Self-Actualization: Parashat Bo

Self Actualization: Parashat Bo

by Rabbi Rick Brody

The key to bringing about redemption is in the taking hold of it, making it our own.

When do we truly have control in our lives? A recurring word in this week’s parashah draws our attention to this question. In Exodus 12:2, the word lachem (“to you”) appears twice: “This month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.” Lachem essentially denotes the possessive form. The whole notion of “possessive” suggests independence, autonomy, sense of self, ownership, control. These are all qualities the Israelites lack; they are enslaved. They lack the freedom that possession implies. Their first possession, their first gift–with the designation of “the beginning of months,” rosh chodesh–is not a physical gift but rather something that exists in time. Why is this God’s first step towards granting freedom to the Israelites?

S’forno, a medieval commentator, paraphrases God’s instruction: “From here forward, the months shall be yours, to do with them as you wish. But, in the days of enslavement, your days weren’t your own, but were for the service of others and their desire. Therefore, ‘it is the first for you of the months of the year’–for in it, your ‘discretionary existence’ began.” S’forno is emphasizing the elements of choice, independence, and freedom. He understands that God is saying, “Your time is now your own.” Freedom begins with being able to order and define your own reality. Control of your calendar can have a profound effect on that sense of freedom. This is not just a technical change of using a new system of dates. God is offering the gift of a completely new orientation to time as something personal, intimate, free. “It’s your to do with as you wish.” You can now begin participating in the redemptive process, breaking free from the yoke of oppression. Your oppressor will no longer define you. Through your control of your sense of time, you will begin to construct your own freedom.

What comes immediately after this commandment? God shifts from speaking only to Moses and Aaron and now gives the two brothers instructions of what to actually tell the Israelites. What is the first thing the people will all hear regarding this month? “On the tenth of this month, they shall take for themselves (lahem)–each person–a lamb for his household, . . . a lamb for his house” (Ex. 12:3). When Moses and Aaron deliver these words to the Israelites, presumably they will change lahem (“for them”) into the second person plural, lachem (“for you”), reintroducing this same word that carries the message of freedom.

The Israelites will begin to learn the importance of their taking possession of something for themselves. This process begins with the ownership of time, but the first piece of information the Israelites hear as a whole is much more practical, more tangible. You will take a thing into your possession, a lamb. Why not “time?” Although God had shared this concept with Moses and Aaron, this idea is still too abstract for a slave mentality. The Israelites are like children. They’ll need some “time” to absorb those more complex ideas–they need to start with more concrete actions. Note that the lahem in verse 3 is superfluous. God doesn’t need to say, “they shall take for themselves, each person, a lamb.” The text could just as easily have read, “They shall each take a lamb.”

Why the addition? This is the first commandment being prescribed to the Israelite nation as a whole. This begins their relationship with God as a commander. This begins the end of their subjugation to human taskmasters and enslavers. They now have the opportunity to begin to act in service of God and holiness, rather than–as S’forno said–the whim of other human beings. And if we read Sforno’s interpretation closely, we can understand that God is giving the Israelites the opportunity to make this action personal. Presumably, God is allowing for them to decide even if they will do it or not.

This is the beginning of freedom, and the Israelites’ relationship with God, even though based on commandment, will also be based on the recognition of free will, of human autonomy–something that they have not experienced under Egyptian rule. Lahem (“for themselves”) highlights this idea. We can compare it to the use of the possessive in some more famous Biblical passages, most notably when God says to Abraham, “Lech l’cha–go to a place that I will show you.” The l’cha is superfluous. God can just say Lech (“Go”). But God says, “Get yourself to a place that I will show you,” or as some creative interpretations put it, “Go into yourself.” There is an experience of self-affirmation, followed by deeper self-discovery, when God frames commandments in this possessive way. The Israelites, like Abraham was, are about to begin a journey of self-actualization.

It is fitting that this Shabbat and our reading about the Israelites’ empowerment to take ownership of their freedom falls right before we observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The ideal of self-actualization was central to Dr. King’s vision of completely throwing off the shackles of oppression. May we all continue to find the ways to make freedom truly our own, to grasp it in its tangible forms, and to commit ourselves to being active players in the redemptive process–for ourselves and for others.

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