Thursday, 22 Mar 2012

Written by Rabbi Yuval Keren

Does God have an index finger?

“When the People of Israel crossed the sea of reeds, they pointed their fingers and said: ‘This is my God, whom I shall glorify.”1

The first Sabbath of the Hebrew month of Nissan is one of the four special Sabbaths before the festival of Passover. Its name: ‘Shabbat Hachodesh’ – the Sabbath of the month, is taken from the additional special Torah portion we read in synagogue. This reading from chapter 12 of the book of Exodus describes the first Divine instruction to be given to the People of Israel, the law of observing Passover. It begins with the following verse:

החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים ראשון הוא לכם לחדשי השנה”

This month shall be for you the head of the months. It is the first of the months of the year.” 2

There is one word in this verse that appears to be simple and straightforward, yet it contains an entire world of interpretation behind it. It is the word ‘זה’ – ‘This’. According to a midrashic interpretation when Moses received this instruction, God pointed a Divine index finger at the sliver of the new moon and said to him ‘When you see one like this you should sanctify the new month’.3

In this midrash God acts as a teacher and an instructor to Moses. With the aide of ‘this’ word the midrash take the instruction beyond the realm of the written Torah and into the realm of the oral Torah. God provides Moses with an oral tradition to supplement the written text. Moses in his turn hands this teaching as an oral elaboration of the written law to the people of Israel and down to the next generation. The importance of this first instruction is that it aides us in determining when Passover is to be celebrated. If our observation of the new month is faulty then we are at risk of celebrating Passover at the wrong time.

The Passover Haggadah contains a few more elaborations of this pointed finger. It first appears in the words of the wicked child who points at the Seder table and asks ‘What does this worship mean to you?’4  The answer is given by means of the parent pointing at the Seder table: ‘It is because of this that the Eternal provided for me when I came out of Egypt.’ 5 The simple child also points the finger at the table and asks a simple question: ‘What is this?’6  The pointing finger appears again as a parental prompt for the child who does not know how to ask. ‘It is because of this that the Eternal provided for me when I came out of Egypt.’ It is the same verse given as an answer to the wicked child, yet this time it has a completely different and a more inclusive tone and meaning.

To fully appreciate the dialogue between the children and adults in the Haggadah we need to imagine their index fingers pointing towards the shank bone, the matzah, the bitter herbs and even Elijah’s cup as they ask questions and provide answers.

Immediately following the four sons we have another midrash that explains the appropriate time for the recounting the story of the Exodus.

“Is it possible to tell the story at the beginning of the month of Nisan? No, we learn from the statement ‘on that day’ that it must be on the day the Exodus took place. Is it possible to tell the story on that day during daytime? No, we learn from the statement ‘For this.’ ‘For this’ can only refer to the time when you can point to the matzah and the bitter herbs that are laid out before you.” 7

In this text we learn about the appropriate time by means of instruction and demonstration. In order to tell the story of the Exodus it must be possible to point at a certain day and it must be possible to point at a certain foods. Later in the night we point at the special elements of the Seder: ‘This Pascal lamb … this Matzah … these bitter herbs’ and we explain each of them in the context of our recollection of the exodus from Egypt.

This coming Shabbat as we recall the first month of the Exodus from Egypt we should also think of the fingers we point at God, at the moon and at the Seder plate. We should then remind ourselves that teaching is not confined to the square corners of text books or the parchment of the Torah scroll. We learn our traditions by following the pointed finger of our parents and grandparents as we sit together around the Seder table. It then becomes our duty to point our finger at the Seder plate, the synagogue’s eternal light and the Chanukah candles and pass on our tradition to the next generation. It is because of this that Jewish tradition survived and thrived against all odds for thousands of years and it is because of this that it had inspired an entire world well beyond Judaism.

Rabbi Yuval Keren
March 2012




1 Exodus Rabba 23:16 quoting Exodus 15:2
2 Exodus 12:2
3 Mechilta 12:1
4 Exodus 12:26
5 Exodus 13:8
6 Exodus 13:14
7 Translation: the draft Haggadah, Movement for Reform Judaism 2012

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