The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM -

“It will be that your son will say to you, ‘What is this?’” Ex­o­dus 13:14

Parashat Bo is one of the sem­i­nal To­rah por­tions. In it, the Jewish peo­ple are fi­nally free to leave Egypt, the land which has sub­ju­gated them for 210 years. They openly defy their op­pres­sors by bring­ing a sac­ri­fice of a lamb (one of the gods of the Egyp­tians) and eat­ing it, show­ing that they no longer bow to the whims of their masters.

There is also a phrase in this To­rah por­tion, which is used by the Sim­ple Son on Pe­sach. He asks, “What is this?” – seem­ingly a ba­sic ques­tion re­lat­ing to the pageantry in­volved in the Seder.

A more care­ful look at the con­text of these verses show he is ask­ing a very dif­fer­ent ques­tion. Prior to the ques­tion, we are told about the com­mand­ment of tak­ing a first-born ass and re­deem­ing it for a sheep. The ba­sic idea of re­deem­ing the first-born an­i­mals is that just as the Jewish peo­ple are called the first­born of God and were re­deemed, so too the first­born an­i­mals are re­deemed to re­flect this close­ness. This may work for a lamb – af­ter all the Jewish peo­ple are com­pared to a lamb — but an ass is an im­pure an­i­mal, one which has no ho­li­ness at­tached to it. How can such an an­i­mal be re­deemed?

The com­men­ta­tor Sforno ex­plains that the ass is a metaphor for Pharaoh. Even the man who in­flicted such cru­elty on the Jewish peo­ple has the po­ten­tial for re­demp­tion. Even he could have re­pented, even he could have been a dif­fer­ent, bet­ter hu­man be­ing. There is no per­son who has gone too far and can­not come back.

This is the mes­sage of the Sim­ple Son in the Hag­gadah. He looks at his life, at his with­drawal from his com­mu­nity and his faith and he says, “How can I come back to this? I have strayed too far, I am too disconnected.” The an­swer to him is that there is hope for ev­ery­one; even the Pharaohs of this world have po­ten­tial to de­velop.

It is when we deny that pos­si­bil­ity of change within us that we are truly lost. This is the mes­sage of the Sim­ple Son: our hu­man­ity rests not only in what we do, but in our po­ten­tial for change, for devel­op­ment and for con­stant growth.


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