Exodus Turning Back to the Center
Parshat Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16
In our buildings and with our bodies, we strive to turn physically toward the holy. We orient synagogue buildings toward the ancient place of the Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the ancient Temple, and turn our bodies in that direction for prayer. Approaching and leaving the bimah, from which services are led and the Torah is read, we keep our faces toward the ark and the Torah scrolls.
In the Mishnah, in the tractate called Berachot (Blessings), we learn that if we cannot turn our bodies toward Jerusalem, we should turn our faces, and if not our faces, our hearts. Our physical orientation is linked with our inner intention; to visualize ourselves turning would have us follow the same neural pathways as physically turning our bodies.
In the ancient world, this practice of turning toward the ultimate Holy would be conditioned culturally by how a person would relate to a human king. Some of our classic and most common Jewish metaphors for the Divine draw on the physical culture of human autocracy, just as those autocrats drew on Divine right as their own source of power. We approach the Divine throne with humility, bowing before God-as-King.
Even as citizens of a democracy, we experience a magnetic draw toward powerful and charismatic human beings – we face parade routes, salute military leaders, hand our babies to presidential candidates, and google celebrities (spiritual teachers among them). We learn to network, hoping our handshakes will bring us closer and closer to power. We shape what we say and how we act in order to draw that power toward us from those above us in the hierarchy. On some level, we know that these human hierarchies have nothing to do with the Divine, but our actions can confuse us.
In a simple but clarifying and deeply symbolic movement in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Bo, Moses uses his body to remind us of the ultimate weakness of a human autocrat, and to reorient all of us toward the Ultimate.
After speaking with Pharaoh about the upcoming plague of locusts, Moses does not wait for a response, but simply turns and walks out: va-yifen va-yetzei me-im par’oh—he turned and left Pharaoh’s presence (Exodus 10:6). This simple action is radical. According to the medieval commentator ibn Ezra, Moses turns his back where he usually would have exited still facing Pharaoh, and leaves without requesting permission. He rejects the expected deference for an autocrat who considers himself a deity. By putting his back to the ruler, Moses indicates that he is not afraid and demonstrates the belief that Pharaoh fundamentally cannot harm him.
One interpretation in the midrashic collection Exodus Rabbah reads Moses’ action as reinvesting responsibility with Pharaoh and his advisors for the impact of their decisions: “He saw them turning toward each other, that they believed his words, and he left so they would take advice from each other and do teshuva [turn in repentance].” Pharaoh’s advisors articulated concern for their own position: “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship YHVH their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (Exodus 10:7). Witnessing panicked, heartfelt concern, Moshe turned his back to create space for them to choose a different course.
When Moshe is summoned back, he makes it clear what he turns toward when he turns his back on the autocrat. Pharaoh asks him: mi va-mi ha-holchim, “Who are the ones who go?” (10:8) In the phrase mi va-mi, the commentator Nachmanides sees Pharaoh as asking for a “who’s who” list of the dignitaries who would join Moshe – the Israelite leaders, elders, and officers whose names are all over the Torah. In this reading, the very form of his question presumes that women, children, and all of the men whose names do not appear on the lists of leaders will remain in Egypt.
But Moses clarifies: “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe a festival of YHVH” (10:9). All of us are essential to liberation. Moses’ language explicitly includes the most marginal, the youngest and the oldest among us, our children of all genders. He does not have to say grown women, because they are a part of his “we” – anyone who is able to will be bringing all the others along. Without the entire community, there is no festival.
Pharaoh attempts to impose his narrative of who we are, and assumes he knows us better than we know ourselves, when he replies with more limited language: “No! [Only] you men go and worship YHVH, since that is what you want” (10:11). Pharoah is trying to change the self-perception and direction of a vulnerable population through his assertion. His determination of who does or should constitute the core of the community could well topple our own fragile moral clarity and leave us believing an imposed narrative. (Sometimes, Pharaoh’s narrative can come from within—most notably, in the millennia-old privileging of men over women in communal religious life.)
But embedded in this parasha are also the tools of resistance. Moses does not accept a partial victory that would mean compromising the people’s moral center. He invites us to turn our backs on tyranny, and our faces toward the Divine and toward each other: chag Adonai lanu – a festival of YHVH for all of us. Chag in its root meaning is a circle.
This festival is no frontal performance, but a moment with all of us equally present, surrounding YHVH (the name of God that embodies a consciousness of past, present, and future as one) at the center. The Divine-human partnership enacted on this festival is with all the people.
Following the pattern that Moses set for us, all of us are needed to participate in sacred communal life. Turning our backs on any attempts at autocracy, we must turn toward the circle of an inclusive holy community that keeps the essence of all being at its center.
Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman, Rab’10 is a rabbi and educator in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Ordained by the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, she has served as assistant rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation (MN) and of Congregation Kehillath Israel (MA).