Parshat Bo 5767: Can and Can't

Exodus 10:1-13:16

This week we have the last three plagues, locusts, darkness, and finally the death of the first born. Before the last plague hits, however, there is a lot of preparation done beforehand. God gives a set of directions to first chain up then kill a lamb as an assembly, eating it all in the night of the plague, and spreading its blood on the doorposts of the houses of the Israelite so to indicate whose house to pass over. Further instructions mentioned not eating leavened foods for seven days and eating Matzah instead. This was the first Passover.

2. This month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. 3. Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for a house; 4. And if the household is too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the souls; according to every man's eating shall you make your count for the lamb.5. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year; you shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats; 6. And you shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening. 7. And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, in which they shall eat it. 8. And they shall eat the meat in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. 9. Eat it not raw, nor boil with water, but roast it with fire; its head with its legs, and with its inner parts. 10. And you shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; and that which remains of it until the morning you shall burn with fire. 11. And thus shall you eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste; it is the Lord's Passover.[Ex. 12:2-11]

That, in a few verses, is the entire mitzvot of Passover. I read this in the Hebrew from a rabbinic bible while on retreat this weekend. The rest of the participants were involved in some silly game (bubble gum sculpture I think) and I needed a bit of time to reflect. So entering the OSRUI Library I started picking out books to study from, and read the passage above. I thought about one particular thing in it that bothered me. Why all the emphasis on eating? I had thought about this before, and came to a conclusion back then that this was the ultimate slap in the face to the Egyptians. We read in Exodus 8:

21. And Pharaoh called for Moses and for Aaron, and said, Go, sacrifice to your God in the land. 22. And Moses said, It is not proper to do so; for we shall sacrifice to the Lord our God what is abomination for the Egyptians. Shall we sacrifice what is abomination for the Egyptians before their eyes, and will they not stone us? [Exodus 8:21-2]

And of course one of the most common sacrifices was lamb. Based on this and a passage in Genesis concerning Joseph's table manners, Midrash relates that lamb was a god to the Egyptians, and killing and eating the god was the abomination. So by eating a lamb wrap with horseradish while packed and dressed for travel, we have the mitzvot of eating fast food in front of the Egyptians. Not only did they desecrate the gods of the Egyptians by this act, but they denigrating it by saying "super size me!"

And while that states what it means to the Egyptians, what did this mean to the Israelites? Here is another dilemma. In the Passover Hagaddah, we are told there is symbolism behind the matzah and maror. The matzah commemorates that the Israelites did not have time to let their bread rise before leaving Egypt. Yet in 12:6, they were told exactly when to have this meal, and have four days to hold onto the lamb. Since it only takes a few hours for bread to rise, there is plenty of time to let the bread rise, yet God commands that they eat matzah, not once but several times. Exodus 12:15-17 describes not only this time but every year for seven days, starting on the 14th on the first month there will a time where no Jew will eat leavened bread nor keep it in the house. It is not until verse 12:34, which happens hours after that first Seder do we read:

34. And the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders. 35. And the people of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they borrowed from the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments; 36. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent them such things as they required. And they carried away the wealth of the Egyptians.

It was of course from Exodus 12:34 and similar verses that the rabbis wrote into the Haggadah the idea that matzah was a symbol for the bread not rising in the haste to leave. But this was not what they ate the night before, nor does the removal of hameitz make any sense either from that symbolism. It is also in this portion we have part of the answer also immortalized in the Haggadah:

26. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say to you, What do you mean by this service? 27. That you shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord's Passover, who passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians, and saved our houses. And the people bowed their heads and worshipped. [Ex 12:26-7] 8. And you shall tell your son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did to me when I came forth out of Egypt. [Ex 13:8]

As we tell in the four questions and four sons, we do this to remember the Exodus. But I think there is more than remembering going on. Imagine the scene. Not only are the Israelites walking out of Egypt after insulting the Egyptian gods by barbequing them as Mac Lamb tacos, but they are asking for and taking the wealth of Egypt along with them. Not the most plausible scenario. Could you imagine walking up to the guy who was beating the living daylights out of you only hours before and asking if you could borrow all his wife's jewelry, while dressed like you are about to take a very long trip picking out bits of his god stuck in your teeth? Three words come to mind: "I can't do that!" Such words come to mind often in far too many circumstances even today. This week I ran across three people who had a different reaction. One, who clarified the rest, was Jake Shimabukuro. Jake happens to be one of my musical heroes, a ukulele player. For most ukulele is an instrument to play traditional Hawaiian tunes, a few tunes from the 20's and of course Tiptoe Through the Tulips. To say that you could play hard rock, reggae, jazz or blues on a Uke, virtually everyone would say "you can't do that!" But Jake, with lighting fingers does, and does so well, he is often nicknamed "The Jimmy Hendrix of Uke."

While writing a paper yesterday, I was listening to Jake, and getting no where on this final exam. I had ideas but they never seemed to fit together, until I thought of Jake. And then I realized the one thing about this character I was writing about and what made him so different that he has ended up known as he is today. He was orphaned young, and a failure in school. Often truant, he slept during the day or wandered about the woods. Legend at least tells us he studied at night. As a teen he trained as a shohet, a kosher butcher, but later left the profession to be a wanderer and eventually opened an inn which his wife ran while he spent his days wandering around, fasting in cold caves and dipping himself in ice cold water. While this might seem like odd behavior what he was doing was thinking and meditating. For anyone else this would be the recipe for "a loser." From his actions no one could ever amount to anything would be the conventional wisdom. You can't get anywhere acting like that.

Yet the one important thing that Israel Ben Eliezer, known to the world as the Baal Shem Tov was too truant to learn in school was the word "can't." And because of that he is credited as the founder of the Hasidic movement, which only decades after his death spread throughout Eastern Europe like wildfire. The detractors of the movement claim that he was not following the Torah, by introducing movement into prayer. It was not enough o pray by seeing the words or speaking them, but moving with them, making prayer active in all our major forms of perception. In this innovation, all of our senses are engaged in prayer and it becomes a more intense focused experience. In some ways he was even more scrupulous than his detractors, particularly in the area of Kashrut. There is plenty of evidence from stories of him, and even a responsum that his tolerances for mistakes in kosher meat was very tight. There a letter in his name on behalf of the Kehilla of Mi?dzybˇ? asking for a ruling from Rabbi Meir of Konstantynow, the son of Jacob Emden, against the butchers and the assistant rabbi of the town who were too permissive in their kashrut. As a self-taught shohet, he never accepted the status quo answer that you can't get a knife any sharper, or that one can't remove certain lesions. Ironically, the polemics against early Hasidism, while stating that they never followed Torah also noted they were too careful about sharpening the knives used for butchering. The Hasidim would tell you that was in order not to render the animal treif or cause undue pain to the animal; both mitzvot mandated by Torah. Reading these polemics, written by such erudite scholars as the Vilna Gaon, it is clear that the issue was not halakah, but the status quo of traditions of 18th century Poland and Lithuania. The Baal Shem and his disciples changed the way we connected to God not by changing the mitzvot, but by the traditions of getting there - because they did not believe "you can't do that!" Many people, when they saw the possibilities opened, followed them.

The last of three people I thought of this week was me. What I was doing in the OSRUI library? I was reading Hebrew without a dictionary. Ask me a decade ago if I could read that passage and my answer would be "I can't do that!" Yet here I was reading this, and even checking a few words in the Aramaic Targum glosses. Reading and wondering about the meaning Tzli-aish oomatzot al m'rorim yoh-c'luhu I did not have to go to a translation. In that act of reading, I also have the answer for that first Passover, why matzah, and why clear out that hameitz.

We spend too much of our lives saying "we can't" because were told that is true. We can't leave Egypt, because of the taskmasters and the powerful Egyptian army. But there are some acts that we can do that say "we can." Doing something while expecting the results, however impossible that outcome may seem, is one of those acts of saying "we can." Eating foods that you only need the next day is one such example, so is eating the god of your slaver. By eating matzah and lamb, the Israelites were setting the expectation of leaving. And in setting that expectation, they also did something else; they became committed to that outcome. They looked for it to happen. Those who partook of that first Passover Seder became committed to the outcome of leaving, so committed, that even asking their taskmaster to borrow all their valuables didn't seem absurd any more. When the text says "God found favor" God does not find favor for doing nothing. God finds favor in those who commit to doing an act for God. We then find favor or, to use another common phrase, our eyes are opened to possibilities we did not see before.

Thus every year on the fourteenth of Nissan till the twenty first, we do not just remember the Exodus from Egypt, but commit ourselves and those of the next generation to God as our ancestors did back then. We move from the place of the "I can't" that the majority around us tells is the truth to the "I Can" that Divine Wisdom makes true, as did the Baal Shem Tov. As I sit finishing this, listening to Jake's rendition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps on uke, I remember this. When I break my first piece of matzah for Pesach, until the last one seven days later, I will remember that I can do things others believe impossible, and in doing so the "I can's" in my life increase through Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu.

ůand, of course, you can too.