Parashat Bo arrives at a moment that feels like the return of spring. The timing for the parashah in which we read of our redemption from slavery in Egypt, coinciding with a week in which we saw the beginning of the Biden-Harris Administration, seems singularly appropriate since Tu B’Shevat, our annual celebration of spring’s first signs, begins this coming Wednesday evening January 27.
For “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother” who “can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one” and all of us who see reason to breath, along with the national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, a sigh of relief, it seems like this might be the beginning of a long denied rebirth of hope for the U.S.
I saw with pleased recognition a poem that started making the rounds on social media yesterday. We used to read it often when we gathered for prayer, but it somehow disappeared from my collection. Now, as you can imagine, it’s back:
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail.
Sometimes you aim high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war,
elect an honest person, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some of us become what we were born for.
Sometimes our best intentions do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen; may it happen for you.
(slightly adapted for gender accessibility)
I was surprised to read on a website devoted to her poetry that Sheenagh Pugh “hates” the poem: “I think most people read it wrong. When read carefully, it says sometimes things go right, but not that often, and usually only when people make some kind of effort in that direction.”
She has a point. The leaders of the previous administration and their criminal enablers did everything possible to stay in power – challenging votes and invalidating them, challenging results in court, attempting to bribe and threaten; we only saw a hopeful sunrise on January 20 because of the incredible effort of so many, Stacey Abrams of Georgia leading them all.
Things go right, and not that often, and usually only when people make some kind of effort. Right on cue, a propos of our parashah, Jewish tradition asks, how was it that the Israelites were able to escape Egypt? And the answer is not so different from Sheenagh Pugh’s:
The Israelites did not deny the existence of God; they refused to give up their Hebrew names or language, or deny their Jewish identity.
– Ephod Bad on Pesakh Haggadah, Maggid, First Fruits Declaration 19
In short, they made an effort:
“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”
― Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères
These are days when we must make an effort to remember, past the desire to relax and breathe a sigh of relief, that the evil that has risen up in our society is not vanquished because its feckless figurehead is off camera.
Remember that in our escape from Egypt, there were moments: we thought we were safe and then we saw Pharaoh’s army chasing us. As one senior researcher at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center said to the Guardian news source: “my primary concern about this moment is the Q to JQ move”; “the Jewish question” which is the white nationalist and neo-Nazi antisemitic belief that Jews control the world.
We have to hold them both in our awareness. Remember that we were once not slaves, we walked without fear and were whole. Remember that Pharaoh cannot be trusted, and may be chasing us.
And spring, thus summoned with hope and with watchfulness, may yet come. But now it is still January.