Parashat Bo and Shabbat of Love

Posted on January 19, 2024 by Harold Levin

This Shabbat, Temple Beth-El joins with the Union of Reform Judaism and the Jewish Federation of North America to celebrate a Shabbat of Love to embrace our fellow Jews, spread love, and create more Jewish-positive spaces during one of the hardest times in our history and bring a bit of extra warmth through worship and community-building. While Shabbat is always a time to come together in prayer, find time to spend with our beloved family members and friends, and to study torah, Shabbat of Love is being highlighted as a moment to share our love with those both from within and outside the Temple Beth-El community and with, especially, our counterparts in Israel.

Last Shabbat, as part of the service led by members of our Tikkun Olam Coalition, Dave Cohen mentioned hearing the moans of those in need and responding by volunteering. That theme nicely fits into the concept and mission of the Shabbat of Love. Whether it is taking on projects for advocacy, feeding those who lack the resources to feed their families, contacting our elected officials to encourage their support of Israel and to express our concern about the rise of Anti-Semitism nationally and globally, we are conducting acts of love.

This week we study Parashat Bo which includes the infliction of the final three plagues in Egypt, not exactly a portion which easily lends itself to the Shabbat of Love. I pored through several commentaries and studied the parsha with high hopes but could not find something terribly fitting to talk about. As I sat at my laptop, growing increasingly frustrated, I realized that God did show love for the Jewish people. God told Moses to explain to Pharaoh God’s desire to take the people out of Egypt for only three days to worship God, then they would return to the land of Pharaoh. It had to appear obvious that they would not be gone for a mere three days and this is probably why Pharaoh refused to give in. God loved his people and wanted them to survive, hence the additional three plagues were implemented.

Here is a commentary from the noted Talmudist Or ha-Hayyim:

“Why would the servants suddenly agree to take a chance of Egypt being destroyed after Moses had spelled out who was going to the desert? What made them keep their peace when they heard Moses’ latest demand? In order to understand this, we must first explore what Pharaoh and his servants had thought initially. Is there anyone so foolish that he would risk all the discomforts, pains and even danger of submitting to these plagues? Not only that but these people had endured that their deities were smitten, their livestock killed, their crops ruined, and even they themselves came within an inch of destruction. Ordinarily it would be considered unbelievable that there are people who are so stupid! Nonetheless, these people must have had some plausible reason to act in such a foolish fashion. Their behavior is all the more strange as God had not demanded from Pharaoh that he free the Israelites but only that he should give them a three-day vacation! It is true that I have written that Moses had never mentioned the three-day limitation to Pharaoh, that he had only spoken about celebrating in the desert not mentioning any time frame, and that the only ones who did mention three days were the people; this indicated that God had not demanded a total release of the Israelites.”

If this commentary from Or ha-Hayyim is on point, God managed to manipulate Pharoah and eventually obtain the release of the Jews from Egypt. We all know that God still loves and cares for the children of Israel.

The Prophet Isaiah shared his interpretation of God’s vision for an inclusive Jewish Community where all can express their love of one another on Shabbat:

“As for foreigners
Who attach themselves to the Eternal,
To be God’s servants–
All who keep the Sabbath and do not profane it,
And who hold fast to my covenant–
I will bring them to my sacred mount
And let them rejoice in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
Shall be welcome on my altar;
For my house shall be called
A house of prayer for all peoples.
Thus declares the Eternal God,
Who gathers the dispersed of Israel:
I will gather still more to those already gathered.”

“Foreigners,” I believe, could be interpreted today as those we do not know yet share our expressions of love with each Shabbat. On this Shabbat of Love, let’s hope that God will find a way to guide our world leaders to obtain the release of the remaining hostages and chart a course to eventually restore peace.

Ken yehi ratzon, May this be God’s will,
Harold Levin
Guest Leader