Parshat Bo contains the heart of the Passover story: the recounting of the final plague of the first born, and what appears to be the final decision of the Pharaoh to allow the people of Israel to leave Egypt. Actually, “allow” might not be the best word to describe what really happens. Pharaoh tells Moshe and Aharon in Shemot 12:31:
קוּמוּ צְּאוּ מִתּוֹךְ עַמִּי
Get up, leave from the midst of my people!
And, after this incident, it seems that we’ve finally won, that we’re finally going to be free. We’re even told that God intervenes with the Egyptians to insure that we don’t leave empty handed, causing them to lend us silver and gold vessels and clothing. If this were a movie, or at least a cheesy one, the closing credits might even run here, with a frozen shot of Moses and Aaron grinning ear-to-ear, mid-jump, with the entire community of Israel behind them, unable to contain their excitement. But this isn’t a movie, and the story doesn’t end here.
Those of us who know the story know that Pharaoh changes his mind; the Sea of Reeds has yet to part, Moshe has yet to sing, Miryam has yet to take up her timbrel. However, with or without prior knowledge, after we begin to bake our first matzot, the following verse, Shemot 12:42 is, without a doubt, strange:
לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים הוּא לַיהוָה, לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: הוּא-הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה לַיהוָה, שִׁמֻּרִים לְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְדֹרֹתָם
A night of vigil it is for Hashem, to bring them out from the land of Egypt; this night is Hashem’s, a vigil for all the children of Israel for all of their generations.
Although I’m drawn into the beauty of this verse, envisioning God as a father or mother awake all night, caring for their feverish child until daybreak, until the illness passes, I’m also struck by the verse’s present tense and parallelism of the actions of God and our own. It is a night of vigil: the vigil never stops, the need for freedom from oppression even when it appears in our own world that everything is fine. And though this night belongs to God, the vigil is for us as well, and for all generations.
As we approach major decisions both in the state of Israel and a year of continuing decisions in the United States which have strong effects on the rights of many, to me, these words are a reminder of our responsibility to be watchful. Reading this verse in context without reference to the ongoing hardships we endured after the Exodus, I discern a call for our ongoing awareness. Even though we likely felt as though we were free, God is still on guard. And we’re told that we too should be on guard, forever. As much as God is keeping vigil against the metaphorical Egypts which continue to exist, we too are to be aware and on guard, not only for ourselves, but for all peoples, as freedom is a fragile gift and needs our constant attention.
Michael Summa is a first year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR currently studying in Jerusalem. He studied composition and vocal performance at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, and is active as a composer of Jewish music.