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Opportunity of a setback

Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)

by Rabbi Dov Fischer

January 16, 2013 | 1:49 pm

This week’s parasha is one of the most central to the Jewish narrative. We read of the final plagues, the storm brought by God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm gathering on the border of Egypt, the Divine command to prepare for the Exodus by baking the matzot and eating the bitter herbs. It is the essence of the Passover story. Our greatest glory — Divine liberation — emanated from the nadir of our enslavement.

So often, events unfold that set us back. We wonder: “Why me?” Everything was going fine, and then we abruptly find ourselves in Purgatory. It might be a nightmare job, an aliyah effort that fails, a marriage that dissolves or an investment lost because of a predator’s fraud.

Suddenly, the “man with the plan” has no backup. Everything that once seemed so hopeful and easy has now collapsed. 

Such horrible setbacks are augured in the larger story framing the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt. One moment, a family seems finally at peace in Canaan; the next moment, a son is sold into slavery. He finally finds his own peace in a strange land, only to be targeted by his boss’s lusting wife, resulting in his imprisonment. He ultimately rises again, higher than before, and brings his family to Egypt, only to have history unfold horribly once more with a new Pharaoh arisen, the family enslaved, mired in their darkest hour.

The exodus from Egypt was meant to teach compelling life lessons that would imbue meaning for all generations. One of those lessons is that while every life sustains terrible setbacks, there also are escape valves that can open better opportunity than previously imagined.

Looking back, we see the steps that fell into place for this exodus to unfold. In order for the Jews to be crafted as a unique and holy people, we were meant to become resident in Egypt and then enslaved. But why did He select Egypt as our national petri dish?

When Jacob and his sons first arrived in Egypt, we were approximately 70 souls. Yet, 210 years later, we would grow into a nation of millions. To become that nation, we would need to forge an identity and cultivate a culture. For that culture to be unique, pure and unpolluted by surrounding corrupt foreign influences, that family had to be settled in virtual physical isolation. Egypt afforded that unique opportunity in Goshen, the rich land Pharaoh authorized uniquely for us. There, undisturbed by neighboring cultures, we enjoyed two centuries to evolve. Moreover, because of Egypt’s military might, our evolution was not threatened by security concerns. Egypt provided us safety so that we could thrive on our own.

But before that, we Jews had to have reason to move to Egypt. Thus, circumstances unfolded: Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, therefore later loving her son, Joseph, more than his other sons. As those sons became jealous of Joseph, they seized him and sold him into slavery, laying the groundwork for his falling into the hands of Potiphar, whose wife’s failed seductions prompted Potiphar to have Joseph imprisoned. That incarceration — yet another debilitating setback — was the necessary portal to enable Joseph to meet the imprisoned wine steward, who later would become the vehicle for introducing Joseph to Pharaoh. Once elevated to viceroy status, Joseph could bring his father and brother — the Jews — into Egypt, intending thereby solely to save them from famine when, in fact, God’s greater plan was for them to become a People with their own uniquely crafted culture and civilization.

That is how life goes. Setbacks and complications, with no clear reason “why,” until years pass and the master plan becomes a bit discernible. So Moshe’s mother puts him in a basket and floats him in a river, and the basket floats to the princess, assuring that the baby will be reared from infancy in the king’s palace, providing him a life-impacting education in noble bearing and speaking forthrightly to power. The perfect training for the “leader from the periphery” who will lead slaves from bondage. Even as that “happenstance” assures that baby Moses will be regal in demeanor and primed for political leadership, he also needs to acquire training in religious leadership. So, when fleeing from the former comfort and security of Egypt after killing an Egyptian taskmaster, he “happens” to encounter the daughters of Yitro, high priest of Midian. Upon marrying into Yitro’s family, Moshe now will have a father-in-law experienced in the priesthood who, for years to come, will teach him the skills and craft of theological leadership. 

Within each setback are the seeds from which greater things can germinate. Things often happen for reasons. Sometimes we need only pause long enough from asking “Why me?” to discern perhaps why and to appreciate fascinating new opportunities about to unfold.


Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.

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