Parashat Bo: The Invention of Ritual
At the beginning of Parashat Bo, God is preparing to bring about the worst, most impactful plague upon Egypt. Knowing that the Israelites are about to leave the land of bondage, God needs to create a sharp transition from the people they were to the people they are going to be. For 400 years, this nation has known hardship and slavery, and the time has come for a shift in identity to not only a powerful people in their own right, but God’s chosen people. To start this process, God establishes a calendar, saying “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Exodus 12:2) For a faith community that today holds marking time to be such a sacred duty, it is noteworthy that the first step toward true theological and jurisdictional autonomy is the creation of a calendar, a setting of time within the context of this moment. During the week, Jews mark the transition from the holiness of Shabbat to the mundanity of the week with Havdallah, a ritual of separation. In much the same way, God marks this time, the beginning of the Jewish cycle, dividing the time of slavery from that of freedom.
An important factor when studying our sacred text is to consider that the Torah was not created in a vacuum. While we, today, don’t have the opportunity to see the historical context into which the text was introduced, we do have a general sense of the literary techniques employed to help place certain plot points, details, and behaviors in their appropriate cultural perspective.
It is, then, of substantial note that we can look back upon the ritual described in Exodus chapter 12 and see a reflection of our own modern understandings of the Passover Seder. In verse 24, we read “You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants.” This bears out as historically accurate. We do observe the traditions set forward in this parashah as our own way of understanding the Exodus from Egypt, and our own commemoration of the moment. We, today, are well accustomed to eating the ritual meal, reciting the story, and sharing in the traditions that have been handed down from one generation to the next for over 2,000 years. There are few other cultural examples that have been preserved as well as this one over an extended period of time.
We will get to the importance of such a long-standing tradition in just a moment. But first, it is vital to acknowledge that this ritual was almost certainly not “invented” during the writing process of the text. One of the functions of Torah is to place pre-existing cultural phenomena into thoughtfully Jewish spaces. When we read the description of marking the doorpost of the family home in Exodus 12:7, for example, we read, “They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two door posts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat [the pascal offering].” The marking of the doorpost of one’s house with ceremonial adornment is almost certainly a pre-existing behavior that Torah was attempting to claim as naturally Jewish. If a practice had become common amongst the Jewish people with vague or non-existent backing in tradition, the scholarly authority would have two options: either condemn the behavior or commandeer it. Thus, our scribal tradition has rendered the marking of our doorpost as a quintessential part of the Jewish process. It is, then, entirely plausible to claim that a similar form of rite was already being practiced amongst the Israelites to acknowledge the Exodus at the time that the text was being written. This would mean that the process described within the Torah is not inventing something out of nothing, but rather codifying a pre-existing behavior. By tying together the narrative sequence of the Exodus with the practical component of memorializing it, the text gives extra longevity to the livable experience of being Jewish, bringing the story to life in a powerful, tangible way.
This is, after all, at the center of one of the oldest questions about the Jewish people. Why is it that Judaism has stuck around throughout history when so many other civilizations have risen and fallen in the same timeframe? The people of Israel have encountered the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, the Assyrians, even the Nazis, and have outlived them all. What is it about this fringe community that has had such staying power when history is littered with nations far more powerful and yet also more fleeting?
One of the most compelling answers to this is the importance of ritual that is central to the Jewish tradition, as laid out in Parashat Bo. Up to this point in the Torah narrative, the Israelites have been a tribe. A historically significant one, no doubt, but never more so than the other nations that we encountered along the way. It isn’t until this moment that God creates a link between the Chosen People and ritualized behavior that the relatively small nation takes its place at the center of the historical perspective.
Any Jew who has ever experienced a Passover Seder can personally see themselves reflected in the description of the ritual created in this section. We have individually felt what it is like to gather in the evening and retell the story of our people’s departure from slavery. We have all encountered the highly specified meal, both with the Toraitic requirements for cooked meat and matzah as well as the subsequently established practices of gefilte fish and charoset. And we have had the experience of feeling connected to both Jews and Judaism because of the actions we take that put our beliefs and ideas into liveable realities.
What has made Judaism so compelling throughout the ages is the ability to engage with it, to make it a part of one’s everyday life. There is a Jewish way to eat food, there is a Jewish way to mark time, there is a Jewish way to process emotions. Through each of these ideas, it is not only making Judaism relatable, but also life itself that is the gift of a thoughtfully engaged member of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people. Judaism has a language for everything, and that language is ritual.
Ahad Ha’am, famous Zionist and writer, famously said that “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.” His intention was that thoughtful engagement with a ritual practice connects generations of Jews with their heritage, and makes the continuation of Judaism meaningful and personal to each person who links themself to the chain. Much the same way, Parashat Bo gives us the introduction to a ritual that has echoed throughout the ages. God establishes a calendar by which we mark time in an intentionally Jewish way. We are given a ritual for honoring a moment in our history that echoes from our past to our present, with a reminder of our obligation to build toward our future. The Torah creates a language by which our identity as a people moves from that of a tribal birthright to a lived experience, and in so doing, makes Judaism relatable, accessible, and meaningful to each generation who chooses to engage in the traditions that bring it all together.