In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, the Israelites are given precise directions for how to prepare and eat the Passover sacrifice. The text describes what kind of animal to bring (a yearling lamb or baby goat without blemish) and who should eat it (each family, gathered together as a household). The Torah explains how the sacrifice should be prepared (roasted over an open fire, cooked or served with unleavened bread and bitter herbs). And it gives instructions for when the Israelites should eat the sacrifice (at night, leaving nothing behind until morning). The text not only describes how the Israelites should prepare the meat of the sacrifice, but also how they were to prepare themselves:
“This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly: it is a Passover offering to the Eternal.” (Ex. 12:11)
The details regarding a sacrifice itself do not surprise us; entire chapters throughout much of the Torah are devoted to precisely this. The Torah also spends significant time discussing the clothing worn by the High Priest and the Levites, whose ornate garments (crown, tunic, breastplate) were so special they have since come to dress the Torah scroll itself. Yet the clothing of the Israelites — a mandated outfit for a particular ritual — is highly unusual in our text.
Rabbi Nahum M. Sarna explains:
“The standard dress consisted of a flowing shirtlike garment that was tightened by a sash wrapped around the waist when greater maneuverability was called for. The climactic moment of liberation is imminent, and the Israelites must be prepared for immediate departure.” (The JPS Torah Commentary [Philadelphia: JPS, 1991], p. 56)
Usually, when we think of needing to make an “immediate departure,” we think of having to flee from danger. Where I live, in the southeastern United States, we become well acquainted with this state of preparedness during hurricane season. When a storm brews in the Atlantic — strongly enough that it’s given a name — and we fall in its “cone of uncertainty” (a pregnant phrase, if ever there were one), we make the preparations necessary to enable us to flee at a moment’s notice.
However, this is not the kind of “immediate departure” for which the Israelites were to ready themselves. Nothing about their inherently dangerous existence as enslaved workers in Egypt had suddenly worsened or would worsen that night. Their concern wasn’t about running away from danger; it was about seizing a sudden opportunity to run toward redemption.
According to the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), Rava taught that when a person is brought before the heavenly tribunal for judgment at the end of life, that person will be asked a series of questions:
- Did you conduct your business with honesty and integrity?
- Did you set designated times for Torah study?
- Did you participate in the commandment to be fruitful and multiply?
- Did you engage in the pursuit of wisdom?
- Did you live in fear and awe of God?
But perhaps the most important question Rava says we will be asked when we have to account for the ways in which we lived our lives is, did you anxiously await redemption?
Consider what it would mean to live our lives with “loins girded, sandals on our feet,” prepared for redemption. What it would mean to live in such a way that we anxiously awaited redemption? In the Talmud, we read:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to Elijah: When will the Messiah come? Elijah said to him: Go ask him. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked: And where is he sitting? Elijah said to him: At the entrance of the city of Rome. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked him: And what is his identifying sign by means of which I can recognize him? Elijah answered: He sits among the poor who suffer from illnesses. And all of them untie their bandages and tie them all at once, but the Messiah unties one bandage and ties one at a time. He says: Perhaps I will be needed to serve to bring about the redemption. Therefore, I will never tie more than one bandage, so that I will not be delayed. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a)
Reform Judaism teaches that rather than waiting for a singular messiah, we all have a part to play in bringing about a messianic age. Doing so requires each of us to organize our lives such that we aren’t mired in tending only to our own needs. It requires us each to be messiah-like — ready and available to tend to the needs of others, looking for openings and opportunities to bring about a piece of our longed for redemption.
The Talmud continues:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi went to the Messiah. He said to the Messiah: Greetings to you, my rabbi and my teacher. The Messiah said to him: Greetings to you, bar Leva’i. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to him: When will the Master come? The Messiah said to him: Today. Sometime later, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi came to Elijah. Elijah said to him: What did the Messiah say to you? ... Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to Elijah: The Messiah lied to me, as he said to me: I am coming today, and he did not come. Elijah said to him that this is what he said to you: He said that he will come “today, if you will listen to his voice” (Psalms 95:7). (Sanhedrin 98a)
When will redemption come? When we live with our ears, eyes, and hearts open; anxiously awaiting its signs; and prepared to follow them.
Rabbi Stephanie M. Alexander is the senior rabbi at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, SC. She is a past-president and founding member of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, a faith-based social justice organization of 29 diverse congregations.
“This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly: it is a passover offering to the Eternal” (Ex.12:11).
Why is tonight different from all other nights? This question that is brought forward during our Passover seder is central to this week’s parashah, Bo. As Rabbi Alexander writes, the events described are certainly different from the normal descriptions and sequences of the Torah. It’s unusual for the Torah to discuss the specific dress of the Israelite community. And the description of how the Israelites are to consume this offering differs from how a meal is traditionally supposed to be enjoyed.
According to the Talmud, Rabbi Hanina taught that a meal begins when someone loosens their belt (Shabbat 9b). This is quite the opposite of what Bo presents, stating that the Israelites shall eat with “your loins girded.” The passover offering was not a normal meal. This was not a time for the Israelites to loosen their belts and enjoy the leisure of their dinner. Instead, it was a time of great urgency. The Israelites knew that their moment of redemption was imminent.
Rashi, an 11th century commentator, expands upon this point. Commenting on the phrase “you shall eat it hurriedly (b’chipazon),” Rashi explains that the expression b’chipazon denotes hurry and haste in various texts within Jewish literature. Once again, this demonstrates how this meal is different than all other meals.
We know, however, that our Passover custom is fairly different than what the Israelites experienced that evening. Instead of eating with our loins girded, we are told to dine in a way that brings extra comfort to us, in many ways representing what Rabbi Hanina discusses above. Instead of eating with the sandals on our feet and a staff in our hand, eagerly awaiting our departure, we know that our seder often will go on long into the evening!
Parashat Bo concludes with the commandment to “remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Eternal freed you from it with a mighty hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten” (Ex.13:3).
Certainly, the memory of the Israelites’ redemption is an eternal call within our Jewish tradition, and it is elevated throughout Passover as we are commanded not to eat leavened bread. But it is interesting that we are not commanded to eat hurriedly on this day as well.
In fact, the Talmud makes a point to share that the Passover offering in Egypt was eaten with haste, but the offering in later years was not (Babylonian Talmud, P’sachim 96a).
Professor Yosef Yerushalmi writes:
“In the course of a meal around the family table, ritual, liturgy, and even culinary elements are orchestrated to transmit a vital past from one generation to the next. The entire Seder is a symbolic enactment of a historical scenario… Both the language and the gesture are geared to spur, not so much a leap of memory as a fusion of past and present. Memory here is no longer recollection, which still preserves a sense of distance, but reactualization.” (Haggadah and History [Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 2005], p. 15)
So how can we bring forward the memory of eating hurriedly with our loins girded, sandals on our feet, and staff in hand? Perhaps we can do this by remembering that all to often, this scene has replayed itself, both in our collective Jewish history and for our neighbors around the world.
We know that many people around the world are in a similar state as the Israelites were in Bo, preparing to leave their homes at a moment’s notice towards their redemption. While we are not commanded to eat hurriedly during our Passover meal, let us draw upon Parashat Bo’s call to “remember this day.” Let us remember that year after year, all to often, the situation the Israelites found themselves in is carried out in communities around the world every single day.
Rabbi Alexander writes, “When will redemption come? When we live with our ears, eyes, and hearts open; anxiously awaiting its signs; and prepared to follow them.”
As we remember the Passover offering and bring forward our collective memory of redemption from Egypt, let us open our ears, eyes, and hearts to help bring those who are in need, closer to their redemption.
Bo, Exodus 10:1−13:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 448−471; Revised Edition, pp. 405–426
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 355–378
Haftarah, Jeremiah 46:13−28
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 700−702; Revised Edition, pp. 427−429