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Parashat Bo: We Are Always Waiting to See if Rome Burns          

01/06/2022 02:50:26 PM


          For the last several years since I first read Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, Parashat Bo immediately calls to mind her phrasing, “motionless tableau of leaving,” a “tableau of release” (page 165). There are many nuggets of wisdom I have learned from the four books of hers that I have read, but few have so radically changed the way I read an entire Torah portion. It is impossible for me now to read this week’s parasha without the feeling of anxious waiting creeping up, as though I myself were posed at a starting line, adrenaline pumping, eager to burst forth at the sound of the whistle.

          Parashat Bo tells us of the final three plagues, including the quiet night when the Angel of Death stalked through all of Egypt. The parasha tells us that Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron to him that very night and told the Israelites to leave (Exodus 12:31). Just a few lines down, we are told, “That very day HaShem led the Israelites out of Egypt,” (Exodus 12:51), verbiage that is repeated throughout Exodus. Drawing from classical midrash, Zornberg suggests that while the Israelites were technically freed at night, their first act of freedom was to test out their ability to ignore Pharaoh’s command to leave at once and to instead show their allegiance to their new master – HaShem – by waiting for God to lead them out by day.

For the second year in a row, I find myself feeling much more directly and personally the sense of waiting in the frightful dark for something new and freeing to come. Last year, I had to write a d’var Torah for Parashat Bo in the week between the January 6th assault on the Capitol and the inauguration. It was a tense moment, unsure of what would come next, in which we nervously watched events outside our doors and readied ourselves for change. This year as I write this, Covid cases are soaring to all-time highs despite the success of our nation’s vaccination efforts. We are about to enter year three of this pandemic and still seem unable stop this plague. Again, I feel the same tension of panic, of needing to move, but not quite being able to until certain other events finish unfolding which recalls this week’s Torah portion powerfully, almost in the same exact way I did this week of the Hebrew calendar last year.

          When realizing I could give almost the exact same d’var Torah for the second year in a row for this parasha, I thought of a line from the play Indecent by Paula Vogel: “Rome is always burning.” While incredibly powerful in its own context, I find it also a darkly comforting phrase whenever wanting to put out the fires of the world starts to feel oppressive and overwhelming. I know that I mustn’t give up, but sometimes it helps to acknowledge that the world is beyond my saving alone, and while this pandemic may pass or shift to something less scary and more known, next year there will surely be a different Rome burning, a different plague keeping us indoors and waiting, a different tableau of panicked haste. As our own sages say, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

          This Shabbat and new year, I hope to emerge from the endless night of fear into the bright day of liberation. May the Divine Breath of the Universe lead us forward out of the narrow places into deliverance, and may this moment of unknown about the novel Coronavirus finally pass. And may the fires of Rome give way to a new world of freedom and life. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Sat, May 28 2022 27 Iyyar 5782