Bo: Achieving Spiritual Liberation
“The Character of the Happy Warrior” is a poem by William Wordsworth. It begins:
“Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he That every man in arms should wish to be?
—It is the generous Spirit, who, when brought
Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought
Upon the plan that pleased his boyish thought:
Whose high endeavours are an inward light
That makes the path before him always bright;
Who, with a natural instinct to discern
What knowledge can perform, is diligent to learn;
Abides by this resolve, and stops not there,
But makes his moral being his prime care;
Rabbi Daniel Lapin references the happy warrior often and states that it’s a tribute to people with diligence, perseverance, persistence, strong character and will power. A happy warrior is someone who does what should and must be done, knows what should and must be done, and is focused on that task until it’s finished. A happy warrior is someone is someone who works on their character traits, in Judaism, it’s called Mussar. According to Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe, Mussar allows us to maximize every aspect of us. We all have hidden traits and we all have blind spots. Mussar allows us to work on our blind spots and improve in those areas and enhance our strengths. The modern Mussar movement was founded by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter.
Parashat Bo begins with Hashem telling Moshe and Aaron to return to Pharaoh yet again. This time Hashem says that he will show his signs so that the story will be told to future generations of how Hashem took us out of Egypt (Shemot 10:2).
וּלְמַ֡עַן תְּסַפֵּר֩ בְּאׇזְנֵ֨י בִנְךָ֜ וּבֶן־בִּנְךָ֗ אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִתְעַלַּ֙לְתִּי֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וְאֶת־אֹתֹתַ֖י אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֣מְתִּי בָ֑ם וִֽידַעְתֶּ֖ם כִּי־אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָֽה
Pharaoh tells Moshe that B’nai Yisrael can go, but only the men. When Pharaoh still refuses to let B’nai Yisrael free, he sends locusts to cover the land. The next plague was darkness. A thick darkness descended upon Egypt for three days. Can you imagine? The Torah says people couldn’t see one another, and couldn’t get up from where they were, however, B’nai Yisrael enjoyed light in their homes. Moshe and Aaron returned to Pharoah who agreed to let everyone go, but required the flocks and herds to remain in Egypt.
Hashem tells Moshe that he will send one more plague, but before that B’nai Yisrael must ask each man and woman to “borrow” objects of silver and gold (Shemot 11:2).
דַּבֶּר־נָ֖א בְּאׇזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וְיִשְׁאֲל֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ ׀ מֵאֵ֣ת רֵעֵ֗הוּ וְאִשָּׁה֙ מֵאֵ֣ת רְעוּתָ֔הּ כְּלֵי־כֶ֖סֶף וּכְלֵ֥י זָהָֽב
Afterwards, Hashem tells Moshe that each family must take a lamb, if one household is too small, then they shared with a neighbor. They must slaughter it and put the blood on the two doorposts and lintel of their houses and eat the lamb with Matzah (unleavened bread) and Maror (bitter herbs) (Shemot 12:3-8) .
דַּבְּר֗וּ אֶֽל־כׇּל־עֲדַ֤ת יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר בֶּעָשֹׂ֖ר לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֑ה וְיִקְח֣וּ לָהֶ֗ם אִ֛ישׁ שֶׂ֥ה לְבֵית־אָבֹ֖ת שֶׂ֥ה לַבָּֽיִת
וְאִם־יִמְעַ֣ט הַבַּ֘יִת֮ מִהְי֣וֹת מִשֶּׂה֒ וְלָקַ֣ח ה֗וּא וּשְׁכֵנ֛וֹ הַקָּרֹ֥ב אֶל־בֵּית֖וֹ בְּמִכְסַ֣ת נְפָשֹׁ֑ת אִ֚ישׁ לְפִ֣י אׇכְל֔וֹ תָּכֹ֖סּוּ עַל־הַשֶּֽׂה
שֶׂ֥ה תָמִ֛ים זָכָ֥ר בֶּן־שָׁנָ֖ה יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֑ם מִן־הַכְּבָשִׂ֥ים וּמִן־הָעִזִּ֖ים תִּקָּֽחוּ
וְהָיָ֤ה לָכֶם֙ לְמִשְׁמֶ֔רֶת עַ֣ד אַרְבָּעָ֥ה עָשָׂ֛ר י֖וֹם לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֑ה וְשָׁחֲט֣וּ אֹת֗וֹ כֹּ֛ל קְהַ֥ל עֲדַֽת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בֵּ֥ין הָעַרְבָּֽיִם
וְלָֽקְחוּ֙ מִן־הַדָּ֔ם וְנָ֥תְנ֛וּ עַל־שְׁתֵּ֥י הַמְּזוּזֹ֖ת וְעַל־הַמַּשְׁק֑וֹף עַ֚ל הַבָּ֣תִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־יֹאכְל֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ בָּהֶֽם
וְאָכְל֥וּ אֶת־הַבָּשָׂ֖ר בַּלַּ֣יְלָה הַזֶּ֑ה צְלִי־אֵ֣שׁ וּמַצּ֔וֹת עַל־מְרֹרִ֖ים יֹאכְלֻֽהוּ
Hashem says that each and every first-born in Egypt will be killed, however, the first-born in homes with blood on the doorposts will be spared. The Torah tells us that there was a loud cry throughout Egypt. Finally, Pharaoh said B’nai Yisrael could leave. They left in a hurry, their bread didn’t have time to rise. Moshe said to B’nai Yisrael to remember this day when we were freed from the house of bondage (Shemot 13:3). We commemorate this event by celebrating Pesach. During Pesach, we eat Matzah, and we retell the story of the Exodus during our seder.
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶל־הָעָ֗ם זָכ֞וֹר אֶת־הַיּ֤וֹם הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצָאתֶ֤ם מִמִּצְרַ֙יִם֙ מִבֵּ֣ית עֲבָדִ֔ים כִּ֚י בְּחֹ֣זֶק יָ֔ד הוֹצִ֧יא יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִזֶּ֑ה וְלֹ֥א יֵאָכֵ֖ל חָמֵֽץ
The story of the Exodus is one of the six remembrances that we are supposed to remember everyday. It is such an important event in our history, it also had a profound influence on the Founders of America and Martin Luther King, Jr. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes “Covenantal societies always represent a conscious new beginning by a group of people dedicated to an ideal. The story of the founders, the journey they made, the obstacles they had to overcome and the vision that drove them are essential elements of a covenantal culture. Retelling the story, handing it onto one’s children, and dedicating oneself to continuing the work that earlier generations began, are fundamental to the ethos of such a society. A covenanted nation is not simply there because it is there. It is there to fulfill a moral vision.”
History is a vehicle for G-d to implant into the world spiritual powers that continue to be activated. According to the Ba’al HaTanya when we are enslaved, we call out to G-d. The word for Egypt also refers to the inner blockages that prevent us from connecting with Hashem.
There are three symbols that we reference during our Pesach seder: Pesach (the Pesach offering of the lamb), Matzah, and Maror. According to Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz, each of these allows us to achieve spiritual liberation. We begin with Pesach which is the offering that B’nai Yisrael was commanded to bring while in Egypt. It was prohibited for someone to bring the offering alone, families brought it together or if someone was alone, they joined with their neighbor. This teaches us the importance of community. It is important that we are not alone. We must find a community that shares our values. We all have moments of weakness and fear, we rely on others to help us through those times. True friendship creates reciprocal responsibilities. There are three levels of friendship: utilitarian, social, and spiritual fellowship. The first level is based on relying on friends in times of need, the second is companionship, and the third is to build each other up to be the best people we can be. The Pesach offering also refers to our capacity to change.
The second symbol, Matzah, represents slavery and freedom. It is based on humility and the desire for corrective action. Chametz (leaven) doesn’t require any action, bread will rise by sitting for several hours, but Matzah requires action. When we have moments of inspiration, we must use that inspiration for action towards a cause. We know that we have character traits to work on, we must work on improving them. Instead of allowing the blockages to remain, work towards clearing them.
The third symbol, Maror represents slavery. The first step towards achieving spiritual liberation is recognizing we’re slaves. We must be honest with ourselves about where we are. Once we realize where we are, then we can focus on improving and moving forward. Sometimes we can deceive ourselves into thinking something is not a problem. I struggle with this myself. The fact is that even when we believe something doesn’t exist, it doesn’t take it away. If I’m going the wrong way towards my destination, it doesn’t help for me to keep going that way, I need to actually change directions.
We need each of these symbols to remind us that it is hard to admit our faults. It can be hard to admit our weaknesses to others, however, once we are honest with where we are, we can truly move forward and become better.
My husband and I are doing a 10-week Mussar course offered by the TORCH Center of Houston (you can also join by registering on their website: www.torchweb.org). We are using this time to focus on our positive character traits and amplifying those, while also working on our negative character traits and improving them. The job of improving ourselves is a life-long process and though we may fail sometimes, it’s important to depend on others to lift us up!
It’s now 2022, and in the Hebrew calendar we just began the month of Shevat. Slowly, slowly spring will arrive, which gives us a chance to replenish and renew. We can begin now as William Wordsworth said making our moral being our prime care. Take a step back, recognize where we are, take action, and connect with others who also focus on improving and let’s inspire each other to become our best selves!