Torah Reading for Week of January 17 – 23, 2010
“Come to the Winter of Our Content”
by Lori Schneide
AJRCA, Fifth Year Rabbinical Student
Last month Santa Monica, CA witnessed “autumn for a block” – a line of trees awash in vivid maroons and yellows. The leaves lingered for a few weeks until, one at a time, they fell onto the sidewalk, crunching under school children’s feet. Today, these trees stand naked, a visible reminder that seasons do change, even in Los Angeles. If we look closely, we can discern the changing of seasons – a barren tree, a cold shot of wind from the north; here in Los Angeles, seasons can be subtle. But, with every winter, our Torah brings us Parshat Bo. And with the coming of Bo, I know winter has arrived.
Winter asks of us to go inward – the dormancy of the natural world redirecting our attention to our interior landscape. And like a molecule in the cold, we are forced to slow down as well. When reading this week’s Torah portion, we experience the entropy of the natural world with the fait accompli of the final plagues: locusts — the devastation of sustenance; darkness – the blindness that comes with being unable to recognize the world before oneself; and finally, the killing of the firstborn – the undoing of natural order. These three plagues mirror our interior experience of winter: we are hungry for the succulence of summer fruits, cloaked in long, dark nights, and long for the rebirth of spring. It’s as if this cycle of un-life is the biblical narrative’s mirror of the season engulfing us.
And, indeed, we have fallen through our “Biblical Looking Glass”, as even the Biblical voices seem confused. G-d commands us to “Come to Pharaoh”; Pharaoh commands us to “Go out…” and even implores that we grant him a blessing. With the gestation period of 10 plagues complete, we go into ‘un-creation labor’, as Pharaoh commands the Israelite slaves to “…Go worship Yah.” From the one who sought to destroy us, our nation is born.
But what does it mean that Pharaoh, our oppressor, commands us to not only worship G-d, but grant the source of our barrenness a blessing?
In response to the charge of our oppressor, Rashbam teaches “May you also bring a blessing upon me” meaning: our enemy is requesting that we bless only him. Rashi explains “Pray for me that I shall not die, even though I am a firstborn!” Both portray the selfish interests of Pharaoh. However, from within the barrenness of devastation and darkness, we are given the eyes to see beyond Pharaoh’s surface character flaw.
From the vulnerability of natural disasters, Pharaoh’s humanity is revealed. It is as if the stripping away of the natural world ripens a circumcision of the heart; and just as Pharaoh transforms through the undoing of creation in his midst, and commands the Israelites to go, so, too does the un-creation of New Orleans or Haiti reveal the supple and tender truth of our global community that lies within every beating of the lev – to be alive is to be just a heartbeat away from not. Perhaps Pharaoh, whose name derives from the word “to unbind or remove restraint,” is the character of winter itself, teaching us that our enemies or “anti-selves” possess dormant wisdom which draws forth our humanity, our vulnerability, our truest selves.
However, it is not easy to recognize our enemies as a life-breeding source. And so, our parasha also teaches us through subtle signs – the symbol of tefillin, or the coming of spring with the harbinger of the Pesach festival; or even the creation of Rosh Hodesh – a marking of women’s time, another reminder of creation. Winter is a time of hidden messages; but, it is only through the surrender of will to something larger than ourselves that we understand the wisdom of its stillness. Its challenges – whether literal and physical or metaphoric and psycho-spiritual – ask each of us to dwell in a deep, dark, interior space until the time of rebirth is upon us.