Parashat Bo

Exodus 10:1–13:16

January 23, 2010 / 8 Shevat 5770

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies, JTS.

This devar Torah is about religion, politics, and war. We are a country currently fighting two foreign wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) and a war on terror at home and abroad. My intention is not to tilt Republican or Democrat; rather, the point of these words of Torah is to reflect on what it means to be Jewish under these circumstances. Or to ask in the classic rabbinic formulation: what can this week's Torah portion teach us?

Over the past couple of weeks, we've followed Moses from his infancy in a basket to his youth in Pharaoh's court, to his exile among the Midianites, to his return to Pharaoh's court—this time as a foreign diplomat. There is no ignoring the simple fact that Moses and Aaron are negotiating with a head of state, as emissaries of the King or the King of Kings (the Blessed Holy One) on behalf of a people enslaved—a workforce vital to the Egyptian economy. It doesn't matter where in this country you read the story, North or South; the freeing of the slaves should resonate as Jewish history, to be sure, but also as American history. That latter example of slavery still reverberates in our prejudices, economics theories, feelings about "states' rights," and the like.

I raise the Civil War as an example because I believe it quite natural for citizens of this country to see parallels between the history of the United States and our biblical salvation history. The interweaving of the two great narratives of religious people in this country—as citizens and as Bible readers—has powered our self-definition since the days of our founding fathers. I want to carry that tradition forward today as we observe Moses in Egypt. While Pharaoh will not know it until the end of this week's portion, Moses is actually representing the most powerful military force on earth. In his diplomatic mission, Moses quite literally carries his famous "big stick" in hand. That stick will beat down the Egyptians, whether devouring their serpents or splitting the sea (but that's next week's portion). As President Theodore Roosevelt said it, "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far." Moses spoke slowly, if not softly.

In this week's Torah reading, Moses speaks on God's behalf to deliver domestic policy legislation. Not health care or economics (we will have to wait until the portion called Mishpatim, three weeks from now, to read Jewish social welfare law), but legislation declaring a Memorial Day, immigration law, a national service act, taxation regulation, and even a national ID policy. And all of the domestic laws enacted in this week's Torah reading are directly tied to the big event of the week's reading, which is certainly related to war and foreign policy.

Let me unpack these generalizations a bit. The war is God's war on Pharaoh and the Egyptians in order to free the Jews from enslavement. We begin our Torah reading in the middle of the battle, seven plagues already having been unleashed last week. Many rabbinic midrashim liken the plagues to the tactical weapons of the Roman (or later, Christian or Muslim) armies. If we are not yet clear that this is war Moses is engaged in, next week during the Song of the Sea we will sing, "Adonai is a Warrior."

The social policies I mentioned are from this week's Torah reading: Memorial Day is, in fact, Passover. Exodus 12:14 commands, "This day shall be a memorial, you shall celebrate it as a festival to Adonai throughout your generations." As for those other domestic laws mentioned above, let's review: Immigration policy might be seen in Exodus 12:49: "There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you." National service? Read Exodus 13:1: "Consecrate to Me the firstborn of every womb among the Israelites; whether of man or of beast, they are Mine." Our rabbis teach us that before there was priesthood (kohanim) the firstborn were drafted into God's service. To this day we observe the custom of redeeming the firstborn child from that service (pidyon haben). There actually was a time in US history when one could pay to be redeemed from military service; Michael Sandel has an illuminating discussion of the ethics of the practice in his recent book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

Taxes are right there in the same passage. God not only claims service from firstborn children, God taxes the Israelites their firstborn cattle. Later, we'll see that the Israelites' crops are taxed as well: first fruits and grains for God, gleanings and leavings of the field for God's poor. Let's not forget the commandment for a Jewish ID system. No, I'm not talking about circumcision (even though it's mentioned in this week's portion at Exodus 12:43–48), primarily because that particular Jewish marking is usually not visible. But the portion commands that we Jews mark our doorposts (mezuzah) at Exodus 12:24; and wear tefillin (in the final verse of this week's Torah reading).

I freely admit that all of these rituals don't sound like domestic policy regulation to us, but they certainly did to the fledgling nation of Israel. With our American ethos of the separation of church and state (which is a very good thing); we often fail to see how our ancestors imagined politics and religion to be two complementary manifestations of national identity-as do most other nations of the world today. Which brings me back to war, foreign policy, and what the Torah may teach us.

Diplomacy (speaking softly) carries little sway without a willingness to wield the big stick. Moses has no success with Pharaoh through moral suasion. Pharaoh is disdainful of God, and of Moses and the Israelites, until the plagues start raining down upon him. Only God's big stick gives Moses the ability to bargain with Pharaoh. As in the case of Pharaoh and others after him—we cannot read this story without hearing the words of the Passover Haggadah, "in every generation they rose up against us to destroy us"—there were times in Jewish history when military might was called for to ensure the survival of the Jewish people.

But the Torah also teaches us that diplomacy must also be part of our national narrative. In Deuteronomy 20:10–12, God commands that we always first offer terms of peace. Only if peace is rejected by an overt act of war may we take up arms against our enemies. This commandment gave rise to "just war" theory, which has been pursued by governments from the time of Maimonides to our current American administration.

Soon we will gather around our televisions for that rite we call the State of the Union. It is our obligation as Americans to listen with care to what our president reports, whether we agree or disagree. This week's Torah reading teaches us also to listen as Jews.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.