We have returned once more to Parshat Bo, and we read again about the makkot (plagues) brought upon Egypt through the voice of Moses and the staff of Aaron. It would be trite to use the symbolism of the makkot once again as we are in the midst of the now too commonly used phrase “historic pandemic surge.” Moments like these remind me of words written long ago by the famous and influential American theologian and preacher Reinhold Niebuhr.
Neibuhr wrote often about preaching and sermonizing, contemplating the needs of the community who would be listening, and what “newness” and “topical” thoughts he could bring to ancient and divine words. Early in his career, Neibuhr found himself with a problem not unique to him, but rather quite common to clergy before him, clergy during his time, and to clergy today — and I am certainly no exception! Of this particular problem regarding preaching the sacred word, Neibuhr wrote: “Now that I have preached about a dozen sermons, I find I am repeating myself … The few ideas that I had worked into sermons at the seminary have all been used, and now what?”
It is this particular problematic position that I, too, find regarding this moment in our lives — how to share something new regarding Bo. Bo is a section of Torah that has been preached many thousands of times and nearly every conceivable facet regarding “plague” has been mined over and over until the well is all but dry. And yet, therein lies the truth and teaching for this moment — to do as Ben Bag-Bag taught: Turn it over and over again, and you will find something new.
For this moment, I offer this teaching to inspire us and carry us through this difficult time: “today, you are going out …” (Ex. 13:4). “Today, you are going out” gives us a twofold lesson to help face today and to have hope for tomorrow.
As our ancestors faced the difficulties, the trials and tribulations of living in a painful present, so too are we living in such a moment. I don’t know anyone who has been spared from the challenges of what COVID, let alone this newest surge, has brought into our lives. But like our ancestors, I believe with a perfect faith that we have the strength of spirit to rise to the challenge and to do so together. And in the rising, we are then reminded of the second blessing of “today, you are going out” — exodus from the trial.
There will indeed be a moment for us to finally emerge from this painful present and go forth, just as that generation did that left Egypt full of bounty, full of hope, full of faith in a better tomorrow. Though we do not have the sacred promise from a prophet telling us the exact date and time of our exodus (wouldn’t that be nice!), we do know this will not last forever. There will indeed come the time that we will come out, leaving behind our “Egypt” and turn, faces shining full of hope, toward that promised land.
Though it is hard and trying not to know with such specificity as our ancestors did, it is in this moment that we can build upon their foundations of faith and be stronger; though we lack prophet and priest, we have faith and community. Together, we can prepare for that triumphant day. Together, we can lift up one another in this painful moment. And together, we will cross over to a land of promise.
Kulanu kadimah, forward together into 2022 and toward a year of hope and healing. PJC
Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt is rabbi at Temple Ohav Shalom. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.