Mitzvot, Shaping the Human Side of the Partnership with Hashem
While most of this part of Shmot tells the story, a few sections shift to legislation. These first examples show us how Hashem codified our role in hastening the world’s redemption and perfection.
Nisan as the First Month
At the beginning of chapter twelve, Hashem commands the Jews to set the calendar by the moon and to make Nisan the first month. Its’ priority has technical halachic ramifications, such as for counting the years of a king’s reign, but Rashi sees it as including an obligation to call this month (which we now call Nisan), month number one, the month we now call Iyar month number two, etc.
Ramban assumes the point is to make the Exodus a constant in our lives-- every time we mention the date, we will be saying “the x month from the Exodus.” To him, that explains the Yerushalmi that says we today use names of the months we adopted from the Babylonians, fulfilling Yirmiyahu 16;14’s prediction that on “that day,” the Jews will no longer swear by the God Who brought them out of Egypt, but the God Who returned them from the lands of the North (by land routes, Babylon is northeast of Israel).
He is reading the mitzvah as being to tie the calendar to salvations, not only the Exodus. The Babylonian return was the most recent, and our calendar is one way to keep our awareness of God’s salvations present and active.
Intercalation, an Active Human Control of the Calendar
The other part of this commandment, the court’s ability and responsibility to add a month whenever necessary to ensure Pesach happens in spring (some authorities count this separately among the 613), adds to the extent to which we see time itself as a prop for our life experience. Jews don’t mark time, they define it, corral it into the shape Hashem tells them it needs to follow.
Torah Temimah notes limits on that power. We can add only one month in any year, with no leeway to alter the months themselves, even for reasons the Talmud saw as valuable, such as avoiding a Friday or Sunday Yom Kippur.
The first national mitzvah thus includes autonomy, heteronomy, and memory, a common triad within the commandments. We start our years in Nisan, a different month than the rest of the world, we have the right and responsibility to adjust the calendar to make that month happen in the same season as the Exodus it commemorates. All while accepting limits on our freedom to tamper with it; we are not masters of the calendar, we are its guardians, with finite but notable rights to guide it as it should go.
To Eat the Sacrifice is to Experience It
Pesachim 91a tells us that the Pesach sacrifice was necessarily participatory; anyone who couldn’t eat a minimum amount (such as the infirm or ill) could not be listed among those bringing it, even if there were enough others to ensure it was all eaten.
The sacrifice could only be roasted, perhaps to avoid other flavors intruding. On the other hand, it could not be eaten raw or partially cooked, suggesting that its flavor had to be fully brought out by the human effort of roasting. The need to foster its taste, but only its taste, might explain why it had to be roasted whole, including, as Rashi notes, the intestines, once they had been washed of waste. Only with every piece there would the animal have its full flavor.
Staying In the Houses and the Communities We Join
To explain why the Jews had to stay in their houses when the first-born were being killed, Rashi cites Baba Kamma 60a, that unleashed forces of destruction do not distinguish righteous from wicked. The obverse side of that folio, as Torah Temimah notes, makes a general rule of the injunction to stay indoors during a plague.
Neither Rashi nor Torah Temimah say this, but the traditional view that tragedies spread beyond their original targets militates in favor of choosing communities carefully. While forces of destruction can spread across the world, they first spread where they started. If we think of ourselves as relatively righteous, as not deserving any particular plagues (but not righteous enough to merit supernatural divine protection), Rashi and Torah Temimah imply that we will be safest if we avoid living among those who deserve punishment, not just live in a way where we won’t deserve such punishment.
The Jews lived among the Egyptians against their will; but we, who do not have the equivalent of blood to place on our doorposts, can choose where and among whom we build our lives.
Timing our Answers and our Questions
In 12;26, Moshe tells the people of a time when their children will ask what this service is, and supplies the answer to give, that it is a Paschal sacrifice, commemorating Hashem’s having passed over the Jewish houses in Egypt, killing their first-born and saving the Jewish ones.
Despite the Torah’s giving no indication of it, the Haggadah has made this question famous as that of the rasha, the wicked child. Kli Yakar wonders at the Haggadah’s giving a different answer than the one in the Torah. His answer is that the child’s deeming the preparations for Pesach work, asking what it means to the parent, excluding him or herself, makes clear that he or she is on the way out of the religion.
The Torah’s calm answer was the first reply to such a child, while we’re still doing our best to draw him or her back. If that fails, Kli Yakar thinks the Haggadah wants us to know, we should speak harshly. Aside from his view of how to handle deviation, he reminds us that the same question resonates differently depending on who asks and when, calling for answers appropriate to each circumstance.
In 13;14, the Torah speaks of a child who asks “what’s this?” Our haggadot call him the תם, the simple child. Instead of that neutral or sympathetic term, Rashi calls him a טפש, stupid or foolish, without enough knowledge to formulate an in-depth question. Barring developmental disabilities, Rashi expects the ordinary child to be knowledgeable and engaged enough to pose a detailed question. Any less is a flaw in the child, and perhaps in those who raised him or her.
That same verse speaks of the child asking מחר, tomorrow. Rather than the usual “in the future,” Kli Yakar suggests that it means the day after the sacrifice. Unsure of what was going on, this child understood that asking such a question in the middle of the service would be a challenge; asking afterwards would be a request for information.
How we start a discussion of the sacrifice says as much about us as the discussion itself. We can pay close or casual attention, notice small details or grasp only the very largest part of the picture, issue a challenge or show our interest in being brought into the fold. It all starts with us.
Tefillin as Expositor of Faith
The Torah speaks of Hashem having taken us out of Egypt “with a strong hand.” Ramban, 13;16, says the memory of that was supposed to uproot and forestall three kinds of heresy that go back to Enosh: First, that the world is eternal (with eternal, inviolable laws of nature); second, that Hashem has no knowledge of events in this world; and third, the denial of reward or punishment (Hashem knows what happens, but does not react).
The Exodus was Hashem’s one-time disproof of all three, Ramban says. Hashem is not a performer, rising to each heretic’s challenge to prove Himself. But by sending a prophet to announce each step of the Exodus, Hashem demonstrated openly, once and for all, His omnipotence, involvement with the world, and proper remuneration of our actions. It is for the Jewish people to testify to having witnessed these events.
He reminds us that today’s heresies go far back in human history, and that one part of our job as partners in Creation is to make clear our belief in the events that refute each of those three claims. In many generations, including ours, heretics are certain they have found new proof for their ideas, when they are in fact echoing what has been said in other ways before. Part of reliving the Exodus on Seder night is that it reminds us to take up their claims, and to announce our different view of the world and of history.
Making Hashem Beautiful
In the Song of the Sea, 15;2, the Jews speak of beautifying Hashem (זה א-לי ואנוהו), which Shabbat 133b cites as the source for caring about the aesthetics of mitzvah performance, a pretty lulav, a nice shofar. Since the verse speaks of glorifying Hashem, this reading implies that how we perform mitzvot adds to that—obeying commandments brings Hashem into the world in one way, but doing it attractively affects the perception of Hashem, a factor in our choice of how to fulfill the mitzvot.
Mitzvot direct us in how we shape the world, channeling our efforts in some ways and not others. Tomorrow, we’ll look a little more at how we can find the limits on our productive contributions to Hashem’s plan for history.