Since Cool Shul hosts a Shabbat service only once per month, last Friday was our “New Year’s” Shabbat. Hope you enjoy my talk for that Shabbat. 🙂
Love, Rabbi Di
Our Torah portion this week is Parshat “Bo”, which means come. During Parshat Bo, where we experience the final three plagues, God tells Moses to go (bo) to Pharaoh. You may have noticed that I translated bo as go, even though I just said it means come. Rarely does a translation say “come to Pharoah,” but that is what it actually says, and many have wrestled with the fact that the word is confusing in its use. Why would God say, “Come to Pharaoh” rather than “Go”? It’s a fun puzzle to try to solve.
In my research, I found that most commentators agree that in God’s telling Moses to come, and not go, God is present with Moses during his interactions with Pharaoh, so God is really saying “come with me” to Pharoah. Another idea is that God is hovering near Pharaoh all the time, so God is asking Moses to come to where God is already present.
Of course, I have another interpretation to add, and it fits perfectly into the New Year’s theme.
Be it the secular New Year or the spiritual New Year of Rosh Hashanah, we often say to each other (when using English), “Happy new year.” During Rosh Hashanah, however, when we greet one another in Hebrew with Shanah Tovah Umetukah, we wish each other a good and sweet year. My question for you is the following: is good or sweet the same as happy?
To me, what may be good or sweet doesn’t have to come with the pressure of making us happy. Depending on what has gone on in one’s life during the prior year, a good year or a sweet year may not necessarily lead to happiness, and it certainly won’t lead to happiness all the time. Good or sweet might just be improvement or going in the right direction. And what does being “happy” even mean? It’s not the same as present or content. Being happy or not seems too black and white for me, too two-dimensional. Personally I think we all are often kind of happy and kind of not.
One of my students studying the creation story talks about the eating of the fruit in the Garden of Eden as taking away our happiness because we became aware of all of the problems and possibilities of our world when we ate it. But, he asks, “Is it better to just frolic around the garden like a bunny… unaware and simple but happy?” To face our powers and weaknesses is, in many ways, to be unhappy. So he also asks, “Would we want it any other way?” And so there we are — happy and unhappy, but maybe content that way, and perhaps that state is even the key to the meaning of life. So wishing each other a happy new year is asking us to move away from what might be a healthy state of being and setting each other up for failure.
Maybe the purpose of the inspiration for renewal at a new year, is not to become more happy, but to get a step closer to home… to being the people our natural states are asking us to be. Perhaps we can make New Year’s resolutions not to go toward something we aren’t, but to come… or “bo” back to ourselves.
Returning to Moses, we have to remember that he grew up in the Pharaoh’s court. While it’s believed that the Pharaoh of the exodus story could not possibly be the Pharaoh of Moses’ youth (and no one has figured out if there is a true Moses/Pharaoh relationship anyway), Moses’ return, at least in the story, is a march to his old home and to everything he left behind. I think that the word “come” is used because Moses isn’t just moving away from his life, but he is actually coming home to a familiar place. As frightening as it would be to be put in the position of being the reluctant hero as Moses was, imagine how frightening it would be if we were also returning to our old homes, to a place we had to run from. Moses is coming back to face a part of himself, his history, and his experiences within Egypt. He has to come to himself.
And so, with New Year’s, we can focus on those usual surface goals – like the ever present losing weight and going to the gym — but so often those kinds of resolutions fall away and dissolve partly because the hope is to become something we aren’t rather than coming home to what we already are. Perhaps we need to focus not on a product, but on a process, on “bo”, on coming toward ourselves and what can free us, just as Moses had to “bo” in order to be completely free from his past and be strong enough to free others.
If you’ve already made some New Year’s resolutions, it isn’t too late to retool them. Let’s see if we can focus on our potential. Let’s see if we can focus on activities and expressions that create wholeness within us and for those around us. Let’s see if the promises we make can be about coming and not going.