Parshat Bo Exodus 10:1-13:16
While there is great truth to the phrase “seeing is believing,” we know that it is not a complete truth. For while it frequently takes witnessing something with one’s own eyes to integrate it into our psyche and believe in its authenticity, the belief doesn’t always kick in immediately. We see things and don’t believe them.
On the one hand, skepticism is a healthy and necessary tool in life. On the other hand, however, we too often see things that are truth and our brains refuse to accept what our eyes are witnessing.
That’s what is happening in this part of the Torah. Pharaoh witnesses the awesome and terrible plagues and their impact on himself and his people with his own eyes. Yet it takes 10, each worse than the one before it, until he is convinced of the existence and might of the God of the Israelites.
In his commentary, Noam Elimelech, an 18th century rabbi and one of the founders of the Hassidic movement, wrote that a Tzaddik, a righteous person, would need to see such wonders of the Creator only once and be impressed, ecstatic and understand. A rasha (a bad guy like Pharaoh) would need to be told over and over, by a Tzadik (in this case Moses), of God’s wonders and of God’s goodness, and even would forget once time passes.
Such is the story in a nutshell of Moses, Pharaoh, the plagues, the release of the Israelites and the attempt to recapture them. Pharoah believes for a moment and denies reality once again.
This story is familiar not just because we tell it each year as part of the Torah reading cycle and then again at Passover. It is familiar because the moral of the story represents a universal truth. Seeing is not always believing, at least not at first sight, even for good people. Along with sight we need to be convinced intellectually and experientially so that not only do we believe, but also remember that belief and lesson throughout our lives.
The parsha ends by introducing us to tefillin (phylacteries) (Exodus 13:9). We wear the leather boxes and straps on our heads and on our arms and hands. They contain words of Torah and serve as a physical reminder of our belief in God, of our beginnings as a people and of the need to remember the important things in life and to teach and act on them in each generation.
Abstract concepts such as the need for dignity, respect, acceptance and freedom cannot remain abstract if we remember and retell them on a regular basis. It is only when we live the lessons learned, when we become Noam Elimelech’s tzaddik, and not only believe but also actuate these lessons in life, that the negatives of history will not repeat.
1. Tefillin are the ultimate aide de memoire, having physical, intellectual and philosophical aspects to them. Can you think of any other items or activities that function in a similar way?
2. How does belief work in your life to shape the things that you do and are willing to go out of your way for?
This Dvar Torah was published in the Washington Jewish Week Vol. 53, No. 5 2/2/17