By Yonina Andrea Foster, Ph.D.
“Bo,” “Come,” not the first word of the parsha, but the one by which it is called, the third in the Book of Sh’mot, Names, more commonly called, Exodus. It is our story of calling out to G-d from a restricted place and being redeemed from slavery. This is about us, our own mitzrayim of body, mind, spirit, and that of our people, our calling out every moment of our lives when we recognize we need help, an archetype, a recurrent theme in Torah. This is the story of Bo. Changing our world. Seeing what enslaves us. What will it take to be free from our own Pharaoh, the supposed leader of the house, the King? This Pharaoh constricts, hardens our hearts, tamps down the love and life beating within our chests. G-d tells Moses, “Come to the leader of the house, Pharaoh, whose heart I have made stubborn, hardened.” G-d, with three more plagues guides Moses to approach Pharaoh, each time intensifying the transformation in the process of undoing enslavement.
“Bo,” “Come.” Bet is the first letter of this tiny word , the same with which Torah begins, Bereishit. Bet as in creating, is also the first letter for the word house, a safe haven, yet restricted by its very shape. The mitzrayim, narrow place of that space, Egypt. We deserve better! We had earlier cried out to G-d. We took action, made noise from the enslaved space. I, we, must take action toward freedom, individually and communally. “Help us,” we cried. We prepared. We took the steps to say “Enough!” Freedom. Freedom? Faith and trust that the G-d of our ancestors will fulfill the promise given to previous generations. Then what? Fear? Silence.
Alef is the second letter of Bo, The letter is silent, says nothing. Yet, embody its shape, a human getting ready to move, grounded but leaning forward with power. Ready for what in this silence, the moment after taking action? That leaping off a cliff feeling. Waiting. What will happen next? Will G-d answer? This tiny little word breaks through our imprisonment, our mitzrayim. Come into our hearts, open it to love, release the frozen self. We cried out and G-d remembered us, of the promise to take us to freedom, make us a great nation, exceedingly numerous, and blessed. By the seventh plague Pharaoh had recognized he sinned. But seven were not enough. His heart was hardened again. He was not ready to let go. The plagues ramped up.
What will lead to our transformation? What starvation shocks us out of passivity, silence, denial, of seeing our constricted place so we can leave mitzrayim? When will we look over our shoulder at the Bet of Bo and in the silent Alef see ourselves, recognize the Divine Self and in that awakening say, “I, no, we, are ready to go.” It’s time we leave that small place we’ve made or someone made for us where darkness has cloaked us, kept us caged. What mystery will emerge that has been buried below the hardness surrounding our hearts? In our brokenness, said the Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859), there’s nothing more whole than a broken heart. So let our hearts, and Pharaoh’s, shatter so that we may become free people, whole and open to reveal the love buried within. Let us, and G-d, release its power into the world.
Now, look, a glimmer in utter darkness, hidden light. It grows in strength the more we observe and speak up for our freedom. That light and love set us free. In that silence, time, place, and space of our awakening to take steps toward freedom, our Pharaoh shatters, broken open, the death of the child within setting us free. We prepare. And at night, the beginning of our day, we are invited to step out with G-d at the helm, Moshe and Aaron, co-assisting. You and I, we, become partners with G-d’s desire for us to be free and know the One, with mixed multitudes, those unknown parts of ourselves, joining us.
To remember our actions, we will make a yearly ritual and begin our year in Nissan with a new month, Passover at the full moon. How fitting to begin our year with the collective journey to freedom, reminding us we lived instead of died. While we may not be ready to jump into our new life, sometimes we must run without time for the bread to leaven, to rise. Only then we can open our inner treasures of gold and silver. We we will make a blessing, offer gratitude, for that which has set us free. And we will tell our story again and again and again for generations to come that G-d, and we, together, with love in our hearts, began the journey to freedom.
Thank you to Rabbi Ori Bergman for our conversations regarding this d’var.
Dr. Foster is a Jewish Educator, Spiritual leader. Throughout the year of the pandemic Yonina looked within her own Pharaoh to the light, found it growing stronger, and resumed rabbinic studies.