Parshat Bo 5779 - 1/10/19
“In the Beginning!” These epic words resonate with the vibrations of Creation. Just like “Once Upon a Time” begins our favorite tales, these words are cosmic and universal. More than a starting point, they situate us in a grand narrative of who we are, and maybe even foretell who we might yet become. In our day, the greatest minds are spent determining ‘the beginning’ of the universe and work to discover more truth about that moment. And, while we’re closer to knowing when or what the beginning of everything might have been, beginnings only have meaning by what follows.
Thousands of years ago, the greatest minds had a pretty clear understanding of the beginning too when the Torah captured the process of creation by what we come to call God. It is even more remarkable that generations later the Torah commentator, Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi, posed an important question upon the monumental words that begin our sacred text. He simply asked, “Why wouldn’t the Torah, the book of laws and guidelines for human behavior, begin with the first rules commanded upon the people, the words we first read of in this week’s Torah reading, “בא?”
This week, we will read, “This month shall be unto you the first of the months” (12:2) which refers to the laws marking the beginning of Jewish freedom. Rashi is asking, ‘why does the Torah concern itself with the origins of everything, if the purpose of the Torah is to shape human behavior, particularly the ways of the Jews?’
We may be so self-centered as to say that the Torah begins with the elements of creation so we can know where we come from. Rashi offers a slightly different response, though, one that I think we can understand anew. His answer is that the beginning captures the origins of the universe so that others in the world cannot accuse Israel of taking the Land of Canaan for themselves. Or, that the Torah begins with the origins of the universe to reassert that everything is a creation of God and no one or no thing has any more propriety over the universe than another. We are all creations of one divine Source. Our humanity, distinguished by our ability to separate and make definitions of things in opposition to others, is created to bring the disparate elements of creation toward unity.
At first glance, it’s an extraordinary insight. The Torah has an eternal wisdom to teach all of humanity, not simply a specially chosen people. Recognizing this as the first comment to all of the Torah is a profound statement of origins too. We all come from one Source.
Can we be so bold as to suggest that this is who we might yet become? A human community that celebrates its diversity in unity?
This week we’ll read about a particular people who literally taste freedom with the paschal lamb and the matzah, who savor liberty sweetened by the unfurling of the taskmaster’s whip and the shattering of Pharaoh’s grip. This message is not ossified in the Torah like a history book. It is a beginning of a people and a tradition that continues to teach the world an ethic of compassion, empathy, social responsibility, and hopeful striving. Our story is one that begins with the possibilities of freedom today and for tomorrow. Rashi’s reminder that we are all bound to experience that freedom together is the great message that we all have yet to fully realize.
“In the Beginning.” We start telling our story from the origins of the universe and the origins of our people. For in the end they are one and the same.