Parshat Bo

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אַךְ בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם
… but on the preceding day you shall clear away all leaven from your houses — Ex. 12:15

וְהָיָה לְאוֹת עַל יָדְכָה וּלְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ ה’ מִמִּצְרָיִם
And it shall be for a sign upon your hand and for ornaments between your eyes, for with a mighty hand did the L-rd take us out of Egypt — Ex. 13:16

Pride vs. Arrogance

A young businessman had just started his own firm. He’d rented a beautiful office and had it furnished with antiques. Sitting there, he saw a tradesman come into the outer office. Wishing to appear busy, he picked up the phone and started a loud “conversation” to pretend he had a big deal working. As he threw some huge figures around he signalled the tradesman to wait until he had finished the call.

Finally he hung up and asked the visitor, “Can I help you?”
 The man said, “Sure. I’ve come to install the phone lines!”

In the narrative of this week’s parsha we are warned of the dangers of arrogance, and the importance of pride.

We first read of the Passover commandment to clear the house of “leaven,” what we refer to as chametz. On Passover we spend eight days in an “unleavened” environment, replacing our normal dietary staples of bread, pasta, cereal and crackers with flat, unrisen matzah crackers. The night before Pesach we remove all traces of chametz products from our possession, and we even search the house by candlelight to ensure we have done a thorough job.

Our Sages explain the inner significance of these mitzvot and customs: The search and eradication of chametz symbolises the need to search and eradicate any arrogance we may have within. The well risen loaf of bread represents the bloated ego, which we are to remove and replace with matzah – the flat bread representing humility.

Once the arrogance is gone, we can focus on the positive aspects of pride. Moses himself embodied this idea, of being proud without being arrogant or haughty. A human being who conversed face to face with G-d, he was still described as the most humble man who ever lived.

When Pharoah finally gives up and rushes to Moses telling him to take the people and go, Moses responds, “Are we thieves that we must sneak out in middle of the night? We will leave tomorrow in broad daylight.” This sentiment is an important one for Jews today, and especially those of us living in the Diaspora. Moses was not only addressing the Pharaoh of Egypt, but also the Pharaoh who lives on in every generation, the voice that argues that we must not ruffle any feathers; You can be Jewish, but do it quietly, under the cover of dark; Keep it away from the public eye. In 18th century Germany the motto of the maskilim – the Enlightenment Movement was “Be a Jew at home but a man on the street,” as though being proudly Jewish was somehow below the level of a man on the street. Unfortunately, many of those who concentrated on being a “man on the street,” soon forgot about being a “Jew at home.”

At the end of our parsha we read about the mitzvah of Tefillin (phylacteries) Jewish men are to bind on the head and arm in daily morning prayers. This is an interesting mitzva because it must be done every weekday without fail, even when travelling. This can cause some difficulty as it must be done within a certain time-frame, and it is a very visible sign of Jewish practice … not something everyone wants to do in a busy area like an airport lounge. Two anecdotes come to mind:

The first is a story I read of a teenage boy travelling on a long haul flight from Australia to New York. Also on the flight was an elderly Jewish man who had once lived for many years in Russia, under constant threat against keeping Jewish tradition. They landed in San Francisco airport and it was time to pray the Shacharit morning service. The teenager, embarrassed to start wrapping leather boxes on his head in public asked an official for a private spot to pray. When his fellow traveller heard this he got very agitated, and told him, “In Soviet Russia I always had to hide to put on Tefillin. Here we don’t hide to daven (pray).”  So they put on their Tefillin in the airport terminal and prayed proudly together.

The second anecdote is about two young men who were traveling from Uganda to Kenya and stopped at the border to switch buses. Knowing they would not get a better time or place to pray that morning, they found a quiet spot near a kiosk and began to lay Tefillin for the Shacharit morning prayers. When they turned around a short time later they realised a huge crowd of about 200 locals had gathered respectfully to watch this strange prayer ritual!

Sometimes it is difficult to be openly and proudly observant of our faith. It can be uncomfortable to explain why we don’t eat the canteen food, or why we cannot stay late on Friday, or take a call on Shabbat. But if we are genuinely proud of our faith and our tradition, if we explain what and why we do things with pride and understanding, the response is almost always a respectful one. We do not need to look very far for inspiration — White House Chief of Staff as of January 9th 2012 is Jacob Lew, a Shabbat observant Orthodox Jew. If he can do it …

Only if we are proud, really proud, of who we are and what we represent, will that pride filter down to those around us, our children, family and friends, ensuring that our generation will not be the last in the chain of faith and observance. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and  director of  Chabad of Ireland.

 

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