This week marks the beginning of a personal transition as I enter my final semester of rabbinical school. While exciting and full of purpose, this moment is also fraught with uncertainty and anxiety. I recognize this space of questioning and internal strife and it feels all too familiar; it is not the first time I have felt this way and I am confident it will not be the last. Change contains multiple truths; it is exhilarating just as much as it is daunting. It seems clear to me that part of the human condition is to somehow move through such moments – and find a way to do so with dignity and grace despite how challenging this may be – and, as in most cases, I am struck by the wisdom that the Torah can provide.
This week’s Torah portion, Bo, documents a familiar tale of the liminal time frame between slavery and liberation for the Israelites. In the parsha, we are pained to learn of the final plagues on the Egyptians: locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the first born. We are also taught that the Israelites leave in such a hurry that they only have time to eat unleavened bread (matzah, oh my!) and we witness the first Seder. For a time frame that is characterized as the “space between,” it is intense and full, and I find that as I relearn the tale I feel the emotional rollercoaster that the Israelites must have experienced in this short period of time. I can’t help but imagine that perhaps they too were in fear of the unknown and, while eager and ready to move from the many years of harsh enslavement, they also must have felt a sense of insecurity for what liberation might bring.
At Beit T’Shuvah, one of the themes often brought to the surface is the concept that we, as human beings, are afraid to be free. Rabbi Mark claims that if we are capable of seeing ourselves as liberated, then we are indeed capable of living a life that is entrenched in t’shuvah, goodness and possibility, but that most of us are afraid to do so. I have heard this beautiful concept shared in the halls and meetings several times; however it was not until I learned of one piece of this week’s portion that it all connected for me.
During the time between enslavement and liberation for the Israelites, God establishes the Jewish calendar: “This month will be for you the beginning of the months. It will be the first of the months of the year for you. ” (Exod. 12:2) One of the commentators, Ovadia Sforno, who lived during the Italian Renaissance, explains that what God is saying in this moment is: “from here on out the months belong to you and you may do with them as you wish. In the days of slavery, your days did not belong to you, as you had to work for others and do their will, which is why this will be the first of the months of the year for you because it is when you began your liberated existence.” Sforno eloquently articulates that marking this month as the beginning of the year is establishing the Israelites’ existence as free beings, for when they were slaves their time was not their own and now that they are free they are not only capable, but they are commanded to own their time.
For many of us it is difficult to break free from our enslavement and narratives. It is in the moments before our liberation that we feel the waves of the precarious nature of life, and fear sets in. And yet, the Torah is showing us that in this moment between slavery and freedom we may not crumble, but rather hold on to the fact that accountable action – such as reclaiming our own time – is a way for us to cling to our dignity and the very beginning of our liberation.
As I enter this semester of change, I am feeling all of these feelings, and yet I am comforted by the fact that I have the privilege to be part of a religion and tradition that honors this process. I know that I am not alone, and as I prepare to reclaim my time I am comforted to walk with our ancestors and, just as they did, begin to dream of freedom. I bless all of us who are on our journey towards personal liberation to find the courage and patience to navigate the “in between,” and may we seek the freedom each of us is capable of.
Tova Leibovic Douglas