Parshat Bo

1. Shabbat Shalom

2. With a mandate from God, Moses and Aaron appear for the first time, before Pharaoh, the ruler of all Egypt, and demand that Pharaoh let the people of Israel go from their slavery. But Pharaoh throws all their hopes out the window and asks a cold and perhaps cruel question.

“Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord nor will I let Israel go.”

3. I have always held that when the Torah has someone ask a question in the text, the question is not only about moving the plot of the story along, but that question is being addressed to us. For example, the first question in the Torah is God asking humanity, “Where are you?” The story of Joseph hangs on a question asked by a stranger, “Who are you looking for?” In the story of the Exodus from Egypt, it all hangs on this one question Pharaoh asks “Who is the Lord that I should heed Him?

4. All ten plagues are God’s answer to this one question. As each plague comes, Pharaoh begins to understand that Moses is neither a rival for the throne of Egypt, nor is he a rebel seeking to overthrow the king. Pharaoh says at the end of last week’s Parsha “I stand guilty this time. The Lord is in the right and I and my people are in the wrong. Plead with the Lord that there may be an end of God’s thunder and of hail. I will let you go; you need stay no longer.” Pharaoh has given up; he now knows exactly who God is and what God is capable of doing. Pharaoh knows who the Lord is and why he needs to let Israel go. But he will once again change his mind. He may know God, but he is not yet prepared to capitulate to God. His heart will harden and there will be three more horrible plagues until the Exodus can happen.

5. There is no shortage of people today who ask the same question as Pharaoh every day. “Who is the Lord that I should listen to Him?” After all, this Lord is a very demanding God. God tells us when we can work and when we must rest. God tells us what we can eat and when we can eat it. God gives us laws to observe and sends punishments when we disobey. If we were to read our Siddur carefully, we would find a God that is very demanding, violent and seems to be in need of a lot of praise. Is it any wonder that people ask themselves about who is this God who requires my worship?

6. God seems to be jealous, demanding our full attention and not permitting any other “god” in our lives. God seems to be a punishing God. The second paragraph of the Shema tells us that communal disaster will result from the sins of just one person. The Torah teaches us that every time the people of Israel sinned, they were met with plague, war and disaster. God does not seem to forgive the Canaanites for their sins, requiring that the Canaanites and the Amalakites be entirely exterminated. For a minor infraction, Moses will be denied entrance into the promised land.

7. We too have had our moments when we have wondered about what kind of a God we worship. This loyalty to God is a great burden. It is not easy to be an observant Jew. Even the most pious person has doubts about the worship of God toward the end of Yom Kippur and a long day of fasting and prayer. What Jew, in the final dash to make our homes ready for Shabbat or to clean our homes of Hametz before Pesach, has not wondered if all of this work is worth the effort? We thank God with a blessing for just about everything imaginable. And, when we watch our friends and loved ones, who seem so innocent of any wrongdoing, suffer terribly with illness, can we say that we understand ourselves who God is that we should keep God’s commandments? It sometimes seems easier to just forget the whole thing and do whatever we want.

8. And yet, we realize that throughout history, Jews have been prepared to die in the name of our God. In every generation there have been those who have risen up against us, demanding that we forget God, defame God, reject our God or deny God. For thousands of years our people have been rock solid in our faith, facing torture, inquisition, pogroms and gas chambers rather than deny who we are and the God who is central to our lives.

9. Even the Torah admits that it is not the persecutions that will bring us to deny God, but the blessings we receive. It is when we are settled in our land, safe in our homes, when we are well fed and prosperous that we begin to think that “My own hand as gotten me all of this” and we forget God, reject God and ignore God’s commandments. Like in the Fable of Aesop, when the winds blow cold and hard, we cling to our faith and hold on tight. But when the sun shines down on us, warming us in its rays, we shed our faith as we might take off a coat, leaving ourselves and our families unprepared for whatever challenges may come next.

10. That is why it remains so important for us to consider the question of Pharaoh. Who is God that we should be listening to God’s voice? The Rabbis and Sages in every generation have given us many reasons to stay loyal to the God of Israel. Many times in our liturgy we are reminded that God was there for us when our people were enslaved in Egypt. That God rescued us from our prison there, bringing us from slavery to freedom. Each Pesach we proclaim that WE ourselves were slaves and that God rescued us.

11. Judaism teaches us that life is a blessing and that we have at least 100 reasons each day to express our gratitude to God. Not because God needs to hear our praise, but because we need the lesson in humility. If we can find 100 reasons each day to thank God, we will find that life is not about chasing success or material goods. Life is about being thankful for all the good things in life that we often overlook or forget.

12. Sometimes, we complain about all the commandments that God places on our shoulders. There are holidays to observe throughout the entire year, there is Shabbat that calls us every week and there are a host of Mitzvot that we are called to perform every day, beginning from the moment we awaken to the last Shema we recite before we go to bed. And yet, if we stop to consider what we are being called to do in God’s name: To be kind and considerate, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to care for the sick, the homeless and the mourner; God requires that we give charity to the poor, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, teach our children, care for our parents, pay attention to what we eat and take time from our busy day to pray; We are commanded to stop working one day in seven, to study Torah, be faithful to our spouse and then pray three times a day so we don’t forget what is really important in life; If we consider all of this, we realize that Mitzvot are not designed to be a yoke around our necks, but a reminder of our responsibilities to ourselves, to those we love and to the stranger and those helpless in society.

13. And there is one more freedom that we are given that we must not forget. God gives us the freedom to choose if we will follow the path that God gives us or not. When the Torah comes to its concluding words, we hear these final lessons from Moses: “Surely this Torah which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens that you should say ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it. See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. … I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commandments and holding fast to Him.”

14. The entire Torah is one long answer to the question of Pharaoh. The history of the Jewish People is one long answer to the question of Pharaoh. And we have to decide each day if our lives will be part of the eternal answer to the question, “Who is the Lord that I should heed Him?” How will you answer Pharaoh’s question? Your answer will make all the difference in your life, in this synagogue and it may make the difference in the lives of many people all over the world.

May we search our souls for the answer to this question and may God grant us the strength, wisdom and faith to be true to what we believe as we say…. Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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