Up Close and Far Away: Parashat Bo 5782

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Whenever I talk to or run into someone I haven’t spoken to or seen in a while, and they say something like, “I love seeing pictures of your family on social media; your kids always look so happy and well-behaved. I don’t know how you and Adira do it!” I can’t help but laugh. Clearly, I think (and sometimes say), they’ve never met my kids! 

That’s the thing about social media, of course – what we choose to post and what we see of others is, to use a sports metaphor, a highlight reel, snapshots of the events of our lives we most want others to see, rather than a play-by-play, a running chronicle of each and every moment, most of which are at best uninteresting, and many of which would reveal the chaotic hot mess of our lives that we desperately want to hide from the rest of the world, lest anyone see how little we actually have it all together. 

But that’s just the truth, isn’t it? Everyone looks better from far away. Up close, it’s easier to see our flaws, our more subtle imperfections, the clutter and the chaos of our lives. In fact, like a Monet painting, when looking close up, the mess may be all we are able to see, whether of others or ourselves. Only when stepping back and beholding the whole canvass from a distance can we clearly see the full, beautiful image.

Something similar is at work in this week’s Torah portion. In Parashat Bo, we read that the Children of Israel, at long last, cast off the shackles of enslavement and leave Egypt for good. It’s a story with which many of us are quite familiar. But our familiarity with the Exodus story can sometimes lead us to miss subtle details in the text itself, including the fact that the Torah appears to tell two separate stories in Exodus Chapter 12. 

Of course, the Torah doesn’t present these stories as distinct from one another, isolating or identifying one narrative as “story one” and another as “story two.” Rather, the Torah combines these two stories into one, weaving them together so that, to the untrained eye, they read as one story. 

But when read carefully, the text seems to go back and forth between verses that describe a chaotic Exodus, and passages that depict it as practiced and purposeful. 

If we separate the verses that describe a frenzied Exodus from the verses that describe an orderly Exodus, we end up with two internally coherent Exodus stories.

In one telling, after the devastating tenth and final plague, the Egyptian people come to believe the continued presence of the Israelites in Egypt poses a clear and present danger to their own lives, and hurriedly chase them out of their country, freely giving them their possessions and valuables as if to say, “Just take anything you want and go! Whatever it takes to get you out of Egypt as quickly as possible!” In this telling, the Children of Israel are made to leave in such a rush that they don’t even have time to prepare food for their flight into the wilderness, quickly baking unleavened dough into flat cakes “since they were driven out of Egypt and could not delay” (Ex. 12:39). 

The second story is distinct. In this telling, the Israelites are prepared for the Exodus. According to chapter 12, verse 42, the Children of Israel observed the night of the tenth plague as a leil shimurim, “a night of vigil,” or preparedness. As Moses commands them, each household sacrifices a lamb, painting its blood on their lintels and doorposts to keep the plague from their homes, before roasting and eating it with unleavened bread, which they make deliberately as part of this ritual meal (12:8). Moreover, the Israelites are to eat this meal in a very particular way – “mat’neikhem hagurkhem, na’aleikhem b’ragleikhem, u’malkeikhem b’yad’khem / your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand;” in other words, they were to be fully prepared to leave Egypt as they consume the paschal meal (12:11). 

Revealingly, the two versions of the Exodus describe the Israelites in profoundly different ways. In the first, more chaotic, story, the Children of Israel are described as leaving Egypt with an erev rav (12:38). That term, erev rav, is usually rendered into English as a “mixed multitude,” following the classical rabbinic commentators, who suggest that a group of people of diverse nationalities and ethnicities decide to leave Egypt with the Israelites. 

But some contemporary experts disagree. Robert Alter translates the term as “motley throng,” or “riffraff,” suggesting that it does not refer to a mixed multitude of foreigners who join up with the Israelites but rather to the appearance of the Israelites themselves, a mass of men, women, and children who, along with their “sheep and cattle and very heavy livestock,” were frenziedly, frantically, fleeing Egypt en masse (Alter 263). 

The second story describes the Israelites quite differently. In this telling, as the Israelites prepare to leave Egypt by observing the orderly ritual of leil shimurim, the night of vigil, they are told that God will bring “et tziv’oteikhem / your battalions” out of Egypt. And, indeed, after the tenth plague, as they leave Egypt, the Israelites are referred to as “tziv’ot Adonai / the battalions of the Lord” (Alter 264). Like an organized and disciplined army marches out to battle in orderly formation, this version of the story describes the Israelites departing “al tziv’otam / in their battalions” (Alter 265), or “troop by troop” (JPS 12:51). In this radically different picture of the Exodus, organized battalions of Israelites marched out of Egypt in disciplined ranks. 

Interestingly, if you read these stories carefully, you’ll notice that the chaotic version of the Exodus story that describes the Israelites as a “motley throng” is conspicuously missing something, or more accurately, some one, that is quite present in the second story: God

God is very present in the second telling. In that story, God prescribes the orderly ritual of leil shimurim before the tenth plague. It is also God who, in chapter 12 verse 51, takes the Children of Israel out of Egypt “al tziv’otam / troop by troop.” And in this telling, it is not simply as battalions that the Israelites depart Egypt. Rather, the Israelites are identified as tziv’ot Adonai, the Lord’s battalions. 

Contrast this with the first telling, which scarcely mentions God at all. In that version of the story, human beings drive all the action. Following the tenth plague, it’s not God who takes the Israelites out of Egypt. Instead, it is Pharaoh who demands the Israelites leave, and the Egyptians who urge them out, giving them all their valuables for good measure. It’s not God who instructs the Israelites to prepare for their journey by making matzah. Instead, it is the Israelites who, seemingly on their own initiative, hurriedly prepare dough and flee before it has even had a chance to rise. And it’s not God who calls the Israelites to march forth like a general summoning his disciplined troops. Instead, it is the huddled mass of Israelites who set forth on foot from the Egyptian garrison city, Ramses, along with their flocks and herds. 

To recap, our parashah weaves together two distinct stories about the Exodus. The first, which doesn’t include God, describes a harried and hectic flight from Egypt. And the second, which does include God, depicts the Israelites purposefully preparing for the Exodus before God directs them to form ranks and file out of Egypt. 

But why does the Torah include both traditions when it could just as easily have chosen one and relegated the other to history’s dustbin? 

Perhaps the Torah is trying to convey that these aren’t two different stories at all. Perhaps, instead, the Torah is inviting us to see this as one story, but told at turns from two different vantage points, seeing the same events unfold at ground level and from a bird’s eye view, from close up and from far away, from our perspective – and from God’s. 

Up close, the Exodus was a mess, a “motley throng” of thousands of disorganized and disoriented liberated Israelites trying to figure out how to make their way out of Egypt. But that was just what it looked like on the ground. If the Israelites had been able to take a few steps back, to behold the scene, like a work of art, from a bit of a distance, it would have appeared entirely different. 

From far away, the Israelites wouldn’t have looked like a teeming horde but, rather, like a resplendent and regimented army – dignified, disciplined, and determined, ready in their ranks to march forward courageously and conquer their future confidently.

But here’s the truth – it’s the exact same collection of people, just beheld from different perspectives. By only mentioning God in the majestic narrative, our parashah implies that to God, the Israelites look like a magnificent myriad. The Israelites, on the other hand, are only able to see themselves and each other up close. And from that ground-level point of view, they appear to themselves as little more than a mixed-up multitude. Is it any wonder, then, that as the Exodus story continues to unfold, as the Israelites journey from Egypt and through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, they act more like a mixed-up multitude than a magnificent myriad? How we see ourselves always shapes how we behave, and who we become.  If only the Israelites of that generation could have seen themselves as God saw them! How different their fate might have been. 

We, however, can learn from our ancestors’ lack of vision. We can see that there is more than one way to behold ourselves and each other; not just close up, which is our default vantage point, but also far away, from God’s perspective. From far away, God sees the whole beautiful work of art that is each and every one of us, indeed that is all of us collectively, for what it truly is, for who we truly are. The question before us is: can we see ourselves and each other, as God sees us? And how would we live our lives differently and relate to one another if we saw ourselves and each other from God’s perspective?

At the same time, by fusing these two stories together, our parashah reminds us that whenever we see our own or each others’ flaws, imperfections, and failings, we are still looking at the same gorgeous canvas. It just looks different when examined up close. And moreover, we might recognize that the beautiful piece of art that we represent couldn’t look as it does without each individual imperfect brushstroke. The whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, but without the parts, the whole doesn’t exist. It is your mess that makes you you. It is our mess that makes us us. The whole may be more exquisite, but each of the parts, however unseemly they may be, are indivisible, invaluable – indeed, holy. 

Our tradition frequently refers to God as Adonai tz’va-ot, often translated as Lord of Hosts – “hosts” being a somewhat archaic synonym for armies, battalions, or legions. Though we may not realize it, in calling God by this name, we are affirming our parashah’s assertion about how God sees us. But another synonym for “host” is multitude, a heterogeneous collection of unique, imperfect, individuals. The army and the multitude are one and the same. It’s all a matter of perspective. 

It’s crucial to remember that the messiness of the multitude can also, from a different vantage point, appear as the beauty of a battalion. 

And we must also never forget that there is no beautiful battalion without the messy multitude. 

May we see ourselves and each other as the magnificent myriads we look like from afar, while never neglecting to embrace what we see in one another and ourselves up close.

Shabbat shalom.

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