Torah Portion of the Week: The Future of the Past

Parashat Bo: God asks Moses to look forward, as he does, to the future, and to imagine how the events of the Exodus will be told to the next generations.

"Lamentations over the Death of the Firstborn of Egypt," by Charles Sprague Pearce, 1877.
The Smithsonian / Wikimedia Commons

Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16) relates what happened in a distant land in a distant time – before Israel received the Torah and inherited the Promised Land. Between the lines, however, it alludes to yet another place and another time. The Exodus story blurs the boundary between the past and the present, between the event and its story.

In Parashat Vaera (Exod. 6:2-9:35), God explains that the chain of plagues he visits upon the Egyptians is not a functional means of freeing Israel from bondage. That could have been accomplished with a single plague: Surely now I had put forth my hand, and smitten thee and thy people with pestilence, and thou hadst been cut off from the earth (Exod. 9:15). As God tells Pharaoh through Moses, But in very deed for this cause have I made thee to stand, to show thee my power, and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth (9:16). The plagues are meant to show Pharaoh and the entire world the might of Israels God.

According to what God says in last weeks portion, the 10 plagues influence are directed not just Egypt but the entire region: all the earth. From what God says in Parashat Bo, the impact of the Exodus will continue also throughout time. He explains his decision to send Moses again to see Pharaoh – this time to tell him about the locust plague: for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs in the midst of them; and that thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy sons son, what I have wrought upon Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that ye may know that I am the Lord (Exod. 10:1-2).

God asks Moses to look forward, as he does, to the future, and to imagine how the events of the Exodus will be told to the next generations. The narrative they will hear is not the by-product of that event but its very goal; thus, the event includes that narrative. Future readers will not have to seek an eternal lesson from the narrative nor does the Torahs narrator ask them to do so. The narratives characters themselves are aware of future readers, and that very awareness influences their actions.

On the eve of the plague of the first-born, the Torah tells us, God commanded every Hebrew family to choose a lamb to be slaughtered so its meat could be eaten with matzot and bitter herbs. Additionally, the Israelites were told to smear the blood of the slaughtered lamb on their doorposts – as a sign to God not to kill the houses inhabitants: And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you (Exod. 12:13).

The text again shifts from the past, in Egypt, to the future – in the Land of Israel: And it shall come to pass, when ye be come to the land which the Lord will give you, according as he hath promised, that ye shall keep this service (Exod. 12:25). The readers addressed in the narrative are not the individuals who left Egypt but their descendants, who will live in the Land of Israel and celebrate Passover there; the narrative will help those Israelites of the future to give meaning to their actions: And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you: What mean ye by this service? that ye shall say: It is the sacrifice of the Lords Passover, for that he passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses (Exod. 12:26-27).

Toward the end of these verses, past and present merge: The houses of the children of Israel in Egypt become our houses. The Children of Israel who are living in the Promised Land and offering the Passover sacrifice are, in a sense, the Children of Israel in Egypt, who are slaughtering the lamb as commanded by Moses before the plague of the first-born. Again it is difficult to clearly determine what precedes what and what results from what: the event and the narrative, the ceremony and the reason for the ceremony, what happens in Egypt and what future generations will remember.

The futures impact on the present can have various implications. If one concerns oneself with what the coming generations will say about ones actions, one will conduct oneself with insight and courage. One will think not only about the immediate benefits and damage of ones actions, but also about the account that will be given of those actions tomorrow. One will hear the yet-unborn sons question: What is this? (Exod. 13:14).

Excessive thinking about the future, however, has a price: In the name of future goals, we allow ourselves in the present to perform problematic and difficult acts; the goals justify acts that we might have thought twice about, had we focused on their outcome in the present. In the plague of the first-born, God kills all the first-born in the land of Egypt from the first-born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the first-born of the maid-servant that is behind the mill; and all the first-born of cattle (Exod. 11:5). Not easy reading. However, one of the goals of this plague is to mold the awareness of future generations.

Future readers have a two-fold influence on the Exodus narrative. Although it is written for them and the plot takes them into account, every reading alters and rewrites the narrative. Thus, the Passover Haggadah excludes the storys second-most important figure, Moses – an impressive exegetical, literary achievement, considering that he is mentioned in almost every verse.

Even in modern times, as Michael Walzer notes in his book, Exodus and Revolution, the Exodus narrative is reinterpreted in accordance with each eras political and cultural circumstances. Jews and Christians see themselves as the Children of Israel, freed from bondage in Egypt. The black slaves who prayed for their freedom in America, and the Zionists who sought to leave Europe and reach the Promised Land – these are examples of people who identified with the Exodus narrative. Its readers each mold the story to suit their agenda, so as to give meaning to their lives and answer their childrens questions.

Although each new reading of the story is intended to narrow the gap between past and present, the new reading also acknowledges the gap. If the Talmud says that each generation must see itself as if it was in the Exodus, it is telling us that we can only act as if we were freed from bondage in Egypt, and that this identification is not self-evident and requires considerable effort.

Parashat Bo hints that, although the participants in the Passover sacrifice in the Land of Israel identify with their ancestors in Egypt (and vice versa), their actions are not identical. Unlike the first Passover in Egypt, the future celebration of the festival excludes, for instance, smearing of the lambs blood on our doorpost; that was required only in a particular situation in the past. The profound connection between past and present molds each of these in the light of the other, without canceling the importance of making a distinction between the two periods.