Bo by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Parsha Bo - OneShul


The First Passover


“Your lamb shall be without blemish….You shall watch over it until the fourteenth day of [the month of Nisan], and all the Congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take of the blood and smear it on the doorposts of their homes and upon the lintel as well….They shall eat the meat in that same night, roasted in fire; with matzos and bitter herbs shall they eat it.”

                                                                                    –Exodus 12:5-8 (translation mine)


A hard and difficult slaughter we had of it; just the worst time of the year for a feast, and such an odd feast: the explication strange and the surroundings life-threatening, the very maw of plague-stricken Egypt. It felt, at least to me, as if an existential heat were pouring down upon us.

I would have not believed that this invisible God, this vengeful Shaddai, would have commanded us to choose and slaughter a lamb, one of the foremost Egyptian gods, while living in the midst of our taskmasters. I can only surmise that the Egyptian enemy—at this stage, I would not call them “neighbors”—were so demoralized from the pounding of plague following plague, that we might havesacrificed even Pharaoh’s first-born child—ha!—and they would not have made a move on us, their base-born slaves and chattel.

And I was correct.

My name is Chushi ben Amraphelu’Matukah, of the Tribe of Issachar. I was at the time living with my Uncle Radphiel and Aunt Sechora. Uncle was a skilled mathematician, and so his Egyptian masters had decided that he and his family—which included me, the nephew—should be allowed to go on living in their little hut on the outskirts of Goshen, provided that Radphiel present himself, bright and early each dawn, at the Valley of the Kings, there to calculate the angles and height of the latest pyramid—they were all mud-brick, then. He used to take me along as his assistant, thereby saving my life, as well.

My own parents were gone—Papa had been whipped into bearing a supply-caravan of weapons and materiel, traveling through enemy territory to the Egyptian Army Garrison in Nubia. How did Papa die? I heard rumors that a Nubian troop of Special Forces had ambushed our troops in the Dry Valley of Ur-Malik, sweeping down onto our surprised soldiers like a vengeful wave. They had killed soldier, civilian, and slave alike. That same rumor-bearer, a one-eyed Hittite refugee named Chesham, had sworn that my father, following rules to the end, died screaming,

“Not me! Don’t kill me! Take me prisoner, you fools, and I will more than justify my slave’s existence! No—no….”

The Nubians had not cared.

As for Mother Dear, she had been pouring jugs of water before the huge logs that hundreds of slaves were dragging, to build a foundation for the Great Pyramid of Seti I. Her robes somehow were caught beneath a pair of logs, and she was crushed to death—Ah, what could have been done?

And so I tagged along after Uncle each morning, carrying his abacus, rules, and slides, and pretending that I, too, knew how to use them. Uncle was a cheerful sort, thanking our God with every step, and often turning to me trotting behind, and, smiling, laying yet another one of his homespun aphorisms upon me.

“Make clay bricks while the sun shines, Young Chushi, and you will lack no provender when the rains fall. Or, as my great-great-grandfather might say, ‘Be wary of the God Who dwells in heaven, for He may come thundering down into your life, suddenly and swiftly.’ And finally—ah, here are Lieutenant Kut and Captain Menephre!—‘Study your sums, and your subtractions will take care of themselves’—Good Morning, MiLord Officers of the Imperial Egyptian Army!”

The rest of the day, I would take one of the angle-rules and pretend to measure blocks and buildings, going from one construction site to another, yet remembering when Uncle’s day of architecture was done. It was not a bad life, for a slave.

…Until that strange bull-roarer, Moses ben Amram, began to afflict our Egyptian oppressors with plagues. He also ordered us, in the Name of Elokim, to make what he called “The Feast of the Passover.” Instantly, it seemed, all the womenfolk of Israel were scattered about, hunting for a particular wildgrass whose flavor was both sharp and bitter. When I grabbed young Noshek-Baal by the sleeve—she was a girl with dark eyes and curly hair who strangely attracted me—and queried,

“Why all the fuss about some strong-tasting weed?”

Noshek-Baal tossed her head at me, gave me an arch smile, and replied,

“It is nothing else but the Commandment of the Lord, as given through Moses.”

And so, we are, finally, here for this strangest feast of all: the harsh desert sun sinks into the West, while smoky fires roar all over Goshen—indeed, all over Egypt. When the meagre breeze shifts, the smoke makes my eyes tear. While we roast their principal god, the otherwise-vengeful Egyptians huddle in their homes, debilitated from the plagues, starving without their locust-eaten, hail-battered wheat.

No Israelite will give food to an Egyptian: vengeance is harsh, but it is sweet, as well.

I stand with my sandals strapped to my feet, robe belted for traveling, and wearing my keffiyeh, while my teeth tear at a half-raw chunk of roasted lamb. The bitter herb that Noshek-Baal passed to us just before still burns my mouth, even after I tossed back two cups of wine—my head feels both dizzy, and yet, strangely alert.

The moon is rising slowly in the sky. My uncle, bless him, is sitting across the fire, babbling his math-proverbs to his cronies. I had thought we were leaving Egypt tonight—good riddance, after 400 years!—but Moses has passed the word that yet one more plague must fall upon the Egyptians, and then, we will go.

But the heat is oppressive.

It is enough to drive one mad.


Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.


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