Thoughts on Bo (5779)

(Exodus 10:1 – 13:16)

[dvar torah given at Temple Israel on Friday evening 1/11/19]

The climax of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, is the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt – yes, that same yetziat mitzrayim that we mention in the third paragraph of the Shema every morning and every night – and that we recall in the Kiddush over the wine or grape juice every Shabbat and Festival – and that we recount in the Haggadah at the Passover seder each year.   

But according to our parashah, it was not just the Israelites that left Egypt on that fateful day.  As it says at Exodus 12:38 ---   

  וְגַם-עֵרֶב רַב, עָלָה אִתָּם...

And a mixed multitude went up also with them…

(Vegam eyrev rav alah itam…)

Who was this eyrev rav?  This “mixed multitude?”

Rashi (11th century France) identifies them as “ta’arovet umot shel geyrim.” (“an ethnically mixed group of converts”).  

For most of Jewish history, the Jewish people have not sought out converts.  In part this reflects the political circumstances of living under various Christian or Muslim regimes past and present where to do so was a capital offence.  However, surely more importantly, Judaism has never held itself out to be the only acceptable religious path for humanity.  Instead, Judaism asserts that the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come.

Those who DO convert to Judaism are highly respected in our tradition.  There is even a special mention of Jews by choice in the thirteenth blessing of the weekday amidah, where we ask for God’s blessing “al gerei hatzedek”   [The Mishkan Tefillah Reform siddur translates the phrase “al gerei hatzedek” as “toward those who choose sincerely to be Jews.” ]

Further, anyone not born Jewish who chooses to convert to Judaism is supposed to be treated as equal in every way to those who are born Jewish. Jews by Choice are traditionally seen as having mystically already been present at Sinai.   Jews by Choice are  entitled (according to no less an authority than Maimonides) to use the traditional prayer formulation  “eloheinu veylohei avoteinu”/ “Our God and God of our Ancestors,”  which traces our Jewish ancestry back to the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. 

As Maimonides says in his famous “Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte,” – “no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you.”  (A Maimonides Reader, Isidore Twersky, editor, Behrman House, 1972, p. 476).

And, as this week’s parashah emphasizes soon after the mention of the mixed multitude -- “Torah achat yihyeh la’ezrach velageyr hagar betokhekhem”/ “There shall be one law for the ezrach and the ger who dwells among you.”  (Ex. 12:49).  Both those words --- “ezrach” and “ger” are multivalent. “Ger” means “stranger” but also has traditionally been understood to refer to converts to Judaism.  “Ezrach” can mean a Jew who was born Jewish –-- or, more broadly, it can mean a citizen who is a native of the country in which he or she claims citizenship. 

It’s hard not to see a parallel between the mixed multitude who wanted to join up with the Israelites in the time of the Book of Exodus and the mixed multitude of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who want to come to the United States in our own day and who seek a path towards citizenship. 

Once we get past the xenophobic tweets of those who would falsely brand them as rapists, terrorists and drug smugglers, we realize that most of those who yearn to come to our country are motivated by the same forces that brought so many of our own ancestors here: The search for a safer and better life. We can identify with them because we too are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants

We learned in Parashat Shemot a couple of Torah portions back, that Moses named his first child Gershom.  If you split up those two syllables into two separate Hebrew words you get “Ger” “Sham” --- literally “a stranger there” –

As it says in Exodus 2:22 --

וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ גֵּרְשֹׁם:  כִּי אָמַר--גֵּר הָיִיתִי, בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה

(Vayikra et shemo Gershom ki amar, gar hayiti be’eretz nochriyah.)

“and he called his name “Gershom” for he said – I was a stranger in a foreign land.”

I am reminded of the evocative title of American author Adam Haslett’s short story collection published in 2002.  The title of that book is “You are not a stranger here.”  

And that’s really our vision for our own people as well, is it not?

As a wise person said this week: “The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a thirty-foot wall.”[1]

And like the mixed multitudes of the Jewish people through the millennia – and like the mixed multitudes of this sweet land of liberty in which we currently dwell, we ask – in the words of the siddur --  Barkheinu Avinu Kulanu ke'echad b'or panekha – “Bless us, O source of being, all of us, as one, in the light of the Divine presence"    

Shabbat shalom.


© Rabbi David Steinberg

January 2019/ Shevat 5779


Posted on January 15, 2019 .