Parashat Bo: The victory of the poor man’s lamb

God asked every family or group to get a lamb or sheep and to eat it during the night when the Jewish nation was slated to leave Egypt.

A LAMB bleats after separation from its mother (photo credit: ANIMALS NOW)
A LAMB bleats after separation from its mother
(photo credit: ANIMALS NOW)

We read in Bo about the last three plagues that God brought upon the Egyptian empire: locusts, which destroyed what was left in their fields; darkness, which did not allow the Egyptians to move and function; and the plague of the firstborn, which struck their firstborn children.

Now, after centuries of slavery, it was time for the Jewish nation to be liberated from the Egyptian yoke of slavery. But God wanted the Children of Israel to perform one more ceremony: to eat the Passover sacrifice. God asked every family or group to get a lamb or sheep and to eat it during the night when the Jewish nation was slated to leave Egypt.

The ceremony included different details, such as: the lamb or sheep should be eaten roasted and not cooked, and it must be eaten with matzot and bitter herbs – like a sandwich eaten at a family event. Likewise, it must be eaten quickly, while the family members are dressed and ready to leave. A significant part of this ceremony of sacrificing and eating the Passover sacrifice is part of the commandment of Passover as was customary throughout 1,500 years, and will be renewed when the Third Temple is built.

Various questions arise when we hear the first parashot of the Book of Exodus read in the synagogue: Why did the Jewish nation have to suffer through slavery before becoming a nation? And why was the exodus from Egypt celebrated by a ceremony of eating the Passover sacrifice? To answer, we have to look at the descent to Egypt and the exodus from it.

When the Torah tells us about Jacob’s family going down to Egypt, in those days when Joseph was the viceroy to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, there is mention of a sensitive matter between Jacob’s family and Pharaoh. Jacob’s family were shepherds, while “all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians” (Genesis 46:34).

Exodus from Egypt (Edward Poynter) (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Exodus from Egypt (Edward Poynter) (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Already then, the cultural gap between Abraham’s family and the Egyptian empire became apparent. The Egyptian empire, which ruled over a considerable part of civilization, viewed the actualization of power as an ideal, and high culture as the loftiest expression of man. The Egyptians invested their energies in reinventing the kitchen, in urban settlement, in construction that would last thousands of years and, of course, in conquering the world. Goat or sheep meat was considered a symbol of weakness, and herding sheep was considered the dregs of human occupations and as dealing with weak creatures. 

Contrary to this, Abraham’s family viewed gentleness, introspection and spirit as ideals. The Jewish nation never had imperialistic aspirations. For it, high culture never symbolized human growth. It was happy herding sheep and nurturing the traits of compassion and attention that accompany it. It considered connecting to spirit and trying to become better people as greater progress than conquering and building. 

The understanding of the significance of the Jewish nation as God’s nation, and Divine revelation in the world, had to grow from the negation of the opposite. God chose the greatest power of that time, the Egyptian idolatrous empire, to be the stimulus for the Jewish nation’s establishment and for Divine revelation in the world. Eating the meat of the Passover sacrifice roasted, together with matzot, in a great hurry and without proper eating etiquette, symbolized the difference between Egyptian and Divine cultures. Only then could Moses – a shepherd by occupation – liberate his nation from the yoke of the Egyptian empire. 

God returned us to our land after thousands of years of exile, and again, we had to undergo trials and tribulations. Again, God presented clear-cut culture wars: Hitler, the greatest emperor of our time, sanctified power, culture and order, and did not suffice with his conquests and military successes. He dedicated himself to a war against the persecuted Jewish minority, a nation he viewed as symbolizing a lack of culture, national weakness, and lack of proper hygiene. Again, the Jewish nation faced destruction, and again – several years later – the incredible happened: the Jewish nation returned to its land, emerging clearly victorious over Hitler. 

What is the message that God is trying to convey to the world again? What is the message that we, the Jewish nation, embody? It is the message proclaimed by the prophet Zechariah when the Jews returned to their land to build the Second Temple:

“Not by military force and not by physical strength, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).

The secret to our strength does not lie in our military power. Our strength is in our spirit, the spirit of God that is within us. Our strength is in our attempts to be better people; in our ability to listen, in our cleanliness and purity, in love and friendship.  ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.