Parshat Bo: Rome is always burning

Rabbi Lizz Goldstein
Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (Courtesy of Rabbi Lizz Goldstein)

By Rabbi Elizabeth Goldstein

Since I first read Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s “The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus,” Parshat Bo reminds me of her phrases, “motionless tableau of leaving,” a “tableau of release.”

There are many nuggets of wisdom I have learned from the four books of hers that I have read, but few have so radically changed the way I read an entire Torah portion. It is impossible for me now to read this week’s parshah without the feeling of anxious waiting creeping up, as though I myself were at a starting line, adrenaline pumping, eager to burst forth at the sound of the whistle.

Parshat Bo tells us of the final three plagues, including the quiet night when the Angel of Death stalked all of Egypt. The parshah tells us that Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron to him that very night and told the Israelites to leave (Exodus 12:31).

Just a few lines down, we are told, “That very day Hashem led the Israelites out of Egypt” (Exodus 12:51), verbiage that is repeated throughout Exodus. Drawing from classical midrash, Zornberg suggests that while the Israelites were technically freed at night, their first act of freedom was to test out their ability to ignore Pharaoh’s command to leave at once and to instead show their allegiance to their new master — Hashem — by waiting for God to lead them out by day.

For the second year, I feel much more directly and personally the sense of waiting in the frightful dark for something new and freeing to come. Last year, I wrote a d’var Torah for Parshat Bo in the week between the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and the inauguration of President Joe Biden. It was a tense moment, in which we nervously watched events outside our doors and readied ourselves for change.

As I write this, COVID cases are soaring despite the success of our nation’s vaccination efforts. We are about to enter year three of this pandemic and still seem unable to stop this plague. I feel the same tension, of needing to move, but not quite being able to until certain other events finish unfolding. It recalls this week’s Torah portion powerfully.

When I realized I could give almost the exact same d’var Torah, I thought of a line from the play “Indecent” by Paula Vogel: “Rome is always burning.”

While powerful in its own context, I find it a darkly comforting phrase whenever wanting to put out the fires of the world starts to feel oppressive and overwhelming. I know that I mustn’t give up, but sometimes it helps to acknowledge that the world is beyond my saving alone, and while this pandemic may pass or shift to something less scary and more known, next year there will surely be a different Rome burning. As our own sages say, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Rabbi Lizz Goldstein is rabbi of Congregation Ner Shalom in Woodbridge, Va.

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