Parshat Bo: Exodus 10:1-13:16; Jeremiah 46:13-28.
This week’s parshah, Bo, contains what I believe is one of the Torah’s most important mitzvot: It is a dedication to education, to knowing our past and ensuring that our history informs our future.
Having just won their freedom from Egyptian bondage, the Israelites are instructed by Moses on the laws of Passover, which they are to observe for all time. As they prepare for their sojourn in the desert, Moses says, “And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord because He passed over the house of the Israelites …” (Exodus 12:26-27). Here, at the most climatic moment in the people’s history, standing on the edge of freedom, Moses demonstrates a most important skill for any religious leader – bringing the ritual to life and making it relevant.
More than 2,000 years later, the Passover seder is the most observed ritual in Jewish life. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 70% of American Jews attend a seder annually. Here, in the retelling of our story, every generation has the opportunity to find itself within the history of the community. We are inspired by the past as we chart out the future.
Teaching history is not simply a process of repetition. History is a critical endeavor that asks that each time we return to the same story we do so with new eyes, new questions and an openness to learning new things. That is why we encourage our children to ask questions and why in answering them we point to the text from which we seek our answers.
When we look at this week’s portion, we read v’gam erev rav alah itam (a mixed multitude went up with them.) While these five words don’t change the essence of our story of liberation, they do expand it. In the erev rav (mixed multitude) we find not only ourselves and the people who look like us, but a people inherently composed of multiplicity.
In the midst of a struggle for liberation, it can be easy to narrow our conception of who is “with us.” Each year, when we return to parshat Bo, we have the opportunity to expand it again and remember that not only are we more diverse than we may have thought, but that our story is also not ours alone.
In the midst of a year when the forces of oppression are more apparent than ever, we can all be buoyed by another five-word phrase. Not from the text of the Torah but painted on the windows of our houses and signs in our front yards -“We are in this together.”
As we move into a new year in the shadow of a rhetoric of hatred and division, let us not forget that sacred commandment to teach our children the history of our liberation – that we walked to freedom hand in hand as an erev rav, a mixed multitude. Ever knowing that just as it was in the past, so, too, will it be in the future.
Rabbi Ari Witkin is the director of leadership development at the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit.