Parshat Bo--Leaving Egypt and finding rest

Note: This is a transcription of my remarks on Shabbat January 28, 2023, Parshat Bo.

In this week’s Parsha, we begin the process of actually leaving Egypt. And we have instructions for the generations to come and there are two leavings, in a way. There is a Seder and the leaving of the people who actually left, and there’s also the Seder of the generations that of all us have each and every year when we remember. When we reimagine, when we reconsider where we were and where we are going and think about that journey.

The slaves who left Egypt lived a life of oppression and suppression; putting themselves last, before the needs of their masters. And they had to go out in haste. They had to go out from slavery to freedom, making that matzah without time to rise. But then when we make our matzah, without leaving it time to rise. We have the blessing of time. What is the story that we read in the haggadah? All of these snippets, not the direct clear path of slavery to freedom but a winding path. A telling of the telling. It’s a “meta-seder.”

We tell of these students who go out and they come back and they ask “is it still time to say the Shema? What do we do if we were out all night long?” And we say that if we tell the story, even alone, longer and longer that is a true Seder. The one with no pressure of when do we eat but one with joy and pause, and no time pressure. You know, we live in a world today where we’re told success is the right car, the right house, the right bank account. But in truth, what is success but less pressure on our own time. To set our own agenda. So say, now we’re going to study. Now we’re going to pray. Now we’re going to be with our family.

I may have told this story before but we have with us at home our dear friend, Naomi Greenspan and I remember sitting at the Oceanside Jewish Center. I don’t know what Parsha he shared it on but Rabbi Mark Greenspan shared a story so I’m going to share it with you. So he says there’s a businessman on vacation and he sees a young man on a Caribbean island catching a fish at the end of a dock. And the man sits there and he catches a few fish and he sits and after he has what he needs, he goes home and he feeds his family. And the next morning, he sits on the dock again and he catches a few more fish. And now this businessman who’s on vacation comes over to him and says, “I see you here catching the fish, here’s what I would do. I have a business plan for you. You shouldn’t just sit here for two hours, you should sit here for five then you should catch some more fish. And you should sell some extra fish, and then after you’ve sold more fish you should stay for the whole day and keep catching until you have enough to sell that you can buy a boat. And after you’ve bought a boat, you should buy more boats. And you should create a fishing empire and all of those other people who are fishing in your boats are going to pay you the dividends. And then you keep buying until you have a whole shipping company. And you’ll have the market on not just the fish but on the boats, which you manufacture. And then you’ll keep expanding your empire until you can do whatever you want in life.” So he asked the man “what do you want to do in life?” and he said, “I want to sit here and fish for a couple hours and spend the rest of my time with my family.” 

The gift, it’s not the resources, it’s not what we buy. It’s the time that we have and in this country there are so many people that don’t even have the smallest gift of time. Because they’re not just working one job, they’re working two or three. It used to be that you had a part-time job and you worked from 12 - 4 and you might have another part time job and you work from 1 - 5 or something like that. But most restaurants and places these days don’t schedule that way. They schedule by computer for what the need is. They project what they need for tomorrow and then if there’s not enough, there’s more business, they call in more people. But if you don’t come in, you might not have a job. It’s not a model that most of us are used to . But if you live with scarcity of food and clothing and shelter, all the more so you live with scarcity of time. And one of the greatest lessons of Shabbat is to say from the richest to the poorest that on one day, you’re the master of your own destiny. And what do you do with that freedom of being the master of your own destiny? You give it back.

What is the lesson of this parsha? Over and over and over again, what is the lesson of all of the plaques? Not as we hear Charlton Heston say, “let my people go.” That was just a piece of the real lesson– “let my people go so they may worship me.” Not this is a sermon that you’ll hear from me until the day I die: that we are not just free to live however we see fit but we were given the opportunity to serve hakarash baraku we were given the opportunity to serve God. But a slave cannot serve more than one Master, says our tradition. So slaves were not obligated in the commands of time because their time was not their own. So the question for us today is: are we slaves, or are we free? If we’re free, we can take Shabbat and we can pause from our daily toil, whatever that may be. And we can live a life that sees the blessing of family, that sees the blessing of being in community, of having time to pray, to breathe, to pause, to see where we are in this moment. But the thing is so many of us are not free, so many of us are slaves. Because so many of us do not have the ability to take that time to live, and eat, and pray, and be together. And what would the world look like if all of those who work actually had the ability to truly take the day and celebrate Shabbat.

I think about the vast breadth of modernity in Jewish life and life in general– for so much of Jewish history, a Jew who worked on Shabbat was saying “I don’t care about the Jewish community, I don’t care about God. I only care about myself” because the rhythm of life in a ghetto or a shtetl or any Jewish community was sheshet yamin avot, six days of the work, but yom Shabbat chodesh, Shabbat, this holy day was a time of manucha, of rest. A time when we did not do our creative work, but then modernity came. And suddenly, the economics of the world changed. The connection between jews as individuals and Jews as a community was different.
300 years ago, I was not an American citizen, I was a Jew, only. And for so much of our history, the reigning monarch or the reigning power did not tax Philip Weintraub, it wasn’t the IRS having a direct relationship with me and my paycheck. It was the duke or the king saying to the Jewish community, “We need a million dollars, you figure it out.” And then the Jewish community would, within itself, determine that connection and pass it on. 

But once we became individual citizens, well now there's a whole different world. And now we’re not living only within our world, where we can all say “okay, we’re going to pause this day together and we’re going to eat together and we’re going to rest together and we’re going to pray together.” And suddenly we had this different challenge and we had Pious Jews who had no other choice but to work on shabbat and they still wanted to be part of the Jewish community. So you saw in the lower east side, and you saw throughout this country, not so much anymore, but you often had very early minyan. In many orthodox communities it’s still popular, but you had an early minyan right at sunrise that was so fast. So saturday morning, those who had to get to work davened at this early minyan and then they worked. And now in many orthodox communities, it is just for those who really like to get up early and be done with Shabbat and have cholent by nine o-clock. But they’ve forgot the purpose of that minyan, which was the understanding that there were those who didn’t have that freedom. 

I think about people like my great-grandfather who had a newspaper stand. You couldn’t close the newspaper stand on a Saturday. So he went to shul when he could go to shul, then he celebrated Shabbat the best that he can but he was an orthodox Jew. He kept kosher, he kept Shabbos to the best of his ability. But he didn’t have the freedom to celebrate Shabbat. So as we live in this world today, we can so easily remain slaves. But we have the opportunity to be the nerhorim, to be the free people. The question is, do we choose to do so? So my prayer for us this Shabbat and every Shabbat is that we can find, within ourselves, the koach, the strength to make Shabbat, to make it holy. And that may mean different thing to different people. But to find the space to rest, to pause from the things that put demands on us. To put aside some of that beeping and that buzzing and that demand for an instant response, and say, “You know what? Not everything needs a response right now.” And is we wait a few hours or a day, the world still exists.
Shabbat Shalom.

Sermon is at the 1:57:00 mark