Redemption in Place and Time

Bo By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jan 16, 2013 / 5773

In his very first comment on Torah, Rashi, the prolific medieval commentator, made this week’s parashah famous for exegetic eternity. Querying as to why Genesis opens with an account of creation rather than commandment, Rashi quotes Rabbi Isaac stating, “The Torah [which is the law book of Israel] should have opened with the verse, ‘This month will be the first of months to you’ (Exod. 12:1) which is the first commandment given to Israel.” Indeed, the commemoration of Rosh Hodesh Nisan, the new month of Nisan, is the very first order of business given to the fledgling nation. Why is this particular mitzvah chosen as the first commandment for the People of Israel? Of all of the 613 mitzvot, what makes the marking of the Jewish calendar so significant?

Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, the 16th-century Italian commentator on Torah, writes,

From this point on, the coming months will be your months, to do with them as you wish—according to your desires. In contrast, during the many days of your enslavement, “your” days were not your days. For those days were devoted to the work of others and according to their will. Therefore, this is the first of the months of the year for you! For from this very point begins your new reality of free choice. (Mikraot Gedolot on Exodus 12:1)

In just a few remarkable sentences, Sforno distills the import of the first commandment gifted to the Israelites. Far from simply being a new counting of the months for this nascent nation, it is a command that speaks to the heart of identity, time, and freedom. With their newly found redemption, the Israelites must now live according to their precepts, their rhythm, and their festivals. The rules and regulations of their Egyptian taskmasters are now irrelevant—part of an oppressive past that has opened itself to new possibilities. With the gift of freedom and ownership, however, also comes the burden of responsibility. The Israelites must now learn to sanctify themselves and their time. It is a task that is easier said than done. As Ahad Ha’Am famously said, “The real task, the most difficult task, has still to be commenced. Pharaoh is gone, but the work remains; the master has ceased to be master, but the slaves have not ceased to be slaves” (Contemporary Jewish Thought: A Reader[1963], 42).

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.