Parsha Bo: What Have You Done To Improve The World Lately?

At the start of this parsha/Torah reading, Pharaoh’s pride has boxed him into a corner. He is too caught up in his own ego to recognize the destruction which the Ten Plagues are bringing upon Egypt, as well as the suffering of his people. All along, Moses and Aaron repeat God’s demand: Shlach et ami v’ya’avduni—not the familiar “Let My people go,” but, as it should be literally translated, “Send forth My people, that they may serve Me.”

This last term—service to God—is crucial. In the words of Victorian playwright and social activist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” Throughout the Torah portions describing the Exodus and the subsequent wanderings in the wilderness for forty years, we will witness Moses’s attempts to teach the Israelites that freedom implies, not the licentiousness to dance around a Golden Calf, but the responsibility to both learn and practice Torah, through the performance of mitzvote/commandments. The Golden Calf still entices us American Jews; only its definition has changed—it can mean a bigger house, a faster, sportier car, or the length and luxury of the vacations we take. What defines us as human beings is not the number of possessions we own, not the philosophy of, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins,” but rather how we strive to make the world a better place for our having lived in it.

Pharaoh never understood the concept of tikkun olam, literally “fixing the world.” He never thought of using his vast labor force to perhaps build homes for Egypt’s neediest citizens, or of treating the stranger-Israelites who visited his country in a fair and equitable manner. As a god-king revered by his people, an egoist made large in his own estimation, he concerned himself with building monuments to his personal greatness, ironically in the form of pyramids, places intended, not for the living, but rather sepulchers for the dead. It was therefore a bitter irony that the last plague, the one that changed his mind, was the death of his own, beloved firstborn son, whom he had been grooming to take over the kingdom upon his demise. This Torah portion concludes with the commandment to teach our children the story of the Exodus, passing it on from generation to generation, and especially how freedom comes with the responsibility to carry out God’s will. What have you done to improve the world today?

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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