצְרָיִם.(שמות י"ג ח')

This is usually translated

“And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt”  (Exodus 13:8)

However Rashi reads it as follows:

“And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying:  It is FOR THIS [the eating of Matzah and Maror at the Seder in future generations] that the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt”

In other words, Rashi reverses the causality!  We usually think that we observe the Seder as a response to the great things God did for us when we left Egypt.  Rashi says the opposite – we were freed from Egypt so that we could observe the Seder.

Past, present and future are all intertwined in this story, and explicitly in its telling in the Parsha.  God’s command  to re-enact precedes the act itself, and the purpose of the act is the re-enactment yearly for generations.

At the seder,citing the above verse as prooftext, we say:

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם,

“In every generation a person is required to see himself as if he himself left Egypt.”

In the spirit of the reversals we have discussed, let’s turn this around.  Not only must we see ourselves as if we ourselves left Egypt, but perhaps we must understand that those who left Egypt were just like us.  The generation that left Egypt was following a script no less than we are.  They were told what to do and needed to imbue it with their own meaning, as they carried it out.  Just as we do, they needed to find transformational meaning in a pre-ordained, scripted ritual.

The paradox of the Exodus story is that it is both a historical moment and a scripted story.  It is pre-ordained from Abraham’s vision, yet it is lived in the moment.  As Jews we relive it daily, weekly and annually in our rituals, yet we always need to make sure we are living it – in the moment – not only repeating it by rote.  The distinctions between past, present and future break down.  We are re-enacting the past, whose purpose was that we would re-enact it in the present, and we do it so that our children will re-enact it in the future.  Time progresses, but telescopes down to a point. (I have an image of covering spaces from topology, but I think only my wife will get that reference). 

As Jews we live in all these forms of time at once.    We see a progression of history, but we see certain moments in that history emanating forward and backward into it, giving meaning to the narrative.  The Exodus is past, but also present and future.

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