Parashat Bo

Exodus 10:1–13:16

January 28, 2012 / 4 Shevat 5772

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies, Louis Stein Director of the Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, and director of the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue, JTS.

In the midst of the tumult of the Exodus—while the plagues are still falling like locusts upon Egypt; after the deep darkness that plunged the land back into primal chaos; as the Israelite slaves desperately and, it must be admitted, somewhat gleefully despoil their former masters just after the ominous warning has been issued of the impending death of Egypt's firstborn—the Torah pauses in its breathless narrative as if for a commercial break, a word from our Sponsor.

Exodus 12 (it's the fourth aliyah of this week's Torah portion) begins:

The LORD said to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall be the first of the months for you, the beginning of your year. Tell the entire community of Israelites and tell them to take a lamb per family; on the tenth of the month a lamb per household.

Two dozen more verses follow, setting out the commandments for our very first Passover, on the cusp of the Exodus from Egypt. Detailed rules of the meal follow: its rituals, its menu, its cooking procedure, the bizarre command to paint the doorposts with blood so that God will "pass over" and not kill Israelite firstborn, and then commandments about the future commemoration of the lamb, the leaven, the law. In the detail of the law and its assigned interpretation, Jewish history finds meaning.

In 11th-century France, Torah commentator par excellence Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac) noted, "This is where the Torah should have begun!" Rashi actually makes his comment about our passage of Exodus 12 at the very outset of his commentary to Genesis, chapter 1. For Rashi, as for so many medieval Jews, Torah is all about the law: halakhah precedes Aggadah—or as they would say it at Harvard Law School, nomos trumps narrative. For Rashi and his rabbinic cohort, the entire meaning of Creation can be seen in the covenantal relationship spelled out through the details of the law. Were it not for the rule of law, the very foundations of civilization would tremble, at risk of shattering. It makes perfect sense to the rabbinic mind that law must intercede in the chaos of revolution and the cacophony of the Exodus so that redemption may proceed.

Exodus 32:16 describes Moses, much later, coming down from Mt. Sinai bearing the tablets of the law: "The tablets were God's creation, the writing God's autograph, incised (Harut) upon the tablets." In the Middle Ages the rabbis punned on this verse, suggesting:

Read not "incised (Harut)" but, rather as though it says "freedom (Herut)." For no person is free unless they are involved in the study of the law." (Pirkei Avot 6:2)

By playfully suggesting the change of one vowel of the Hebrew, Harut to Herut, the Rabbis explain that the essence of freedom, paradoxically, lies in the rule of law. Law—not anarchy, not revolution, but law—is the guarantor of true freedom. The turmoil of the Exodus, the disorder of Egypt, the tyranny of Pharaoh, all must give way to the rule of law. The Torah teaches that the law is the guarantor of freedom, and that freedom is the guarantor of the rule of law.

How fitting that on Thursday in this very week when we read Exodus 12 in our synagogues, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer will visit The Jewish Theological Seminary. At a sold-out, overflow-crowd lecture, Justice Breyer will speak about his newest book, Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge's View. In the volume, he surveys the often tumultuous history of the courts in the United States. He asks some deceptively simple questions to fuel his discourse: Why do citizens respect the rule of law in the United States? Why does the public accept the Court's decisions as legitimate and follow them, even when those decisions are highly unpopular? What must the Court do to maintain the public's faith? How can it help make our democracy work?

Justice Breyer surveys instances when the courts have made decisions that left segments of the citizenry unsatisfied. In some cases, the public seemed to reject the very rights of the Court to determine the law. In others, governors had to call in their state's National Guard to enforce the decisions. Yet, in most other cases, the vast, overwhelming majority of the populace acquiesced in accepting the Court's decision. Is it a mere docility of our passive citizenry that makes this so? Or is it something else, something less visible to the naked eye?

Justice Breyer calls for an active, engaged democracy in which every American learns about the issues that affect their lives. He reminds us that the stakes are high, because "at the end of the day, the public's confidence is what permits the Court to ensure a Constitution that is more than words on paper." Justice Breyer concludes, in essence, that the Constitution and the courts that interpret it are our best guarantors of freedom. And freedom is the best guarantor of rule of law.

As we learn from this week's Torah reading, we are faced with stark alternatives: We can work to buttress the law and its institutions so that we may find redemption through covenant. Or we may suffer the enslavement of the chaos of Egypt, where tyranny rules without recourse to law. To reiterate that text from Pirkei Avot quoted above, "no person is free unless they are involved in the study of the law." Or as Rashi puts it, "This is where the Torah must begin!" 

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.