Parshat Bo places us on the precipice of the Israelites Exodus from Egypt. Shemot (Exodus) began with the Israelites as refugees and immigrants running from famine to the abundance of Egypt. In Va’era, Joseph’s death ushers in a new regime that slowing turns the Israelites from Denizens to slaves. Parashat Bo relates the last three of the 10 plagues being: locust, darkness and the death of the first-born. The Israelites are told they can never forget the Exodus from Egypt and must re-enact the story yearly through the celebration of Passover. There are many customs related to Passover, the eating of unleavened bread or matzah, eating bitter herbs, reclining, and more. Soon Passover will be here and we will fill our cups with wine and then dip our small finger taking out drops to decrease our cups as we list off the plagues.
But why do we dip our finger in wine and take out drops for each plague? Judaism teaches us this, “To show that our cup of joy is diminished because our redemption came through the suffering of the Egyptians.” Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institutes notes the first time there is documented evidence of this principle is from German Rabbi and scholar, Rabbi Eduard Baneth. He taught, “The story of our people cannot be told without telling of the fate of the Egyptians.” Though they were our tormentors and masters over us, it seemed the original hope was they would recognize the Divine, SEE the Israelites as human, and acquiesce to their freedom. So as we enjoy our freedom at the Passover table, we are made to acknowledge and SEE the Egyptians suffering as the vehicle for our freedom.
One such suffering brought upon the Egyptians was the plague of Darkness, in Hebrew chosech afelah, a thick darkness. The Torah and Jewish tradition tell us this darkness was immobilizing. If you were standing when the darkness descended, you could not sit. Moreover, if you were sitting, you could not stand up. Midrash tells us in the darkness of the plague one could not see his brother. Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Ger (the Chiddushei HaRim) taught, “The worst darkness is when a person does not want to see his brother’s distress and does not want to help him. However, the result of this is that when a person ignores his friend’s pain, he, himself cannot move from his place.”
Meanwhile, the Israelite had light in their dwellings and were not restricted in the least. The tables were turned; the Egyptians enslaved in darkness while the Israelites were free in light. Perhaps this phenomenon led to some Egyptians leaving with the Israelites. Perhaps they saw a light could shine in the thickest darkness, and wanted to follow the people who had experienced that kind of light. Though Pharaoh kept hardening his heart, there were those who did not follow his lead and the plagues that enabled the liberation of the Israelites, brought liberation to some Egyptians as well. The Israelite became wounded healers.
Professor and theologian Henri Nouwen expounded upon psychologist Carl Jung’s theory of the wounded healer in a book by the title saying: “Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not, ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we do not have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”
Next, parashat Bo commands us to be prepared to tell A STORY. To make it engaging, interactive and one that quickens the imagination of children. “It shall be that when you come to the land which God will give you as He said, and you observe this ceremony, and your children say to you, ‘What does this service mean to you?’ you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians and spared our homes.’” (Ex. 12:25-27).
The recounting of the Exodus is supposed to elicit questions from our children and we are expected to give them insight into what it means specifically to us. Stories are important in transmitting history and values to future generations. Stories told repeatedly become the threads weaving people together in a group, especially a family. These stories shape how we view those around us and ourselves.
I was raised by my grandmother, a member of the Silent Generation as well as my great grandmother who is best described as part of the Lost Generation (her birth is unknown, earliest 1881 latest 1885). People from these generations spoke very little about their lives or beliefs, but when they did, the stories were unbearably sad. The themes of racism, cruelty and limited opportunities made me thankful for their return to silence.
However, one story brought a twinkle to my grandmother’s eye. My grandmother worked for a wealthy Jewish family during the 1950’s. As she told it, her primary role was with the children. She made sure they well mannered, had kosher meals, and could play outside when their parents were away. One day, a contractor working on the family’s home was trying to schedule a visit during a time the family would be away, so he remarked that “your maid” (in reference to my grandmother) could let him in. Mrs. Adele Felner immediately replied that my grandmother was certainly not a maid, but rather a companion to their children and should never again be referred to as a maid. Jews were just beginning to blend into the fabric of American, white middle class society, and the disparagement of People of Color and Jim Crow was commonplace. Mrs. Felner could have been silent, and no one would have batted an eye. Someone who could have remained silent and gone along with the status quo defended my grandmother’s dignity as a human being.
When I heard my grandmother retell this story, I saw a twinkle in her eye and heard a rare gaiety in her voice. At age 90, sometimes her memory fails her, but she remembers Mrs. Adele Felner, can name all the children and how they would snuggle in bed with her because their mother told them she was just the same as they were . This story became her light during a very dark time. I grew to understand why when my grandmother was sick or wanted to conduct important business she insisted on going to the Jewish Hospital or to work with a Jewish professional.
In Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s current dvar on parashat Bo he says,
“The most powerful link between the generations is the tale of those who came before us – a tale that becomes ours, and that we hand on as a sacred heritage to those who will come after us. We are the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and identity begins in the story parents tell their children… provides the answer to the three fundamental questions every reflective individual must ask at some stage in their lives: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? There are many answers to these questions, but the Jewish ones are: I am a member of the people whom God rescued from slavery to freedom. I am here to build a society that honours the freedom of others, not just my own.”
We must all get to know our own stories, have the courage to share the points of darkness and of light. We never know whom we can inspire through stories of our family’s immigration, Holocaust, slavery, or of joining the Jewish people. You may be someone’s wounded healer.
As the days move quickly toward Passover, let us think of how we can imbue our Seders with stories that mean the most to us and the ones we want carried from generation to generation. Think about who may need to see our light, and even become a part of our story. I know I will never forget the light in my grandmother’s eyes, or the name Adele Felner, zichrona l’vracha, may her memory be for a blessing. And may our stories also be blessings for generations to come.