Cantor Interprets Exodus Story

a hand hovers over a Torah scroll
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By Cantor Rita Glassman

Parshat Bo

Perhaps you’ve already heard this story. Still, I imagine you’ll agree that a really good story never loses its ability to draw us in and make an impression. It’s always worth hearing again.

When the great 18th-century rabbi and mystic, the Baal Shem Tov, saw misfortune threatening the Jews of his community, it was his custom to go out to a certain part of the forest and enter into deep meditation. There he would light a fire, say a prayer and the miracle would be accomplished-the misfortune would be averted.

Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the famous Magid of Mezritch had occasion for the same reason to intercede with heaven, he went to the same place in the forest and cried out: “Master of the Universe, listen! I don’t know how to light the fire, but I am able to say the prayer.” Again, the miracle was accomplished and no harm fell on the community.

Still later, another rabbi, Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, went out into the forest and implored God saying: “I do not know how to light the fire, I don’t even know the prayer, but I know the place and this, I hope, will be sufficient.” And it was, and the miracle was accomplished. The people were saved.

Finally, it happened to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, who needed to save his community from calamity. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hand, he spoke to God saying: “Forgive me God, for I am unable to light the fire, and I do not know the prayer; I can’t even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this, I hope, will be sufficient. And it was and the miracle was accomplished.

God made man, according to the late Elie Wiesel of blessed memory, because God loves stories. Stories are a testimony to both the darkness and the light, the evil and the good inclination that resides in all humanity. Wiesel taught us that stories have the power to root us, define us, give us a sense of past and future, and even stir us to powerful moral action. Stories can divide or unite us — they can put a wedge between us, or they can inspire the deepest empathy in us.

But let’s get back to God and God’s love of stories. You have to admit that the opening chapters of the second book of the Torah, the Book of Exodus, contain one heck of a story!

After a very dramatic and emotional reunion between Joseph and his brothers in the final chapters of the Book of Genesis, the Jewish people settled in Egypt in the area called Goshen. They lived in peace and prosperity for a long while, a few centuries in fact, until a new King arose — a new Pharaoh, our Torah teaches, who did not know the great leader Joseph or his family, at least not in a real face to face, person to person, human to human way.

So the new Pharaoh made slaves out of Joseph’s descendants for his own political and personal gain and caused the Jewish people great suffering.

Even after Moses and his brother Aaron appear before the Pharaoh and handily outdo Pharaoh’s court magicians with their own big magic, even after God brings down plague after plague after plague upon the Egyptians, causing destruction and havoc throughout the land, the Pharaoh still cannot find it in his heart to answer Moses’ plea and let the children of Israel go free.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, God has just a few final plagues to bring down on Pharaoh and his people- including the most devastating plague — the killing of the first born of every Egyptian family. The Israelites will finally be let go, and in fact, the Pharaoh, who will lose his own firstborn son, will demand that Moses and his people leave instantly. His hardened heart finally cracks open, at least for the moment.

But before the children of Israel depart, there is a final instruction from God about the observance of the Passover ritual and what shall be said to the children who will ask “so tell us, what happened in that place and time — What is the story?”

What is so important here and so revealing is that God clearly wants us to not only to know the story of the exodus in all its grim and triumphant detail-we must also tell it to our children and to future generations. It seems God is teaching us that of all the stories of our people, this story of the Exodus points to our most sacred, cherished values as Jews and as human beings. It is this story that informs our understanding of right and wrong, and reminds us of our moral obligations in this world.

During the Passover seder that we celebrate each spring, we are told to imagine that we ourselves were there in the land of the Pharaohs, that we were the ones enslaved, and that God performed those miracles and wonders for us-it was we who were set free.

Every year, in our telling of the Passover story, we reject the forces of darkness, hate and destruction in our world and align with the forces of light, life and goodness. We affirm each person’s right to dignity, justice and freedom. If you ask “What does God want?” this portion of BO tells us straight out, that God wants us to always remember the story of our struggles in Egypt, and our ultimate redemption, knowing that the miracle happened, and our annihilation as a people was averted.

Indeed, God wants us to know how precious is our freedom, and how we must tell and retell the story in order to guard, protect and preserve it for ourselves, our children and all future generations.

In Parshat Bo, Chapter 12, Verse 26, we are given a clear and precise instruction –- it is important that we get it right.

“And when your children ask you,” the Torah teaches, “What do you mean by this rite? (referring to the rituals of Passover) you shall say: It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because the Lord passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when God smote the Egyptians, and saved our houses.”

And in Exodus, Chapter 13, Verse 8, after an instruction about eating unleavened bread on Passover, we read:  “You shall explain to your son on that day, it is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”

And finally, in Chapter 13, Verse 14: “And when your son asks you saying “What does all this mean? You shall say to him- “It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.”

According to the late renowned British rabbi, philosopher and theologian Sir Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory:

“Memory is encoded in the stories we tell. Without narrative, there is no memory and without memory we have no identity. The most powerful link between the generations is the tale of those who came before us-a tale that becomes ours, and that we hand on as a sacred heritage to those who will come after us.”

Sacks goes on to say, “We are the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and identity begins in the story parents tell their children.” And while one of those stories is about the Jewish people in Egypt and their enslavement there for 430 years, that was, thankfully, not the end of the story.

After the Holocaust, my parents and a few surviving relatives left behind the modern version of the enslavement of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe, and ventured out to a new life, a new land, to these United States of America, because of its promise of freedom and democracy. My three older siblings and I were the inheritors of this promise and this opportunity.

I realized perhaps more than ever this past year, that it is not enough to be the lucky recipient of the blessings and privileges of democracy. I understand now that I must add my name to it, must fight for and protect it. And yes, I must do my part to ensure that it continues.

I wonder what stories we will tell and pass on to our children and future generations about this time we are living in. I hope we remember to tell the story about how freedom and democracy was threatened in America, and how, with courage and determination and the efforts of many, many people, democracy survived and thrived.

I hope the story we tell is of a vaccine that made it into the arms of every American and every person on this planet and we came to defeat a terrible virus that took way too many lives and plagued our country for far too long.

I pray that what we tell our children and what they will tell their children, is that we finally came to own the story of slavery that occurred in this country and the racism that grew out of that human crime.

May we explain how we finally began to grieve together over what was, and address the ways we can finally heal this old wound. May we tell how we came to see that without freedom and respect there is no life, that freedom is every American’s and every human’s right, and the responsibility that goes along with that freedom is every person’s obligation.

I pray that we will teach our children the words of our Torah and also the words of our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence — that we will hold, each of us, these truths to be self-evident — that all are equal in God’s eyes and in our own eyes.

May we be able to say that, not only no nation, but no neighbor lifted up sword against any other neighbor, that every person sat under their “metaphoric” vine and fig tree, and there was no one to make them afraid.

May we tell our children that we learned how to listen to and make peace with our enemies, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to welcome and embrace the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant in our midst, and we learned how to create harmony in this magnificent land of ours.

I hope this is the story we tell — the story to which we will bear witness and the story which will ultimately transform and heal us. I believe with all my heart, and in perfect faith, that we can do this, that we can tell this story — if we come together, if we are brave and determined; in the words of our new president, “if we can open our souls to each other instead of hardening our hearts.”

I am certain this will be our story if we can see the Divine image in every human being … and if we are willing to do the work.


Rita Glassman is the cantor of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia.


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