By Rabbi Roderick Young
Only nine and a half weeks left to buy your matzoh for Passover. Yes, this week the first faint stirrings of Pesah are felt. And this echo of the great Passover holiday to come is always felt around this time of the year, when we read Parashat Bo. For this is the moment that Moses and his brother Aaron first describe to the Israelites how they and their descendants must observe Passover.
The ninth plague, the plague of darkness, has just covered the land. It is a terrible darkness, a darkness, the Torah says, that can be touched. But despite this display of God’s power, still Pharaoh will not let the Israelites go. So God tells Moses that there will be one final and tenth plague, the death of every first-born son in the land of Egypt. It is after the plague of darkness, and before this terrible tenth plague, that the people learn about Passover. On this day, the day upon which their long flight to freedom is just beginning, and on every succeeding anniversary of this day, Moses tells the people that they must kill a lamb, smear its blood on their doorposts and then eat its roasted meat hurriedly in remembrance of the tenth plague and their hasty exodus from Egypt. And then for seven days they are only to eat Matzoh, and they are commanded to explain all these rituals to their children, so that each year this festival will be observed as a great reminder of how God freed the Israelites from Egypt. It is perhaps a miracle even greater than the splitting of the sea, that this divine injunction has been obeyed by Jews, in times of safety and in times of persecution, for thousands of years.
No sooner had Moses finished instructing the people on how to observe Passover than the final plague arrived. The destruction swept over every house in Egypt, but it passed over the houses of the Israelites.
Now, there is something extraordinary about this sequence of events. Usually a celebration of remembrance is established after an event has happened. But here, in Parashat Bo, Moses describes the laws and customs of Passover, and what they symbolise, and tells the Israelites to hand this knowledge down the generations like a precious heirloom, before the passing over and the Exodus have even occurred! And the people agree to carry out this future celebration, while they are yet slaves.
This is a moment of faith. The Israelites put their trust in Moses, they put their trust in God, they take the greatest risk of their lives and they flee towards the Sea of Reeds, not knowing how they are to cross it, but believing that they will endure to celebrate this new thing called Passover. Maybe you or I would have said: “Hey, we may not be so comfortable here in Egypt, but at least we have houses and food – why be idiots and risk it all for a strange promise about things that might not even happen?” But they didn’t and thousands of years later, in just nine and a half weeks, we celebrate their faith.
Rabbi Roderick Young is a free-lance rabbi and writer in the UK and Italy