Parshat Bo is a familiar one to many of us – it contains a recounting of the last three plagues before Pharaoh finally tells the Israelites to leave Egypt immediately. But there’s an interesting insertion between the ninth and tenth plagues.
We read: “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (12:1-2). And then, even before the Israelites leave Egypt, the mitzvot associated with the observance of Passover are given. The narrative of the Exodus resumes at 12:21, with Moses instructing them how to prepare for the final plague: the death of the first-born of all Egyptian families.
Upon rereading these verses (12:1-20), several questions came to mind: Why is the first mitzvah/commandment given the one that deals with the calendar and marking time? Why is this considered the “first month of the year for you” – what about Rosh Hashanah? Why are the mitzvot/commandments about how to observe Passover given before the event occurs?
On the surface, the response to the first question is very pragmatic: in order to celebrate the exodus on the fifteenth of the month, one needs to know when the month begins. But perhaps the establishment of a unique calendar including human responsibility for keeping time (declaring the new month after witnesses testify their viewing the moon at the Sanhedrin) is less a technical command and more a spiritual gift.
Rabbi Ari Kahn from Aish added another dimension to the discussion by saying, “Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, z’l, explained why this commandment was given here, and now. The Jews in Egypt were slaves, and therefore lacked a sense of time. They needed to acquire a sense of time in order to be truly liberated, transformed from objects to independent people.”
It is our ability to delineate time which gives us both the freedom AND the responsibility to carve out meaningful lives for ourselves.
All joking about “Jewish time” aside, Jewish time is an interesting phenomenon: it’s both fixed and flexible. It’s fixed in that it’s based on the cycles of the moon – the waxing and waning that occurs every month on a predictable pattern. We know when Sukkot, Purim and Pesach are approaching, by the moon’s increasing fullness. We know when Rosh Hashanah, a new year, is here – just as we see the new moon. Chanukah’s end is announced by the sighting of the new moon, as well (plus one!).
It’s flexible in that the days begin and end at different times, depending on the season and the latitude at which one lives. And we must acknowledge that it’s just plain confusing to have our days begin at sundown the night before- confusing only because we spend much of our lives removed from the natural world in which we live. Our lunar calendar also needs to be flexible so that our cherished marking of the harvest festivals, dependent on the solar cycle, will fall on the appropriate seasons. And so we get that quaint phenomenon of needing to ask if Passover is "early or late" each year.
Why is this considered the “first month of the year for you”? Our tradition lists four different “new years” – that of the civil year, the religious year, the beginning of the tax (tithing) year, and that of the trees. A number of commentators make the distinction between Rosh Hashanah as the celebration of creation, which applies to all; while Passover is the celebration of OUR liberation (think of the difference between January 1st and July 4th for Americans).
Finally, why are such detailed instructions given for observing an event which hasn’t even occurred yet? A number of commentators make the point that the Israelites don’t automatically become a free people when they leave the land of Egypt.
Rabbi Lucy F.H. Dinner, in the Women’s Torah Commentary, reminds us that “To be truly free, individuals need faith in their identity as a free people and in their own unquestioned autonomy. As much as liberation is about release from forced servitude, it is also about the psychological and spiritual strength required to act according to one’s own will.” Liberation then requires individuals to “act as if” they are liberated – even if they don’t quite feel it.
The great modern philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us that Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time. It may be a fair contrast to note that the Egyptian civilization enslaved people to build storehouses, royal cities, and perhaps some pyramids. It was a kingdom of sacred places. The new Israelite nation had to escape the boundaries of space created by human technology and architecture, and learn to use what Heschel called "the architecture of time" in which to build lasting "palaces in time" like Shabbat and the festivals.
We send our children off to conquer the world with a list of instructions and reminders about those events and activities which are important to us and, hopefully in time, to them as well. We adults who manage home and office schedules, the balance between work and rest, know how critical time management is to our success. And we can see how time challenged people find it difficult to prepare for, and celebrate with calm and joy, holiday and life cycle events. So we can surely appreciate the tradition that notes that the Israelites leave Egypt with a prescription for how to cope with time for physical and spiritual success in whatever circumstances they find themselves. It is a gift worthy of study and transmission to our children and grandchildren.
Published by the Washington Jewish Week, January 2, 2014