Monday, January 15, 2018

Parashat Bo: Communal Maturity

Communal Maturity
A Message for Parashat Bo 2017
Click here to view as PDF

The detailed laws that Am Yisrael was commanded on the night before their exodus from Egypt reveal a recurring theme of the “house” and “household.” They were instructed with regards to the korban Pesah, “let every man take a lamb for a father’s house, a lamb for a household” (12:3), and further informed that if the household was too small to consume a full lamb, “it must take together with its neighbor who is close to its house” (4). The blood of the lamb was to be placed on “the doorposts and lintel of the house” (7), serving as “a sign for you upon the house in which you are” (13), in order that “He shall not allow the Destroyer to come into your houses to scourge” (23). Each man was commanded to not leave the entrance “of his house” until morning (22), and to teach his children in the future: “A Passover sacrifice to God, who passed over the houses of Bnei Yisrael in Egypt when he scourged Egypt, and our households He rescued” (27).

The significance of the “house” and “household” to the story of yessiat Misrayim became clear when the nation was twice commanded to remember the exodus from the “house of slaves” (13:3, 14).[1] They were perhaps being taught in that instance that their freedom from a “house of slavery” was appropriately designated by the establishment of independent “houses” and “households.”

The Torah surprisingly shifts from its emphasis on the “house,” however, when commanding future observance of the laws of Pesah. Whereas the nation was initially commanded, “The very first day you shall expunge leaven (se’or) from your houses,” and, “Seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses” (12:19), the command upon entrance into Israel was different: “And no leavening of yours shall be seen in all your territory” (13:7). Whereas the theme of “house” and “household” dominated the description of Pesah in Egypt, its repeated command for future observance bore no mention of it whatsoever.

This conspicuous change in theme was repeated in the context of another dominant feature of the commands – the distinguishing “sign” (ot) of Am Yisrael. In Egypt, the blood on the houses stood as their “sign”: “And the blood will be a sign for you upon the houses in which you are” (12:13). The future “sign,” however, bore no connection to houses or households and instead lived on through the tefillin: “And it shall be a sign for you on your hand and a remembrance between your eyes…” (13:10, 16).

The establishment of Am Yisrael as a free and independent nation began with complete separation. This was initially performed by God through the plagues,[2] and then symbolized by the nation’s various observances in their “houses” and “households” which separated them from the “house of Pharaoh.” The future vision for the nation, however, was considerably different. The distinguishing “sign” was no longer displayed on their houses, but instead concealed on their arms. The spatial isolation necessary for Am Yisrael’s establishment in Egypt was replaced by self-realization and demonstration.[3]

We often misunderstand our communities’ source of strength. We believe that it is the separate “houses” and “households” that empower the members, and we therefore fear involvement with others. The Torah’s deliberate shift in description from the initial creation of Am Yisrael to its eternal existence teaches otherwise. Freed from the “house of slavery,” the nation was further freed to endeavor from their “houses” and appropriately engage with others. Though a sense and practice of separateness was eternally enduring, it no longer existed as a spatial segregation but as an existential realization and performance.

[1] A depiction of the bondage as a “house entrapment” is particularly striking considering the etymology of the name “Pharaoh,” from the Egyptian words “great house.”
[2] Recall last week’s devar Torah, “Separation.”
[3] Most appropriate in this context is R. Eliezer’s well-known interpretation, “It shall be for you a sign – for you a sign and not for others a sign” (Menahot 37b).