Parshat Bo is the warm up to Parshat Beshalach. Parshat Beshalach is the fulfillment of Parshat Bo. In Parshat Beshalach the Israelites are left at the end with instruction in the ‘technology’, tefillin, which will put the power of liberation in their own hands. In Parshat Bo it is ‘beta tested’ by Moses’ outstretched arm, the word for arm and hand being one and the same (yad). In both instances these descriptions are in the immediate context of God’s outstretched arm. The whole setup in Bo is odd from the get go. The quote for which the portion is named has God telling Moses “Bo”, come, to Pharaoh. Shouldn’t it be “Go”? A clue to God as the puppetmaster manipulating the strings from inside Pharaoh that make him act as he does. But for whose benefit is this puppet show? The last three plagues finally pry open Pharaoh’s clenched fist as he is forced to let our people go. The first two of the final three plagues, locusts and darkness, take up the first half of the narrative. Neither of these plagues forces Pharaoh’s hand. Midway through the Torah portion starts the buildup to the finale. First the institution of the calendar, the first mitzvah mentioned in the Torah, with Nissan named as the ‘head of months’, the parsing of sacred time as it is seen in the eye of God. This then allows the plan to unfold in time. The Israelites are instructed to take a “perfect male lamb” on the tenth of Nissan to keep for the next four days to be used as a very special sacrifice. It will keep The Holy One from killing His people while the Angel of Death is busy picking off the first-borns of all the Egyptian families, including Pharaoh’s.
We are told by the rabbis that the sacrifice of lambs just wasn’t done in Egypt at that time, as this represented the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon. Herodotus, a later Greek historian, confirms this, naming the deity ‘Theban Zeus’, corresponding to Amun-Ra, the syncretic representation of both the sun god and the ram-headed one. He states that “all sacrifice goats and abstain from sheep (Histories II)” in deference to this deity. Only during the brief reign of the heretic monotheistic Pharaoh, Akhenaten, were sheep sacrificed in official Egyptian ceremonies. Thus the sacrifice of lambs by the Israelite slaves on the afternoon of Nissan 14 is quite the radical act. It is also either a bit of sympathetic magic, killing the god to kill the Egyptians, or an imitation in advance of the God of Israel’s slaughter of the god of the Egyptians. Hard to swallow? Keep reading. The entire practice is enshrined in a calendar-based ritual, the observance of Passover at its appointed time, in annual imitation of the ancient miracle. Imitation, not merely commemoration. The blood of the lamb is painted using a hyssop (za’atar) branch upon the lintels and doorposts (mezuzot) of all the houses of the slaves awaiting their liberation. The dread day arrives and the liberation comes. At the tail end of Bo, the details of the commanded future observance of the miracle are spelled out in greater detail, including the text that parents are to recite to their children at the annual Feast of Passover. The entirety of chapter 13 of the Book of Exodus, the end of this Torah portion, comprise two of the four scrolls placed inside the phylactery boxes, tefillin, that are still worn in prayer today by observant Jews. The other two scrolls are the words from later in Torah that we have come to recite in prayer, reiterating the practice and acknowledging it by touching the very implements of prayer to which we are referring in the prayer! A perfect unending self-referential cyclicity.
The real kicker comes at the very end of the narrative. Twice the text tells us to tell our children, “with a mighty hand the Lord took you out of Egypt.” With a yad chazakah. And twice does the narrative repeat the ritual instructions and the connection to the miracle, both before and after the description of the work of the mighty hand. In fact it is the last thing we read in Parshat Bo, “And it shall be for a sign upon your hand and for ornaments between your eyes, for with a mighty hand did the Lord take us out of Egypt.” This and the passage in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 form the basis of the practice of wearing phylacteries as part of prayer. In fact in all of the various regional Jewish traditions the wrapping of the arm phylactery is done in a way so as to spell in Hebrew the word Shaddai, one of the many names of God. The history of this name and its interpretations is too complicated for this author to explicate, but more generally it is associated with the power of God, both to destroy and to create sufficiency. It is associated with Yesod, the sephira (divine emanation) at the root of the kabbalistic Tree of Life through which all of the higher sephirot channel the shefa (divine efflux) to its final destination in the world via the empty sephira, Malchut or Shechinah (sovereignty or presence). “So what?” you may ask. It is precisely this invocation of Shaddai, while wearing the required imitative phylacteries, that may activate, with the proper kavannah (intention), the awesome power of that name. That would certainly give a boost to the usual experience of prayer! Beshalach, which follows on the heels of Bo, will give us the first example of how a human with the right kavannah may channel the power of Shaddai.
Flash forward to the crowd of six hundred thousand some odd Israelites hovering on the brink of the Sea of Reeds with Pharaoh’s thundering horde in hot pursuit. The crowd is understandably restless, but Moses is taking orders from El Shaddai Himself, “And you raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and split it, and the children of Israel shall come in the midst of the sea on dry land.” And of course it came to pass. Immediately after this sea miracle, resulting in the total annihilation of the Egyptian army, there is another section we recite in the prayer service describing the miracle, “And Israel saw the great hand, which the Lord had used upon the Egyptians.” So it is that Moses’ hand and the hand of El Shaddai have acted in concert, as one, to work the mysterious changes in the created world. In the victorious and most ancient of Hebrew poems, the Song of the Sea, the story is recounted once again (see my previous essay on Parshat Beshalach) as an act which at once destroys the Egyptians and gives birth to the Israelite nation. The twin powers of El Shaddai. In the midst of that song, twice we sing the question “Who is like You?” Though most often this question is properly read as rhetorical, it can also be read as a genuine question. Indeed, who imitates Your actions? Moses does! It is right here that I’d like to introduce you to another Moses who explicitly reads the question that way, Moses Cordovero, 16th century rabbinic mystic in Safed. It was he above all others who wrote of imitatio Dei, the imitation of God. Some would say he took the subject a bit too far for most readers in his work Shiur Komah, “A Lesson on Measurement”, that is the measurement of the body of God, the Shechinah, Metatron or Adam Kadmon. This study has its roots in the ancient schools of mysticism of the Chariot and of the Palaces, the earliest known forms of which use images drawn from the Book of Ezekiel and from the Song of Songs.
Cordovero, known as the RAMAK, is perhaps most famous for his work, Tomer D’vorah, ‘The Palm of Deborah’, in which he describes the ways we may imitate God in everyday life, ”It is proper for man to emulate his Creator, for then he will attain the essence (b’sod) of the Supernal Form in image (tzelem) and likeness (demut).” Essence, or better, hidden power, is of the time, Supernal time, set by the calendar in Parshat Bo which determines all future events. Parshat Bo gives us the practice, the wrapping of tefillin, so that we may experience our arms/hands acting as God’s. Parshat Beshalach, which follows directly, gives us the most dramatic example of what this may look like, as the great prophet Moses lifts his arm in imitation of God so that his people Israel may live. In this way he unleashes the hidden power of creation (see essay on Parshat Beshalach) to give birth to a new nation, the Nation of Israel. And in case the lesson goes unnoticed it is repeated at the end of Beshalach. Fresh from the miraculous triumph of victory at The Sea, the people immediately lapse into complaining and doubt. The symbolic significance of the attack by Amalek that follows hard by can easily be read as a figure for destructive doubt, the force that attacks our weak spots from within. How does Moses lead the Israelites in taking up arms against the Amalekites? He has his arms literally taken up, that is held up by his lieutenants Aaron and Hur in order that the Israelites succeed. The parallelism penetrates further into the newly formed community: God’s arms, Moses’ arms, the peoples’ arms. Tefillin, therefore, serve as a reminder and as an enactment: the awesome power of creation may be right at our fingertips as we become practiced vessels for the will of the Creator.