Bo from a Feminist Point of View

Explore the parallels between the firstborn child opening the womb of his/her mother, and the rebirth of the Israelites as a free people

This is one of the 54-parashiot of the ICJW Bea Zucker Online Bible Study Program “The Five Books of Moses: Contemporary Issues and Classic Perspectives” written by Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman. Dr. Haberman is a Jerusalem-based theologian, educator and social entrepreneur. She initiated the Israeli prayer movement, “Women of the Wall”, a twenty-five year strong movement for women’s full participation and leadership of public religious practice. Dr. Haberman has taught at Harvard, Brandeis and Hebrew Universities. Click here to download the other Parshiot in English or Spanish.

 

The Exodus is a tremendous legacy of the Jewish People to humanity; it creates an eternal model of redemption from enslavement. Along with Creation, the Exodus is one of the two pillars of Jewish consciousness, constantly referenced in the sanctifications of Shabbat and festivals. In this respect, the Exodus is matched with Creation— revealing divine power through the medium of the natural world. However, the plagues subvert the Creation of heaven and earth, (re)turning the world to near-chaos, wreaking havoc with the sea (blood), bringing destruction from the sea, sky, and earth (frogs, lice, boils, hail), and causing some creatures to destroy sustenance and other creatures (locusts, wild beasts). The very materials that God created in Genesis give evidence of divine displeasure with the abuses of slavery.

Commenting on the first verse in the Torah that tells of the Creation of the world (Bereishit 1:1), Rashi asks whether the Torah ought not to have begun with the verse from Exodus quoted above, “This month shall be for you the beginning of the months (Ex. 12:2).

Rashi understands that this very first commandment to the Jewish People is even more significant to us than Creation itself. Exodus is a core narrative of our national origin–the birth of the Jewish People. From within the narrow confines of Egypt, laboring through the contractions of plagues, the People are propelled into the birth canal of the Red Sea, and eventually out onto the dry desert land.

The Torah instructs us to keep alive the experience of liberation from the hands of oppressors. Interspersed within the account of the events in the narrative, the Torah reflects about the future observance of what becomes the Passover festival, particularly the seder rituals. We are all obliged to continue to re-enact the story forever. “You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants” (Ex. 12:24).

The emphasis is on the children, and how to involve them in the story as the generations pass on. The text anticipates that children will ask questions, interrogate our rituals, hold us responsible to account meaningfully for our behavior.

And it will be when your child will ask you in the future saying, “What is this?” And you will say to your child, “With a strong hand God took us out of Egypt out of slavery (Exodus 13:14). When instructing the Israelites, Moses makes the connection between the commandment to redeem and sanctify the firstborn and the plague of the death of the firstborn. The following passage conjoins these two themes of our parasha, (1) The Lord spoke further to Moses, saying, (2) “Consecrate to Me every first-born; man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is Mine.”

(1)2 you shall set apart for the Lord every first issue of the womb: every male firstling that your cattle drop shall be the Lord’s. …(14) And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.(15)

When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord slew every first-born in the land of Egypt, the first-born of both man and beast. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord every first male issue of the womb, but redeem every first-born among my children.’ (Shmot 13:1-2; 12-15)

Enslavement at the hands of the Egyptians leads to the plague of death of the firstborn, which in turn leads to the commandment to sanctify every firstborn among the Israelites. If an animal, it is sacrificed; if a child, s/he is redeemed. The idea of the primacy of the firstborn is not new to the Torah in our parasha. The book of Genesis presumes the custom that the firstborn child inherits the spiritual and material wealth of the family. We learn of the custom by the behavior of the matriarchs and patriarchs who struggle against the norm, choosing instead to give the special blessing reserved for the firstborn to the child they feel worthy. The early families invert the cultural tradition by selecting to pass the covenant to the younger child rather than the older—Yitzchak over Yishmael, Yakov over Esav, Yosef over Reuven and brothers, Efraim over Menashe. The killing of the firstborn Egyptians refocuses our attention on the oldest child. The instruction to place blood on the doorposts of Israelite homes to avoid the plague indicates that the Israelites are also in mortal danger if they do not distinguish themselves. On that night, every mother, Israelite and Egyptian, stands to lose the child who opened her womb. In order to prevent the death of the child at the hands of the Destroyer, every Israelite family sacrifices a lamb, dips hyssop into the blood, and smears the posts and lintels of the door way with the blood of the animal. Each doorway becomes a symbol of the opening of the womb to life—a passageway through which death ought not to venture. This is the root of the Pesach offering, and by extension, an inspiration for the ritual mezuza, the parchment scroll that we affix to our doorposts that mark our homes as Jewish.

The commandment to sanctify the firstborn explicitly focuses on the act of opening the womb, peter rechem, prompting the sages to determine that a child born after a miscarriage or by means of caesarian section does not need to be redeemed (codified in the Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 305, 24). The redemption of the firstborn child is still practiced today in Jewish communities that guide their lives by halakha. The simple ritual– involving a symbolic payment to a priest in exchange for the infant–reminds us in every generation of the mortal loss the Egyptians suffered during the final plague, the precariousness of the survival of the Israelites, and the ultimate liberation of the Children of Israel. The symbolic birth from slavery and subsequent sanctification of the Israelite people is an antidote to the cosmic chaos indicated by the plagues.