The Torah is OUR story

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
February 1, 2020
Parshat Bo

Before getting to my sermon of the morning, I want to acknowledge our British brethren. Tonight, Brexit happens. My colleague Rabbi Adam Zagoria-Moffet shared with his community:

“What is undoubtedly true of the Exodus though is this: actually leaving is just the beginning. After three parashiyyot, this Shabbat's high drama in Bo seems like the climax of the story, but it is actually only the exposition. The remaining 60-70% of the Torah will be spent on the difficult freedom hard-won by Moses and Aaron, the struggles to find effective leadership and positive direction, and the doubts and debates among the people themselves.
I would make no direct comparisons; Boris Johnson is no Moses, nor is Angela Merkel much of a Pharaoh. But there is a suggestion of similarity in the eyes of the people– looking ahead to a new and uncertain future, divided about their past and their present, and preparing for a new and long journey ahead.”

For us, across the pond, we have our own governmental drama. We wonder who is in and who is out, what will our world look like in the next few weeks or months. This week’s parsha offers us two essential reminders:

  • The story is not ending but beginning
  • We all are essential to the narrative
Last week we began the plagues. This week we continue them. We gather our belongings this week, but do not really leave until next. Once we leave Egypt we face obstacle after obstacle. Even after we receive Torah, there are decades in the wilderness before we find ourselves in the Promised Land. Once we finally make it there, at Simchat Torah, we begin the cycle again.

In our IENGAGE course on modern Israeli history, we have discussed looking at Judaism from the perspective of belonging or becoming. Rabbi Donniel Hartman has elaborated on the difference between the two. He speaks of Pesach as a moment of belonging:

The exodus from Egypt was the founding moment of the Jewish people. It is here that Israel began to function as a free and independent nation. We began as a people, even though we as yet had no land, and no Torah. The majority of us were of little faith, mostly idolaters who did not even abide by the covenant of circumcision. What constituted our collective identity was our decision to affirm our membership in the People of Israel.

The test and expression of this affirmation was during the final plague, directed against the firstborn. Here, to be separated from the fate of the Egyptians one had to make a mark on the doorposts of one's home. Being an Israelite was determined by who was willing to declare their belonging. This act is Pesach's answer to the question of who is a Jew.

Yet as we work towards peoplehood, we recognize we are a work in progress. Rabbi Hartman argues that for a Judaism of “becoming” the essential moment is Sinai.

Judaism of Becoming: To be a Jew is not simply who you are, but rather it is an expression of what you do and believe; of what you are committed to strive to become. Under the Judaism of Becoming, the defining moment is Sinai, where God becomes the commanding God. A Jew is not simply a member of the Children of Israel, but a member of a Holy Nation, a part of a people who are commanded and challenged to live in accordance with the values and beliefs of the Jewish tradition.

Elsewhere in our Torah, we our divided by clan or by tribe, but now, as we prepare to leave, we are one people. We are not even male or female. We are families, who work together. We are egalitarian. This is not a newfangled principle only of the modern world, but one deeply rooted in our Torah.

This week Moshe is told to

דַּבְּר֗וּ אֶֽל־כָּל־עֲדַ֤ת יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר בֶּעָשֹׂ֖ר לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֑ה וְיִקְח֣וּ לָהֶ֗ם אִ֛ישׁ שֶׂ֥ה לְבֵית־אָבֹ֖ת שֶׂ֥ה לַבָּֽיִת׃

Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household.

וְאִם־יִמְעַ֣ט הַבַּיִת֮ מִהְיֹ֣ת מִשֶּׂה֒ וְלָקַ֣ח ה֗וּא וּשְׁכֵנ֛וֹ הַקָּרֹ֥ב אֶל־בֵּית֖וֹ בְּמִכְסַ֣ת נְפָשֹׁ֑ת אִ֚ישׁ לְפִ֣י אָכְל֔וֹ תָּכֹ֖סּוּ עַל־הַשֶּֽׂה׃

But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat.

We all are to participate. This Pesach meal is one that all are to eat the same thing. When this narrative reaches the Talmud, in the 10th chapter of Pesachim we read:

Even the poorest of Jews should not eat the meal on Passover night until he reclines on his left side, as free and wealthy people recline when they eat. And the distributors of charity should not give a poor person less than four cups of wine for the Festival meal of Passover night. And this halakha applies even if the poor person is one of the poorest members of society and receives his food from the charity plate.

Every individual should be able to celebrate Pesach to the fullest. Everyone should have a decent meal. When we have our Seder, no one will be turned away for lack of funds. If anyone needs assistance with registering, I have funds specifically for that purpose. This is how we live our Torah!

Later on

וְכָכָה֮ תֹּאכְל֣וּ אֹתוֹ֒ מָתְנֵיכֶ֣ם חֲגֻרִ֔ים נַֽעֲלֵיכֶם֙ בְּרַגְלֵיכֶ֔ם וּמַקֶּלְכֶ֖ם בְּיֶדְכֶ֑ם וַאֲכַלְתֶּ֤ם אֹתוֹ֙ בְּחִפָּז֔וֹן פֶּ֥סַח ה֖וּא לַה’׃

This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly: it is a passover offering to the LORD.

Our Seder is not just eating a meal, but living an experience. We are to eat, as if we are about to begin our journey. Every one of us is to observe this command--not only the men, not only the women, not only the children, not only the rich or the poor.

V 24וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה לְחָק־לְךָ֥ וּלְבָנֶ֖יךָ עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃

“You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants.

וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’

וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽה’ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנָגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל וַיִּקֹּ֥ד הָעָ֖ם וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוּֽוּ׃

you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the LORD, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’” The people then bowed low in homage.
As I think about our faith, I think about our lived experience as Jews. Our tradition, our Torah is aware of the energy needed to sustain that commitment. It is not enough simply to recite a few words, even on a regular basis. We have to live and enliven our Torah.

Torah must be our story. As we go into the week to come, as we prepare for Purim, then Passover, then Shavuot, we must remind ourselves and our families what we do and why we do it. We are each a small part of a huge narrative. Our choices are vital. Our lives are essential.

Our Torah recognized that we can easily see this as past, as history, as irrelevant. That is why we are commanded not just to teach our children, but to show them. The Torah, Gd, knows that in order for Jewish life to resonate, to be relevant, it must be shared.

All of us have something to offer. All of us have something to bring to the table. Our table cannot be complete until you are at it!

This week’s parsha offers us two essential reminders:

  • The story is not ending but beginning
  • We all are essential to the Jewish narrative

What will you do this week to continue your Jewish narrative?

Shabbat Shalom.