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Unscrolled: Israel Past and Future

This week’s Torah portion is called “Bo.” In Biblical Hebrew, it means “to come/to enter,” as in the first line of the portion when God tells Moses to come into Pharoah’s presence in order to, once again, demand that the Israelites be set free.

In modern Hebrew, it is a verb in the imperative. “Come!” An invitation to draw close—such as a parent might call to a child, gathering them in to listen to a story.

Indeed, Parashat Bo is the story of a story. “I have hardened [Pharoah’s] heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your child and of your child’s child how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the LORD” (Exodus 10:1-2).

Even as the events of the exodus unfold in real time, God’s main focus is on the creation of a narrative that will be told to future generations.

We think of stories as a sort of trace—not reality itself, but rather the impression that reality leaves behind, like the delicate vascular system of a leaf pressed into the stone of an ancient fossil. For God, however, this is reversed. It is the story that has greater reality. The event is merely the material with which the story is crafted.

A perfect illustration of this is the matter of the matzah. If asked why we eat matzah on Pesach, any Jewish child will be able to tell you that this is because the Israelites fled from Egypt in such a terrible hurry that they had no time to let their bread rise. This, however, is only half correct. God decrees that the Israelites will eat matzah on Pesach before the flight from Egypt even takes place. “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel” (12:15). It is only later that we learn, “And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay” (12:39). That they were in too much of a rush to let the bread rise has been revealed as a contrivance of God. The matzah was a story first and a story last. The actual event, then, served only to grant an imprimatur to this story.

Again and again, God’s focus is on what shall be told to the future sons and daughters of Israel. As readers of the text, we realize with awe that the referent of these commandments is none other than ourselves. Though we didn’t yet exist when it was written, the text sees us, addresses us, and commands us.

Though we didn’t yet exist when it was written, the text sees us, addresses us, and commands us.

“This is how you shall eat it,” God says of the Passover sacrifice, “your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly” (12:11).

In other words, they are being told that the sacrifice will be eaten in costume—and that the costume is that of an Israelite fleeing Egyptian bondage. This commandment, however, is being addressed to actual Israelites as they flee Egyptian bondage. They are thus being commanded to pitch themselves forward to a time in the future when they will be looking back at the exodus as a story. We, on the other hand, are commanded each year at Pesach to pitch ourselves backward, imagining that it was us who fled Egypt to freedom.

Think of that for a moment. The generation of the exodus is commanded to imagine that their lives are part of a story. In so doing, they cast their eyes forward to the generations of the distant future: to us.

We are commanded to imagine that the story we are telling is our life. In so doing, we cast our eyes backward to the generations of the distant past: to them.

All of this is accomplished through the workings of narrative and through the faculty of imagination. Here, in this imaginative space, Israel yearns toward itself across the chasm of time. Within the eternal present of the great story of the exodus, we meet.

Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.

Source: Jewish Journal

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