And God spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt saying: 'This month is the first of the months for you, it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. Speak to the entire Congregation of Israel, saying, on the tenth of this month each person shall take a lamb ...' [Exodus 12:1-3]
These verses mark the first commandment given to the entire congregation of Israel.
The Midrash cited by Rashi on the very first verse of the Torah, questions the propriety of the Torah beginning with the narrative of creation and then the stories of the Patriarchs. One would have assumed that the Torah -- being a book of laws -- would have begun with a legal section. Rashi specifically asks, "Why didn't the Torah begin with the passage from the Book of Exodus that reads This month is the first ... "
We must conclude that ultimately the narratives of Genesis and Exodus are quite important and are therefore included in the Torah. Nonetheless, the verses cited above could have been the beginning of the Torah, and, had they been the beginning, would have made an appropriate one.
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THE FIRST COMMANDMENT
As noted above these verses mark the first commandment given to the entire community of Israelites. But there is more to this passage that makes it unique.
For one, we might ask: Why was this the first commandment? Surely God had at least 613 other choices.
Furthermore, why was this Commandment given in the land of Egypt? Why couldn't the Jews wait until Sinai?
In a sense the commandment regarding the new moon is a prerequisite for the holiday of Passover which would be celebrated in Egypt. In order to separate a lamb on the tenth of the month, one needs to know when the tenth of the month is. In order to have a seder on the eve of the fifteenth one needs to know when the fifteenth is.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Zat"zal, 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.
While this explanation certainly gives us insight into the concept, one could argue that many, if not all, of the commandments contribute to the religious personality of the Jew. It is hard to see why this commandment could not have waited some two months until Sinai. God simply could have told Moses: "In ten days have the people prepare a lamb, and in two weeks we are leaving."
I think that an analysis of the seder which the Jews celebrated in Egypt will help us to understand the importance of this commandment, and why it was indeed given at this particular point in time.
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THE PUZZLE OF THE FIRST SEDER
The Jews were commanded to take a lamb, to slaughter it, and to smear its blood on the door posts and door frames.
This was certainly liberating, considering that many animals were worshipped in Egypt; to kill the animals, and smear the blood was certainly perceived as a defiant act against the Egyptians, and rejection of their deity.
They were then commanded to:
'Eat the meat (of the sacrifice) that evening, roasted; eat it with matza (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs).' [Exodus 12:8]
At first glance this verse seems unexceptional, for thousands of years Jews have observed this rite, eating matza and maror on Passover eve, either with the sacrifice (during the time of the Temple) or by itself. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the Jews in Egypt ate the Passover sacrifice withmaror and matza.
Upon contemplation, a problem arises: Why do we eat maror or matza?
We are taught in the Mishna [Pesachim, Ch.10] that we eat maror as a "memorial" to the Jewish lives embittered by slavery. If this is the case then it indeed seems strange that the Jews in Egypt prior to the Exodus needed a memorial, as if they had already forgotten what it was like to be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Perhaps today we need to eat bitter herbs in order to remind ourselves what the bitterness of slavery was like, but why would the slaves need such a reminder?
The matza poses an even more difficult challenge. The reason we eat matza is also taught in the Mishna -- the Jews left Egypt in such haste that they did not even have time for their bread to rise.
The people took their dough before it could rise ... They baked the dough which they took out of Egypt, into matza for it did not rise for they were exiled from Egypt and they could not tarry, and they had not made any other provisions. [Exodus 12:34,39]
That, of course, refers to the matza they took with them. But what about thematza they ate (as commanded) before they left?
Let us consider the sequence of events:
- God speaks to Moses prior to the first day of Nisan, telling Moses that there is a concept of New Moons, months and years.
- He further instructs Moses to tell the people to prepare lambs for the sacrifice by the tenth of the month.
- The celebratory, festive dinner will take place on the night of the fourteenth (leading into the fifteenth).
- At midnight that night, the first born of the Egyptians will die, and God will "pass over" the homes of the Jews who will escape unscathed.
- Sometime after midnight Pharaoh will come looking for Moses, and subsequently the Jews will be quickly sent out of Egypt.
- The actual exodus will take place in the morning, at which point the Jews will have to leave so quickly that there will not even be time for the bread to rise, hence the introduction of matza.
Again, we must ask: Why eat the matza the previous evening? When the Jews ate matza that evening, what was their religious experience while eating it?
* * *
The night before redemption, while they were still enslaved to Pharaoh, the Jews smeared the blood of the Paschal lamb on the doors, and then sat down to celebrate the redemption, because at that point they already felt free!
In their minds, they were liberated from the oppression of Pharaoh. They believed so completely in the forthcoming redemption that they were literally able to taste it.
Their trust in God was complete. They were still in Egypt physically, but they were long gone psychologically.
It seems that this was God's purpose on that awesome night. Once the Jews felt liberated, they needed to eat from the bitter herbs in order to remind them of the oppression. They were even able to eat the matza, which would serve as the symbol of their rapid exodus that would actually take place only the next morning. They knew that they would be leaving so quickly that they would not have time for the bread to rise.
They trusted in God completely, and literally tasted the future.
How ironic, then the commandment that every year we are to envision ourselves as if we left Egypt. The Jews in Egypt did just that: They envisioned themselves as if they left Egypt, the only difference being that they accomplished this by looking into the future, while we must look into the past.
In every generation a person is obligated to envision himself as if he left Egypt.[Mishna Pesachim 116b]
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THE NATURE OF REDEMPTION
The issue at hand is in reality the very nature of redemption. Redemption is not merely political, or geographical. True redemption will bring with it complete liberation, physical, and psychological.
One can imagine if the Messiah were to come today, and bring all the Jews to Israel, and cause all the nations "to beat their swords into plowshares ..." it would not suffice if we were still psychologically enslaved.
For example, if we were still tormented by the horrors of the Holocaust, not understanding the ways of God, we would in effect still be enslaved.
The Talmud teaches:
Rav Acha, the son of Chanina taught, "The future world is not like this world. In this world on good tidings, we say 'Blessed is the one who is good and brings good.' When bad news arrives we say, 'Blessed is the true Judge.' In the future the only blessing will be: 'Blessed is the one who is good and brings good.' [Pesachim 50a]
We see that redemption has a psychological aspect to it as well.
True liberation means to be freed from the things that haunt our minds, aside from our physical tormentors.
This is what God wanted to teach us in Egypt; how to become truly free.
There is an old saying that " it is easier to take a Jew out of exile than take the exile out of a Jew." We will see this in future Torah portions as the Jews suffer setbacks during the sojourn in the desert, many due to their inability to free themselves from their past.
God gave them one glorious lesson in Egypt, on the " art of liberation. "
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ANOINTING THE SEASONS
We can now understand why the Torah begins this section with the commandment concerning time.
We are commanded to anoint the seasons, to decide when the new moon has arrived.
We are entrusted with the ability to determine the nature of time. Will it be sacred or mundane?
We are at the same time taught a powerful lesson: The Jew has the ability to transcend time, to trust in God so completely that the problems of the present are resolved when considered in the larger context of eternity.
Will the night be a time of fear, or the final moment before dawn?
The ability of the Jews to trust in God was the final act that ushered in the redemption from Egypt. For when a Jew truly trusts in God, he becomes part of the world to come, tasting redemption.