Parashah Bo

January 6, 2022

It is a well-known truth that our Jewish holidays are either early or late, sometimes coinciding with Labor Day or Thanksgiving, but always a striking reminder that whatever else is happening in the world, we will set aside nearly all else to attend services, prepare special meals, and share the story of the holiday with children and grandchildren, the next generation. If we celebrate these holidays – even if we only expect to be invited to someone else’s house – we also know that we require a calendar that is specific to our events and schedule. Therefore, while publishers of secular calendars might indicate “Passover” on a specific date in March or April, we need to know if that marks the night of the first seder, or is it the night before? This is essential, for it would be unfortunate to show up at a cousin’s door with your chocolate and nut-covered matzo dessert, while your host hasn’t even started on the brisket for the next day’s dinner.

Parashah Bo begins with the most dramatic of God’s plagues upon the Egyptians: the infestation of locusts that destroys the life-giving crops, the shroud of darkness that covers the land, and the precise time of the death knell for all the firstborn: at midnight of the fifteenth day of the month of Nissan. With that final, heart-rending plague, God delivers something to the Hebrew slaves beyond freedom. That is, with freedom comes responsibility, and part of that responsibility is to remember the date of the deliverance, and to share the story for all the generations to come.

This 14th day of the beginning of months will be known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  It shall be celebrated among all the Jewish generations for seven days. No leavened bread may be eaten during this time. On the first night of this Feast of Unleavened Bread, every Jew will remember and retell the story of how God brought the Hebrew slaves out of bondage in Egypt.

Here then, is a different sort of genesis, the start of our calendar, specific to a day and purpose. A free people, returning to their promised land after 210 years of exile, will carry their few possessions and a great obligation. A free people claim the right to be educated and to pass the knowledge of their history to all who come after them. Moses, addressing his unruly followers days before their long journey begins, is already looking to the future, when this day is a long time ago.

Remember also…to redeem every first-born, whether animal or child, so that your children will ask, “what does this mean?” Then you can answer to them, “It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

We cannot, and should not, separate the dates on the calendar from their meaning. This is a frequently heard complaint about our secular holidays, which have come to represent a day off from school or work, and some excellent shopping bargains; we sacrifice an elemental truth of our identity if Jewish holidays represent little more than food and gifts. While these things give us pleasure, our calendar, which affords us opportunities for reflection and education, gives us purpose.  It also gives us balance, as it provides specific opportunities to pause in our busy lives to think about those with whom we shared these holidays in years past, those who are celebrating with us throughout the world, and what is yet to come.

Women of Reform Judaism has always been mindful of the gift of the calendar, both in the literal and spiritual sense. For many years, the art calendar was our signpost to mark the new year, and gave us organization and beauty every day. Today, we can access an abundance of resources specific to the practice of women and our movement. Importantly, the gift of each day is enhanced by the work we do in advocacy, special programs, meaningful educational publications, and the collaboration of so many women dedicated to passing on our legacy to our members and the generations that will come after us.

Therefore, our holidays are never really early or late, even though apples may not quite be at their peak the first week of September, or snow remains on the ground for Passover.  Our holidays come to us with an ancient mandate, moderated over the millennia with thoughtful practice and new traditions, and therefore appear on our calendar exactly on time.

Sharon Sobel is President of WRJ Northeast District, and a long-time member of Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown, Connecticut.

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