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Friday, January 18, 2013

Parshat Bo: Letting Go in the Face of Inevitable Change

This week’s parashah/portion is Bo (Shemot/Exodus 10:1-13:16). It begins “Then God said to Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his 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 children and your children’s children 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 God.’” (10:1-2). This is then followed by the onset of the eighth plague, that of locusts. Following the eighth plague, God again hardens Pharaoh's heart and the plague of darkness descends upon Egypt. Finally, the Egyptians experience the last plague, the death of Egypt's firstborn. It is this plague that will set the Israelites free. The parashah then concludes with the commandments to dedicate the first-born of the Israelites to God and to observe Pesakh/Passover.

At the end of last week’s parashah, Va’era, it seemed that the land of Egypt/Mitzrayim had been completely decimated by the plague of hail accompanied by fire from heaven. Mitzrayim, which comes from the same Hebrew root as the words narrow or constricted, had been laid waste. The place that formerly known for its glory and grandeur had been brought low. Yet, in spite of this, Pharaoh retained his hubris. Living in his palace, separated from the real life of his people, he was able to maintain his sense of superiority and his belief that nothing could ever destroy him or his power. 

But what about “his” people? How must they have felt after the conclusion of the seventh plague? One can imagine it must have seemed to them as if they could suffer no more. Yet, they did suffer more. For with the coming of the locusts we read that what little vegetation had been left after the hail was now totally consumed. The entire land was truly barren. However, even that could not prepare them for what was to come. 

We are taught that in the ninth plague, they experienced a darkness that they could actually feel. This darkness touched the core of their being. They were totally and utterly engulfed by it. This palpable darkness can be interpreted as representing the people's depression, uncertainty or fear.  However, it could also represent their realization that everything upon which they had built their hopes and dreams had ceased to exist. 

We get little sense of how the common Egyptians felt after each plague ended, but one can only imagine that they were relieved to see again when the darkness lifte. Yet, when that happened, what were they able to see? If they had truly come to the realization that everything they knew before was an illusion, then what did their eyes perceive in the new light that appeared after the plague? 

What they saw was the barrenness and emptiness of the land. All that they believed to be real was an illusion. They could no longer experience anything but nothingness. The people understood this. Pharaoh did not, for all he could see was the glory of his palace and its surrounding.

But the palaces and cities of Pharaoh meant nothing to the people. Following the destruction and the darkness, they realized that these were simply empty monuments. They were able to see the reality that they had felt with their entire being in the darkness. The only thing that did exist for them at that moment the light returned was the realization that, in fact, nothing existed. Perhaps they even doubted their own existence ? For how could anyone be certain of anything after experiencing the deepest darkness? 

As they tried to continue their lives in the face of what had occurred, darkness came once again. However, this time it was the “normal” darkness accompanied by the light of the full moon. This was a darkness they knew and felt they could trust; a darkness which still contained some light within. And so, perhaps they began to feel more secure, as if life was going to once again be what it was before. But this false security quickly disappeared as the final plague struck and they were plunged back into a deep despair once again. For within hours, the entire first born of Egypt lay dead. The first born, the ones upon whom the hopes and dreams of the future rested, were no more. No longer could there be even a shadow of a doubt that nothing would ever be the same. In that moment, they realized that the future they had imagined no longer existed. Rather, the future seemed at that moment to be as uncertain as anything could be. That is how the parashah ends for the Egyptians.

Though we identify ourselves with our Israelite ancestors in this story, I believe, just as when interpreting dreams, we can also find ourselves in the other characters in the story. Therefore, we are also the Egyptians … the Mitzrim … the constricted ones. We are the ones who have been allow ourselves to be oppressed, limited or held back by a false power we believed to be greater than us. We become slaves to our our passions, desires and expectations, just as the Israelites were enslaved to Pharaoh. We worship them as gods, just as the Egyptians worshiped Pharaoh. Finally, we look at the grand edifices built by our ego and our desires, believing that we are glorious and certain of who we are and what will be.  We bask in the glory created by the ego, just as Pharaoh basked in his glory.  We are certain, as was Pharoah, that all we have created will survive and thrive forever.

Yet, for Pharaoh and the Egyptians, each plague caused them to feel less and less certain of what was real and permanent. With each plague the ground beneath them began to shift and tremble. With each plague, their certainty began to diminish. So too with us, as we see things fall apart around us thanks to whatever we might interpret as our own personal plagues; the things which cause our world to fall apart around us.

After the last two plagues Pharaoh and the Egyptians realized without a doubt that everything was an illusion and that their imagined future was no more.  The same eventually happens to us when we experience the difficulties, and sometimes tragedy, of life.  Though our eyes can see, it is as if we have been plunged into the deepest darkness of the ninth plague yet again. However, this time we don’t know if we will ever emerge again into the light.

Then, we suddenly come to a realization that awakens us. Perhaps, it even makes us laugh with its simplicity and absurdity. This grand revelation is, simply put, ‘this is life.’ This is what it’s about. Existence is not about certainty, glory, or any of the things represented by palaces and the external trappings of Pharaoh and his court. Life is about not knowing what the next moment will bring. Life is about simply acknowledging and living in the present. Some of us come to this realization easily and early on. However, for many of us it takes being plunged into darkness and experiencing to some degree the death of the dreams and fantasies of the future upon which we have obsessed and built our lives. Only then do we come to the realization (if we do at all) that this was indeed all a dream and not a reality. Yet, once we realize this truth, we can actually be relieved. For then we can stop being Mitzrim – constricted, narrow, limited people– and instead become Israelites … B’nai Yisrael, those who struggle with forces Divine and human (for this is what we are told is the meaning of the name yisrael in the book of Genesis).

And what were the Israelites doing while all the Egyptians were struggling through the plagues? We can imagine that they might have just been sitting, waiting, and watching, while realizing that this was out of their control and that the outcome was still unknown. The only thing we do know is that during the tenth plague they were sitting in their homes observing the first Pesakh/Passover meal. They were enacting a ritual commanded them by God through Moses. A ritual which we still commemorate to this day with the Passover seder. 

They may have had their sandals on and their staffs at their side, so they could leave when the time came, but they still realized that the coming of that time was out of their control. Therefore, they sat, they ate, and they waited. Though we tend to emphasize the fact that the people left in haste, and so had no time to let the dough rise, the Torah tells us even before the meal took place that they were commanded to eat unleavened bread. 

One classical interpretation is that leaven represents the “puffed up” nature of human pride and hubris. And so the lack of leavened bread reminded the people that they must simply sit where they were at that moment, eat what was before them and praise God from a place of humility. As they enacted this ritual meal they were aware that death and destruction was engulfing the Egyptians. 

The Torah tells us that Pharaoh let out a cry that “reached all of Egypt” when his first-born died, and his imagined future along with it. Even then, the Israelites were not allowed to feel a sense of pride or triumph over Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Rather, they were to remain where they were, acknowledging and celebrating the present. For if there were to be a future, it was in God’s hands and they will know it only when it becomes the present. Yes, they would rejoice in their freedom, but only when it was a reality. In that moment it was still only a potential.

When the final plague ends, the moment will then arrive when the future can become the present. At that moment God will make them aware that it is time to move from their place. Yet, before that happens, God commands them that from now on their first-born, symbolizing the potential of the future, will always be consecrated to the Divine. For the future is in God’s hands – however one chooses to understand that term.

For me this symbolizes the reality that we cannot control the future. In fact, we cannot control anything, any more than could Pharaoh or the Egyptians. We can only pay attention and feel within our souls what is happening in the moment, whether we experience it as joyous, pleasant, painful, or difficult. We must simply sit wherever we are, being present in the moment, and recognize the chaos that is ensuing all around us, as well as the uncertainty within us, as the Israelites did during the final plague. Or we can feel the joy and rapture of freedom as they did when they finally leave Egypt (at least until fear sets in again at the shores of the Sea of Reeds).

If we do not do this, then we instead choose to follow the path of Pharaoh, always believing that we are in control, that we control what the future brings and that our world is in our command. Then, when everything changes, as it inevitably will, we will be unable to feel the darkness of that moment or to sit there in the midst of the chaos. Rather, we will only be able to let out a scream that will reach all the corners within ourselves, as everything that we thought we had created and controlled dies around us, and we die along with it.

Yet even this has can provide us with an opportunity for change. For in the moment when we feel all that we can do is scream and sink to our knees, we are once again provided with an opportunity. We can accept the impermanence and uncertainty of life or we can once again begin to build our illusions of permanence and a false sense of control over the future. Each moment provides us with this choice. Each moment provides us with an opportunity. For each moment is all we have. Now we simply need to decide what we are to do.

Shabbat Shalom

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