Sermon: Shabbat Bo

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 4 February 2017

Once, in and around the Shtetl of Plonsk there lived two beggars. One was called Mendl, he was a Jew, the other, was called Ivan – he was a Russian and of course he wasn’t Jewish. Both were always in need of a good meal and one year, just before Passover, Mendl told Ivan that if he went in to the synagogue in another nearby shtetl and pretended to be a Jew, he would be sure to get an invitation to a Pesach Seder meal.

About a month later, when they met once again, Mendel expected an embrace and a thank you, but instead Ivan fell upon him with blows and curses.  Finally he explained. “I did exactly what you said. I went to the synagogue, sat in the last row, did everything the others did, and played the deaf-mute. I got about a dozen invitations and went with the man who looked to be the richest. The table was set beautifully and his house was full of the aroma of cooked food. I sat down and waited to be served, but first they began chanting in Hebrew. After a while, they gave me a cup of wine and some parsley and salt water. A strange dish but edible. Meanwhile they kept on swaying and reading Hebrew. I was almost faint with hunger. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, an hour passed. I thought I would go mad. Then they gave me a flat, tasteless wafer and passed around a vegetable I had never seen before. I took a huge bite , and all of a sudden my eyes started to tear. I began to choke and my insides were burning. They must have known that I was a imposter. So I ran from the table. I’m sure you, Mendl, put them up to it”.

“Oh, my friend”, said Mendl.  “If only you’d been a little more patient. After the Karpas, matzah and maror, all the delicious food would have come.”

This story only works because Ivan is not Jewish. We have the Talmud, the work of centuries, in tens of volumes, of which many Jews know very little. We have history of over 500 years of fruitful Jewish co-existence with Muslim Arab culture in Spain which comes as a surprise to many Jews. Though please know that even in time of heightened turbulence and tension Jews and Muslims can come together as they did yesterday at a Mosque in Hornsey.  At Friday prayers in Wightman Road Mosque Reform Rabbis and members of many synagogues including ours led by Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner made a human circle around the mosque to physically represent solidarity with our Muslim cousins at this troubled time. We have prophetic books in our Bible which most of us have never read – yet I am sure that pretty much every Jew would understand what karpas, matzah and maror are – parsley, unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

When I was a student at Leo Baeck College I used teach two young boys, in separate families. When I started to teach them neither boy had ever been to a Synagogue but both had been to a Seder service and both knew more about Passover than any other aspect of their heritage.

In Calcutta, where the Jews took seriously the suspicion of censuses that is portrayed in our Haftarah and therefore could not conduct one, they used to count the number of Jews in the community by weighing the central bakery’s yearly Matzah output.  In New York levels of Jewish observance are considered to be objectively measured by the falling amounts of Matzah sold each year per head of the Jewish population. When I visited Moscow during Pesach in 1990, just after open participation in Judaism had become  possible  for most Jewish Muscovites, in every flat that we visited, my group and I were offered Matzah with pride till it was coming out of our ears!

Pesach and Seder night has the same togetherness role for Jews that Christmas has for Christians. It is the night when we really make an effort to be with the people who are special to us and where it can feel very strange not to be with them. It is often a time when the pain of bereavement or separation is most acutely felt – as the first Pesach without the loved one is celebrated.

Our Torah portion this week, Bo in the Book of Exodus is the beginning of the part of the Torah which turns from narrative – from stories of our people – to a mixture of narrative and law. The first law contained in this section of the Torah which will lasts right up until the end of the Book of Deuteronomy is Exodus 12:2ff  which says that “This month shall be for you the first month. On the fourteenth day of this month you will sacrifice a lamb, and you shall eat it with matzah and bitter herbs… it is the Passover, the Pesach of God”. Much of the remainder of the portion is concerned with how the first ever Pesach was observed and how it is to be commemorated as a festive observance throughout all the generations of the Jewish people.

Pesach however is much more than a festive observance – it is more than the coming together of people who care for each other to rehearse a centuries old service. Pesach is a great Jewish witness statement. On the one hand the statement of Pesach says that we should tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt as if we were there ourselves – we should feel God’s hand in history. Had God not redeemed the children of Israel we would not be here now as we are reminded in our Torah portion this week. On the other hand, Pesach says – look around you – in every generation the oppression that originally required the exodus is happening -including our generation.

Yes the exodus of the Bible was achieved by God’s hand through the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea that we will hear about in next week’s Torah portion – but despite this the Exodus was not presented as an idealistic legend. The story itself says clearly that God caused the Exodus from Egypt to happen – yet it had to happen under the cover of darkness, it had to happen in a rush – so fast that there was no chance to gather the proper provisions, other people – the mixed multitudes of the Torah took their chances with the Israelites. In other words the Israelites were real refugees. Just like the refugees of our time.  Despite God’s help they, like the people who managed to escape from Nazi Germany, or run from Rwanda to Malawi twenty years ago or who have managed to get out of war torn Syria today had to take their chances and go as soon as the possibility was there. Not a year has passed I’m sure since the first Pesach when some Jew has not had to flee from oppression and not a year has passed when other peoples have shared that awful experience.

But this real and, in some ways, desperate experience was the formative experience of the Jewish people.  Almost every aspect of Judaism reflects back in some way on the experience of the Exodus – we are commanded to celebrate the Sabbath and to give all people a day of rest because we were once slaves in Egypt. Our services on every day of the year are replete with references to the Exodus, our Kiddush  is zecher l’tziat mitzraim – to remember the Exodus form Egypt, our Succahs are partly to remind us of the booths used in the wilderness.  Our Mezuzot on our houses partly symbolise the daubing of the doorposts required to avoid the tenth plague just before the exodus commenced recorded in our portion this week..

Hyam Macoby, the British scholar who was based at the Leo Baeck College and then Leeds University, takes this even further – he writes that the Exodus is the basis for all of our Jewish theology. He sees the way that creation is presented in the Torah as serving the establishment of the Exodus myth (the myth that makes the Jewish religion special). The relationship between man and God in creation is not one which requires total submission by man to God, unlike the creation myths of other peoples of the near Eastern region, but one which can give rise to Covenant – a continuing relationship between God and humankind. The story of the Akedah (the cancelled sacrifice of Isaac) tells us that human life is of immense value to God and is worthy of God’s attention.

Creation and the Akedah , two central myths in Judaism, point towards the development of a religion in which humankind is of sufficient status both to be saved by God and then to enter into a covenant with God – an agreement modelled on the agreements of equals. In the covenant – formed and agreed in the wilderness at Sinai- God agrees to be with us if we will be with God, guaranteed and linked for all time to the Exodus by the formula of the first commandment – I am the Eternal your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.

What are the implications of the Exodus being the formative experience of all Judaism? It seems to me to say something about the distinctiveness of Judaism. Our foundation experience is one in which huge numbers participated. The Exodus story in our portion talks about six hundred thousand people. Together with the telling of the story of the Exodus we have the immediate command to celebrate Pesach in all our generations – a commandment which, as I said earlier, more than virtually any other commandment or requirement of Judaism, Jews have kept.  Even the Bundists of the early years of the twentieth century – who practised a secular type of Jewish socialism kept Pesach (indeed some years ago in Manchester I attended a Jewish Socialist group seder service attended by many Jews who had no other observances) .

The Exodus experience happened to all of the Jewish people of the time and every year it happens through the seder service to us. Our Bible, however makes it quite explicit what the further implications of the Exodus happening to all of us should be. It means that Jews, as a people, must do things. We conduct the Seder, recalling the Exodus, in times of prosperity when the oppression of slavery seems far away. Times like now. We also conduct the seder in times of poverty.

The Seder itself contains praise for God. But the Exodus experience takes us further than expressing praise – it makes us recognise that for people to get closer to God they need to be free. Our Prophets tell us that that is our responsibility – we are to seek justice and love mercy and to relieve the oppressed. If we are to feel that we are in the situation of the slave who has been freed, as the Exodus experience and the Seder try to achieve, then in times of prosperity we should do what we can for others who are right now having the experience of being the slave. Just as in the story of the Exodus  no one was left in Egypt to be oppressed, we are to work to stop that experience in our world.

In Judaism idealism cannot abate – because the Exodus is our formative experience and thus the relief of oppression is among our foremost duties.  It is why campaigning and working for social justice must be part of every Synagogue programme just as much as worshipping God and educating our children. It may be that our campaigns for reducing the stigma around mental health and better services for mental health, for refugees to live with dignity in this country, for the homeless to find permanent shelter are idealistic.  But that is not a critique – that’s the point. They are no more idealistic than insisting that Pharaoh should let his slave people go.

And of course to help to ensure that we never forget that the relief of oppression is a real Jewish duty – in a time when the word duty is unfamiliar – each year we -and more Jews than for almost any other observance – have the seder service.  Let our seder service this year – when it comes around in April be more than a celebration – let it be a call to action.