Friday, 22 Jan 2010

Written by Rabbi Yuvel Keren

‘This month shall be the beginning of the months’ (Exod. 12:1).

Parashat Bo is one of the most important portions of the Torah. In this parashah the Israelites are transformed from a family of slaves into a holy nation, the People of Israel. It also provides a description of ‘פסח מצרים’  – the first Passover, which was celebrated in the land of Egypt, the evening before God’s spectacular deliverance. This unique Passover serves as the foundation for all subsequent Passovers celebrated ever since. For the People of Israel this event is not only an amazing act of redemption. It is also the act by which we establish our relationship with God in the form of a triple-sided covenant between God, the newly-freed slaves, and all subsequent generations. This relationship is reiterated at Sinai as the Israelites receive the first of the Ten Commandments. ‘I am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery’ (Exod. 20:2).

We find this link in the Passover Haggadah, with the words: ‘In every generation we must consider ourselves as if we were the ones who were redeemed at Egypt.’ Redemption is mentioned in our daily and festival prayer. Every Shabbat, as we bless the wine, we state: ‘This holy day … is a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt’. Other central rituals such as the recitation of the Shema twice a day and wearing tallit and tefillin are linked with the Exodus from Egypt.

In this parashah we also find an instruction that appears to be somewhat trivial and removed from the rest of the events. Just before the evening of the first Passover, God delivers to Moses and Aaron the following instruction to the People of Israel:

החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים ראשון הוא לכם לחדשי השנה’

‘This month shall be to you the head of the months. It shall be to you the first month among the months of the year’ (Exod. 12:1). This month is identified in the late Biblical book, the Scroll of Esther: ‘In the first month, which is the month of Nisan’ (Esth. 3:7). The name Nisan is borrowed from the Babylonian during the period post destruction of the first Temple.

The word הזה, ‘this’, is very significant in our verse. The Midrash understands God’s statement of ‘this’ as a Divine finger pointing towards the moon. According to a Midrash,  the word ‘this’ teaches that the Holy Blessed One pointed to Moses with His finger to the newly emerged sliver of a moon and said to him: ‘When you see the moon at this state you must sanctify it as the head of all months.’ 1

Nahmanides states that ‘This is the first commandment that God commands Israel via Moses.’ 2 Rashi goes even further when he suggests in the introduction to his Torah commentary that the Torah should have started with this commandment.3 Why did this apparently trivial commandment merit to be placed at the head of all other mitzvot of the Torah?

Perhaps it is because the Israelite slaves could be not their own masters until that time. Their life schedule was dictated by their Egyptian masters. This commandment indicates to the Israelites for the first time that they are now free from the old calendar and from the tyranny of their captors. They must therefore start the counting of a new calendar at time zero. This is the first minute of the first hour of the first day of the first month of a newly formed nation. Just as the counting since Creation reminds us of the birthday of the entire world, the counting since Exodus reminds us of the birth of the free People of Israel.

Like all other commandments we perform in order to remember the Exodus from Egypt, the process of fixing the time for the new month serves us as a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt and of the covenant between God and Israel. This new calendar also marks the three-month countdown to another momentous event: the receiving of rest of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

The requirement to fix the time of the new month is a mitzvah on which all other seasonal commandments depend. The newly-freed slaves were commanded to celebrate the Passover in its appointed time. The Israelites needed to count the days from the beginning of the month in order to know when to slaughter the lamb and eat the unleavened bread. All Jewish festivals depend directly or indirectly on the appearance of the new moon.

For a Jew, the mitzvah of fixing and observing the new moon is more than merely keeping time and planning appointments. It serves us as a reminder of the great redemption from Egypt, of our covenant with God and of our need to maintain Jewish identity through the fulfilment of God’s holy commandments.

Rabbi Yuval Keren
Hendon Reform Synagogue

January 2010


1Mekhilta of R Simeon Bar Yohai, 12:1
2Nahmanides on Exod. 12:2.
3Rashi on Gen. 1:1.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.