Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
When did God put Torah in the Torah? In parashat Bo. This week the word “torah” (which means ‘teaching’ and/or ‘law’) is used for the very first time in the Torah, and under the strangest of circumstances.
Parashat Bo describes one of the most intense times in Torah. It begins in the midst of the Ten Plagues God sent upon Egypt and continues through the hasty preparations for the Exodus of the Israelites (in which there was not enough time to even let our bread rise). Among the many remarkable elements of this story is the insertion, right in the middle of the preparations to leave, of a legal discourse about the future observance of Passover.
If we were in such a rush, couldn’t God have waited until after we were out of Egypt to give us these laws?
Why, then, do we find these laws here – and what do they actually say?
There are two distinct but connected legal sections here. We will look at the first paragraph (Ex. 12:43-51), which focuses on who shall observe and eat of the Passover offering. Those who are circumcised (meaning Jews) are required, and those who are not (everyone else) are not permitted. Towards the end of the paragraph, the word ‘torah’ is introduced:
“One torah shall there be for the native and for the sojourner who sojourns in your midst.” [Ex. 12:49]
On the surface, this, the very first mention of the word ‘torah’ in the Torah suggests that a foreigner living among us has the same legal status as we do. How extraordinary! My more liberal tendencies make we want to jump at this as a clear moral mandate to better support both immigrants and refugees. After all, if this is the first mention of ‘torah’ in the Torah, then this must a be a core principle of Judaism. Indeed, this idea is so important that God made sure to teach it before we left Egypt.
The only problem is that this section begins with: “This is the chukkat (statute) of the Passover offering: no foreigner shall eat of it.” [Ex. 12:43] How do we reconcile the different verses? Through definition. A sojourner is not any foreigner who dwells in our midst, but one who lives among us and chooses to do so as one of us. How did one do this in Moses’ time? Through circumcising every male in the household.
Well, that seems a little less universal.
Let’s look at both the exclusions and inclusions of the entire legal passage, and the placement of this section within the larger narrative. Who is excluded? Foreigners, foreign settlers and hired workers. Who is included? Slaves purchased by silver and sojourners – both becoming ‘native’ through circumcision. When are these laws given in the narrative? The morning after the final Plague, when the Israelites placed the blood from the original Passover sacrifices on their lintels so that the angel of death would pass-over their homes and spare the Israelite first born.
The laws stated here specifically refer to the observance of Passover. Nachum Sarna notes that there are other laws, which come later in the Torah, that allow strangers in Israel many of the same rights and privileges as the Israelites, including rest on Shabbat, protection within the cities of refuge, access to the produce of the Sabbatical year and even the ability to offer sacrifices and participate in other Jewish religious festivals.
Putting it all together we can see a few different concepts at play, each of which God wanted to make sure we understood before leaving Egypt – so that we would not bring the ways of Pharaoh with us. First, the placement of the text draws a connection, at least metaphorically, with the blood on the lintel and circumcision as the defining characteristic of who is an Israelite. Second, the story of the Exodus is the primary definitive narrative of our people and the Passover sacrifice is directly connected to the retelling of our story in the first person. Therefore, only those who are “all in” may eat of the sacrifice, for in so doing we are saying that this story is our story. Third, becoming an Israelite is open to everyone, even slaves and foreigners, but requires a certain level of commitment. Fourth, one torah, the same torah, applies to all Israelites and converts regardless of their place in society or their place of birth. We are all governed and defined by the same teaching/law. Fifth, those who wish to live with us but choose not to fully commit to becoming part of the Jewish people are welcome, and are still protected by Torah, just not defined by it.
It turns out, that ‘torah’ cannot be reduced to a simple slogan or concept. It is both “teaching” and “law” in that it mediates how we interact with each other and with God. It is committed to maintaining our particularistic integrity as Jews, and our universalistic integrity as human beings – requiring that we be true to ourselves and treat others with true respect and dignity.
Torah is not, nor has it ever been, an ‘either-or’ endeavor.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras