(Dvar Torah on Parashat Bo [Exodus 10:1 - 13:16] given at Temple Israel on Friday evening 1/19/18)

In our yearly Torah-reading cycle, we’re in the second of the five books of the Torah.  In Hebrew it’s called “Sefer Shemot” (“The Book of Names”) because it starts out with the declaration,  

וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ׃

These are the names (Hebrew: “shemot”) of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household. (Ex. 1:1)

However, the English titles for the books of the Torah are based on the main subject matter of the book.  In English, we call the second book of the Torah “Exodus” – and this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, is the one in which the exodus that gives the book its English title actually occurs.  As we read in Exodus 12:40-41: 

וּמוֹשַׁב֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָשְׁב֖וּ בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה׃

 וַיְהִ֗י מִקֵּץ֙ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיְהִ֗י בְּעֶ֙צֶם֙ הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה יָֽצְא֛וּ כָּל־צִבְא֥וֹת יְהוָ֖ה מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

“The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.

And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirtieth year, to the very day, all the ranks of the Eternal departed from the land of Egypt.”

And, a few verses later, at the end of the chapter, it reiterates:

וַיְהִ֕י בְּעֶ֖צֶם הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה הוֹצִ֨יא יְהוָ֜ה אֶת־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם עַל־צִבְאֹתָֽם׃

“That very day the Eternal freed the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop.“[1]

The weird thing about Exodus chapter 12, however, is that most of the rest of the chapter digresses from the narrative of the Exodus and instead talks about the laws for celebrating Passover in generations to come.

Most of us are familiar with at least some of those laws because they are embodied in the ritual of the Passover Seder, one of the most widely observed Jewish traditions, even among Jews who are not particularly religiously observant.

You may recall a well-known section of the Passover Haggadah – the description of four types of children who are present at the seder: The wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who doesn’t even know how to ask a question.  The midrash of the four children grew out of the fact that, in the Torah, it says four different times that one must tell one’s child about the story of the Exodus.  And much of the language of the Haggadah is based on the language in the Torah.

But every year when Parashat Bo comes around I always find myself wondering about one particular section in which the Torah and the Haggadah diverge.

Specifically, in Exodus 12:26 it says:

וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

“And when your children ask you, ‘What is this service to you?’”

This you may recall is the question that, in the Passover Haggadah, is asked by the so-called “rasha” or “wicked child.”  By calling this child “wicked” we already have a sense of what the writers of the Haggadah thought about that kid’s question.  In the Haggadah, we are told that when the wicked child asks that impertinent question we should respond harshly:

“What does the wicked child say? “What is this service to you?!” Saying “to you”—implying that it is not for him. By excluding himself from the community, he denies an essential principle. You should ‘blunt his teeth’ (speak harshly to him) and say to him: “It is because of this that the Eternal acted for me when I left Egypt—for me, but not for him. If he [the wicked child] had been there, he would not have been redeemed.”

But this harsh response in the Haggadah is different from the response given in the Torah.  When we read that same question

מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

"What is this service to you?"

in Parashat Bo, at Exodus 12:26, the response given in verse 27 is this:

וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיהוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנָגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל

“You shall say, ‘It is the Passover offering to the Eternal, because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when God smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’”

So, in the Torah, this child is not labeled wicked or rebellious. 

In the Torah, the parent answers with a description of the miracle of Passover that does not include any reprimand of the questioning child.

In short, the Biblical era parent seems to take the child’s question in stride, to welcome it even.

But the rabbinic era parent in the Haggadah is defensive and reactive and annoyed, and basically scolds and shames the kid.

I find myself imagining that this parent is one particular parent at different times in their life, and I wonder what that parent went through that made them so jaded that they became reactive and accusatory when they had once been open-minded and engaging.

I’m not personally a parent, so, unsurprisingly, I find myself thinking about my myself in the role of the child.  In doing so I think about my own parent -- or, more specifically -- about my own father, Arvin Steinberg, who passed away just a few weeks ago.

My earliest memories of Passover seders were of my grandfather, my father’s father, Boris Steinberg, leading the seder.  Pop-Pop, as we called him, would speed-read through the full traditional Hebrew text of the Haggadah (though we still paused to do all the ritual actions like eating the karpas (parsley) and the charoset and the matzah, and – of course – hiding and later ransoming the afikomen ...)

When Pop Pop died, or more specifically, the last Passover of his life, when he was in the hospital over Passover and we had seder without him, the next in line to lead the seder would have been my father.  But Dad asked me to lead our family seder instead.  He said it was because he didn’t have any patience for impertinent interruptions.  Actually, he wasn’t even talking about me and my siblings.  He was talking about HIS younger brother, my Uncle Joey, who passed away about four or five years ago.  And I do remember Uncle Joey being really impertinent and disrespectful during previous seders.

In any event, I’ve led many a seder since then, both with my family of origin, and for congregational seders after I became a rabbi.

And I think I’m generally a patient guy and I give it my best effort never to disrespect an impertinent kid.  (or grown-up for that matter).

But since Parashat Bo is this week’s Torah portion, I want to think a bit more about that question:

מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

“What is this service to you?”

If someone says that to me, whether about the ritual of the Passover seder, or about this Shabbat evening service that we’re at right now, my reflexive inclination is more like the Torah parent   -- sharing the message of God’s beneficent care --- than the Haggadah parent  -- who scolds the questioner as being a sneering punk.

No, I do not find myself wanting to say – Whaddya mean TO YOU?  Don’t you think of yourself as part of the Children of Israel? As part of the Jewish people?  What?  Are you so assimilated and divorced from your Jewish identity that you think it’s something just to sneer at from a distance?

No – Believe me that’s not where I’m at.  After all --- That kid at the seder table is present! He didn’t run off!  He showed up!

And, as for each of us here at this Shabbat service, we all made the effort to be here.  That counts for a lot! That deserves respect and appreciation!

It all comes down to how we understand the question.

מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

“What is this service to you?”

Maybe that child just really wants to understand who his parent is as a person deep down.  Maybe that child just really wants to be empathetic when saying “What is this service TO YOU?”.  Maybe that child really is just the opposite of stand-offish and self-centered.

I guess I am, to a certain extent, that “Rasha,” that wicked child.  But it’s not because I asked the impertinent questions.  Rather, it’s because I didn’t ask them!  I never asked my father – or at least I didn’t ask him enough --- the supposedly “wicked” question of  

מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

 “What is all this to YOU?”

I never really got to know – or at least didn’t get to know enough -- what his feelings were deep down – what his essence was really all about.

I’m not here tonight to scold myself about this --- or to scold any of you about how deep or shallow your relationships are or were with your parents or with other loved ones in your life.

I guess the piece of Torah that’s sticking in my craw on this Shabbat, less than a month after my father’s death, is not so much the explicit commandment about what the parent should answer but rather the unspoken commandment to the child to be outwardly focused enough to ask the question in the first place.

Rest in peace, Dad. I hardly knew you.  I wish I had more often been “wicked” enough to probe more deeply, asking “what is all this to you?”

And Shabbat shalom u’mevorach --- A sabbath of peace and blessing to each one of us, to all of our loved ones, both those who are here with us and those who are not here with us.

Shabbat shalom.



© Rabbi David Steinberg

(January 2018/ Shevat 5778)



[1] Exodus 12:51


Posted on January 23, 2018 .