Readings in the Death of Sons (Parashat Bo & Epiphany)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.

I like it when Torah readings parallel Christian holidays seemingly in coincidence. As different as Christianity and Judaism can be from one another, it’s moments like this which open a glimpse into the shared fabric of both. This week, Epiphany falls on the same day that we read parashat Bo prior to shabbat.

The stories of each likewise share several commonalities. In our Torah reading, the tenth plague of G-d is revealed and the firstborn sons of the Egyptians are killed. The Hebrews protect themselves from G-d’s wrath by painting the blood of a sacrificed lamb above their doorposts.

Epiphany, on the other hand, commemorates the magi visiting the infant Jesus. King Herod fears the birth of a new king, and orders the mass execution of every infant boy (a story which itself sounds familiar to the Torah portion a few weeks ago). And, at least in some regions, it is common to chalk the initials of the magi between one’s doorposts (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar –> CMB –> itself an acronym for the Latin blessing Christus mansionem benedicat, “May Christ bless this house”).

Both parashat Bo and Epiphany recall horrific slaughters, but also survival, and challenge us to take some sort of action that marks our obedience and belonging among the people of G-d.

Sometimes we want to worship a gawd who is all-loving and all-forgiving, all the time–limited really, restrained by these parameters. We want the kind of divine father figure who spoils and never punishes us, never teaches us, never pressures us, never demands sacrifice, and never expects us to grow. We want the G-d who is only ever our good feelings and sensations, never speaking in our conscience, never challenging our impulses.

I admit I mistake that idol for G-d sometimes too.

Torah doesn’t give us that gawd though. It gives us the G-d who moves upon Egypt and slaughters its firstborn. And Torah gives us a G-d who chooses His people, offers them selective aid, and punishes those who are not among them. The G-d of Torah is one who smites and condemns, yet who stays His hand, who commands and gives law, yet shows mercy and extends grace in our learning.

Nine times prior to the tenth plague G-d moved across Egypt to show the Egyptians the truth of His presence, and to right where they had fallen out of alignment from their potential. Nine times prior grace and mercy were shown. Nine times prior the simplest first step was commanded–to let the Hebrews go.  G-d gave the Egyptians nine chances to obey and to begin righting themselves by releasing the people they kept as slaves, yet audaciously there are some even today who will look at the tenth plague as the defining characteristic of G-d, wrath.

That audacity is the spirit of idolatry within us, demanding everything but our own righteousness, growth, and responsibility, demanding a gawd in the image of our own desires. The Torah gives us G-d who is both merciful and severe, just and wrathful, nurturing and yet tempering.

Chesed, lovingkindness, actually is the difference between this G-d who slaughters and the men of Torah and the Christian gospels who enact genocides. The kabbalists have understood this from the timing of the tenth plague. You see, G-d waits until precisely midnight before unleashing this face of wrath. Here, in the exact middle of the night, we cross through the gateway from the light turning into dark to the dark turning into light. That transition is also the metaphysical movement from gevurah (strength) to chesed. It is the difference between showing might or revealing power, and guiding, through pain–the difficult work of true fathering–to an outcome that is necessary.

Gevurah to chesed is the difference between love that is sickening and hurtful, too sweet, too doting, and love that is truthful, deep, and meaningful, nurturing through change and challenge.

Whether we connect to the Bible as Christians or Jews, this week gives us stories of bloodshed and terror. Yet in the midst of all this supernatural wrath, we are reminded also of our ally, G-d, and of the traditions our ancestors created for us to remember how we insulate ourselves from the destructive power of our Creator. It is by the act of sacrifice and marking the doorposts at Passover, just as the doorposts are marked with chalk at Epiphany, that we commit to our faith, and set ourselves on the path of becoming more pious, closer in alignment to G-d’s will for our lives.

Action is where the Egyptians and their Pharaoh failed. Action is the manifestation of our faith, our faith in G-d who is greater than our own desires and impulses, above us, who created us, and who is liberating us still to this day from the places where oppression binds us and ignorance ensnares us.

Nine times Our Father brought knowledge into the darkness of the ensnared mind. Do you hear that in your own mind now?  How are we being challenged to grow? What are we being commanded to release?

What action will we take in response to G-d’s guidance?

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