Shabbat Messate Parashat Bo: The Greatest Storytellers

Posted on January 27, 2023 by Harold Levin

This Shabbat, we study Parshahat Bo from the Book of Exodus. The word ‘Bo’ is translated in English as ‘Come’ and, according to scholars, can be read as ‘come to Pharaoh’ in this Parsha.

Bo depicts the last three of the Ten Plagues which descended upon Egypt: a swarm of locusts which destroyed all the crops and greenery; a thick, palpable darkness that enveloped the land; and the death of the firstborn of all Egyptians at midnight of the 15th of the month of Nissan.

The Jews were instructed to bring a Passover offering to God, a lamb or kid was to be slaughtered, with its blood sprinkled on the doorposts of every Israelite home, so that God would pass over their homes sparing their firstborn. The roasted meat of the offering was to be eaten that night together with matzah (unleavened bread) and bitter herbs.

This act led Pharaoh to drive the children of Israel from his land. They were forced to leave so hastily that there was no time for their dough to rise and the only provisions they took along were unleavened. Before they went, they asked their Egyptian neighbors for gold, silver and garments—fulfilling the promise made to Abraham that his descendants would leave Egypt with great wealth.

The children of Israel were commanded to consecrate all firstborn, and to observe the anniversary of the Exodus each year by removing all leavening from their possession for seven days, eating matzah, and telling the story of their redemption to their children.

One of the most exciting times of the year for me is the telling of the stories during the Passover Seders. When I was young, the most exciting part of the Seders to me were the gefilte fish, matzo balls and anticipating what I might receive as a prize for finding the Afikomen! My grandfathers rambled through the Haggadah in Hebrew, with a little Yiddish mixed in, and rarely stopped to discuss the meaning of Passover. My father, when it became his turn to lead Seders, at least read the English translation but rarely left time for any discussion about the stories we listened to each year. Inspired by attending several Second Night Seders at Temple Beth-El led by Rabbi Arnie Gluck, I try to leave room for discussion and interpretation when leading Seders for my family and friends regardless of their knowledge of Judaism.

We even made this work three years ago when we held a Covid era Seder via Zoom with relatives scattered around the country with voices being heard from Florida, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The stories and discussions are never the same from year to year and I believe that story telling is one of the gifts God gave to our people. Last Shabbat morning, my friend and mentor, Ed Tolman, asked us to share the names we use to refer to God. While I believe I think of God by many names, I am possibly most grateful that God gave us the gift of carrying on stories from generation to generation.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of Blessed Memory, stated that, “The Jews have always had stories for the rest of us. And indeed, from early on, storytelling has been central to the Jewish tradition. Every culture has its stories. (The late Elie Wiesel once said, “God created man because God loves stories”). Almost certainly, the tradition goes back to the days when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers telling stories around the campfire at night. We are the storytelling animal.

But what is truly remarkable is the way in which, in this week’s parsha, on the brink of the Exodus, Moses three times tells the Israelites how they are to tell the story to their children in future generations. The Israelites had not yet left Egypt, and yet already Moses was telling them how to tell the story. That is the extraordinary fact. Why so? Why this obsession with storytelling?

The simplest answer is that we are the story we tell about ourselves. There is an intrinsic, perhaps necessary, link between narrative and identity. In the words of the thinker who did more than most to place this idea at the centre of contemporary thought, Alasdair MacIntyre, “man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal.” We come to know who we are by discovering of which story or stories we are a part.”

While majoring in Government at Franklin and Marshall College many years ago, I had a professor who assigned us articles by Dr. John Rawls to read. I never was a fan of his style as he had a habit of talking only about the present and future. More than once, I questioned how history could be ignored. Eitan Cooper of the Schechter Institutes shared similar feelings to mine on how Dr. Rawls simply took the past out of his stories.

Mr. Cooper talked about “A Theory of Justice” which Rawls authored. Rawls proposed a principle of justice as fairness where a just public policy should be designed to achieve an outcome in which the starting position of everyone is improved. Cooper pointed out that Rawls’ theory required that all parties accept at the starting point in time a veil of ignorance hiding everything that came in the past.

Think about this for a moment. If we forget or, even worse, ignore everything which happened in the past, we would be living in a disastrous situation. Rawls’ theory was a frightening look into the future of those who deny election results, who claim that the atrocities of Newtown, Connecticut never happened, and that the Holocaust never occurred.

Thankfully, God instructed Moses to pass down the story of Passover from generation to generation. Each year, we as Jews have the wonderful opportunity to pass the story down and add new chapters and commentaries while never forgetting our past. This is perhaps the most wonderful and meaningful gift God gave to us.


Harold Levin
Guest Leader