Bo: Marking time

This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Shemot 12:1-2)

Is this how you eat?
No time together
for questions
and answers
no time to recline
dip twice and savor;
in haste to move on
eyes on the cell phone
awaiting the call
the master controls
the slave is not free.

Rashi, the medieval French commentator (1040-1105), in the very first comment he makes on the Torah, asks why the Torah in Bereishit opens with an account of creation. He quotes Rabbi Isaac who said, “The Torah, which is the law book of Israel, should have commenced with the verse, “This month will be the first of months to you,” (Shemot 12:1) which is the first commandment given to Israel.” So we wonder, what is the unusual significance of this particular mitzvah, which appears in this week’s  parasha, Bo, of marking the beginning of months from Nisan, the month of redemption; why was it suggested that it be chosen as the first commandment out of the 613 mitzvot enumerated in the Torah?

The Etz Hayim commentary notes, “One of the first steps in the process of liberation was for the Israelites to have their own calendar, their own way of keeping track of time and recalling the most important days of their people’s history. A slave does not control his or her own time; it belongs to someone else. [Rabbi Samson Raphael] Hirsch (1808-1888) wrote that “the Jewish calendar is the Jewish catechism,” for it is the most concise summary of what we remember and what we stand for.”

In a commentary on Parashat Bo,, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz cites Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, (c.1475-1550) on this same verse, “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.” Rabbi Berkowitz notes “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).”

In a commentary on Parashat Bo from 2003,, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson points out that the parasha contains the last set of plagues with which God afflicts the Egyptians, culminating in the Exodus from Egypt. He notes that between the first nine plagues and the last one, the Torah suddenly digresses with a declaration about Pesach which starts with God telling Moses that this month will mark the beginning of the months for the Children of Israel.
Rabbi Shavit Artson asks, “What does God tell us by identifying this as the beginning of the months? And what does the phrase “for you” add? If it’s the first month, isn’t it the first month for everyone? In fact, this verse invites us to contemplate the nature of time itself, and how we mark the passage of time.”
He points out that aside from the objective passage of time, the sages teach that the words “for you” suggest that specifically as a people, we are called upon to remember constantly the significance of this month which marks the beginning of our redemption from enslavement and our covenant with God Who wrought our liberation.
He cites the Midrash, the Mechilta, “When the moon renews itself, it will be the beginning of the month for you,” which he says is teaching us that “we do possess the power and vision to redirect our energies, to refocus our goals. Learning to recognize the present as an opportunity for new beginnings is essential to a life well lived. We need not be trapped by our past.”
He brings a teaching by the Ramban (1194-c1270) who reminds us “we remember the exodus from Egypt in our counting.” Rabbi Shavit Artson points out that throughout the year, on Sabbaths and Festivals, mention is made of the Exodus from Egypt, not just as a historical reference, but “as a living reality at the core of Jewish life.” The Exodus is the beginning, not because of chronology only, but because redemption is at the the heart of the Jewish story.
He adds, “Time passes with or without reflection. But a life of wisdom is the result of attending to time, of uncovering the significance of the passing ages. By drawing our attention to the miracle of freedom, by identifying that freedom as the essential core of Jewish identity and human heritage, the Torah bids us to live the lives of free women and men, rejoicing in God’s gift of liberty and spreading that light to others as well.”
Rabbi Shavit Aronson continues, “Personal renewal and national character come together in this recognition that time passes for all people, but how we experience that passage is shaped by what we bring to it, and the attention we pay. Jewish time is always measured by how far we have come from our time of enslavement, by how far we have moved toward the freedom that is ours as a gift. Synthesizing the personal and the communal, Judaism offers a tool for paying attention to the unique promise of each moment.”

In a commentary on Parashat Bo,, from 2004, Rabbi Joshua Heller notes that the eve of the Exodus, as depicted in Parashat Bo and as we reenact it on the night of the Pesach Seder, contains a seemingly contradictory mix of labor and leisure. On the one hand, as the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:1) teaches, on the seder night, “even the poorest in Israel should not eat until he reclines, ” – for then, reclining signified leisure. And yet, we eat matzah, the bread of poverty and affliction. He notes, “In ancient times, having more than one “tavlin” (dipping sauce), was a sign of luxury, and yet even as we dip twice, one of the things that we dip is bitter herb, and one of the sauces is salt water. This contradiction has its beginnings in this week’s parashah, Bo, which describes the Paschal sacrifice (the true first seder) and carries through to a central paradox in modern life.”
Rabbi Heller notes that on the eve of the Exodus, the Children of Israel are instructed to offer a sacrifice and sit and eat together in families while outside, the Angel of Death moves through Egypt. “This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste.” (Shemot 12:11) He points out that the word for haste, “hipazon” has undertones of distress or panic, as in Devarim 20:3 and II Samuel 4:4. The picture, says Rabbi Heller, is far from one of a relaxed family meal. But, he adds, “the same chapter sends mixed signals. Just a verse earlier (12:10), God had commanded the Jewish people, “You shall not leave any of it over until morning.” Those who are poor and hungry and don’t know where their next meals will come from will try to defy instinct and save a bit for next time. It’s only the wealthy and comfortable who can afford to throw food away and not bother with the leftovers. Furthermore, a bit later in the same parashah, (12:45) after the description of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, God issues a further commandment that the bones of the Paschal lamb must not be broken. Leaving the bones intact is also described by many commentators as a sign of luxury. If you’ve got plenty, you don’t have to rush to suck the marrow out of life. You can, as it were, just order another rack of lamb. Even as the Israelites depart, they bring with them all manner of luxury goods borrowed from their neighbors.”
Rabbi Heller suggests that the Rabbis who enacted the Seder played down this contrast by dispensing with the elements of haste and panic. He cites two examples from the Talmud. The first is from Pesachim 96b, on the command to eat in haste, “You shall eat this one in haste, but not in the future.” The second from Pesachim 116a discusses the concept of “lechem oni” which is generally translated “the bread of poverty and affliction” but here the Rabbis denote it as “lechem she’onim alav“- meaning “the bread over which one answers questions.” He says, “Indeed, the seder in its rabbinic conception took as its template the Greek symposium, a philosophical talk-feast where the wealthy would spend an evening reclining on couches, drinking wine and eating a multi-course meal while discussing a topic of intellectual interest.”
Rabbi Heller adds, “The tension between labor and leisure is not reserved only for the Israelites who huddled in their huts on the eve of redemption, or even only for those who will rise from reclining to check the brisket at this year’s seder. It is not even reserved solely for Jews. Rather, it is one of the hallmarks of our modern society. America is probably the wealthiest nation in the history of humankind, with comforts and conveniences today that our grandparents could never have imagined. We live in a country of cellphones and satellite TV, but we have found that comfort only through haste, hipazon.”
He traces the hours a laborer might have worked throughout the ages, noting that according to the Talmud, a contemporary worker 1800 years ago might have worked seventy-two hours a week: dawn to dusk, twelve hours, six days a week. He compares this with the situation at the turn of the twentieth century, when the regular workweek was about sixty hours, and over the next hundred years  was reduced to about forty. He notes, though, “Over the past decade, the decline has reversed itself, and not just for those at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. The once-wide plateau between wealth and poverty has become a more slippery slope, so that at many levels of the scale, it now takes two incomes or more, or longer work hours, to support a family in a lifestyle that includes most modern conveniences. ”
However, the ongoing rise in bankruptcies indicates that many people are aspiring to a lifestyle that is increasingly difficult to maintain. He quotes the research of Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard Law School professor specializing in bankruptcy law, which suggests that for various reasons, multi-income families may, paradoxically, find themselves in situations more precarious than those with a single income. Rabbi Heller says, “Whatever the other societal advantages and disadvantages of two-career families, adding another job doubles, rather than halves, the instability of uncertain times. Even for those who succeed, the boundaries between home and work are evaporating, thanks to innovations like pagers, cellphones and e-mail, and the increase in round-the-clock commerce.
“So, we may finish everything put before us at the seder, but the rest of the year, dinner may mean grabbing leftovers at odd hours rather than sitting down to a family meal. We may have no Paschal sacrifice whose bones must remain unbroken, but other factors may still prevent us from sucking the marrow out of life. The characteristic of the eved, the slave, as opposed to the free man, is that he is always available to his master. In fact, the lowest point of avdut Mitzraim, the Egyptian oppression, says the Talmud (Sotah 11a), was when Pharoah found ways to make work interfere with the family lives of the Israelites.
Rabbi Heller cautions against viewing the past as idyllic, compared with today. He points out that in next week’s parasha, we will read how the Children of Israel, out in the wilderness, have apparently forgotten the misery and bitterness of slavery and look back yearningly on their life in Egypt, “…we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!” (Shemot 16:3)
He concludes, “Perhaps, in mixing feelings of luxury and slavery on that very first seder night, God sought to remind the Israelites that it is possible to be surrounded by the signs of physical comfort, but still be enslaved. Perhaps, too, the story of the Exodus, and its retelling in this week’s parashah and at the seder several months hence, can remind us, too, to rethink our definitions of slavery and luxury. Slavery is living one’s life in hipazon, in hurry, in concern, even though one might be living well, surrounded by the financial spoils of Egypt. Luxury, and freedom, is being able to sit back at a meal, even if it is made of leftovers, even if it is Lehem Oni.”

Vezot haberachah: The final blessing

This is the blessing with which Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death. (Devarim 33:1).
His eyes are focused, his mind
still sharp, his vigor unabated;
yet he knows that death approaches.
This is the time to speak his truth
to voice his unfeigned blessings
for if not now, then when?
And what of us, who do not know
when death will strike
but that it must?
Shall we risk the sudden exit, or
await the ebb of strength
before we bless the ones we love?

Rashi comments on the seemingly superfluous phrase “before his death.” (How could it have been afterwards?) Quoting the Sifrei, he says “ “before” means close to his death, for if not now, when?” Rashi is pointing out the urgency of Moses’s blessing: Moses knows that his death is imminent and so this is his final chance to bless these people to whom he has ministered for forty years. Rashi is giving a powerful reminder that since, unlike Moses, no-one knows the day of death, blessing loved ones should not be postponed.

In the Midrash P’tirat Moshe – the Midrash of the Death of Moses, Moses says “All my life, I have scolded this people. At the end of my life, let me leave them with a blessing.”

In a commentary on Vezot Haberachah, Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger says, “Now, if we stopped right here with Rashi’s midrash, we’d have a powerful reminder that words between intimates cannot be postponed indefinitely, for no one knows the day of his or her death. If you want to bless your loved ones, or say anything else of significance, do so now, for you might not have the warning that Moses received that his days were soon ending. This is solid wisdom, often repeated, and still true for the repeating.”
Rabbi Loevinger believes, however, that Rashi is hinting at something else as well. Rabbi Loevinger notes that the phrase, “If not now, when?” would have been familiar to Rashi as it was coined by Hillel the Elder and appears in Pirkei Avot (1:14). (Rashi lived between 1040 – 1105 while Hillel lived around 110 BCE – 10 CE.) The entire maxim reads, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am for myself [only], what am I? And if not now, when?” So Rabbi Loevinger continues, “Now Rashi’s midrash takes on a different meaning, for it hints that Moses’s blessing of the tribes was prompted by a whole philosophy of life, not just the urgency of imminent death. Moses could have said nice things to everybody and died basking in the adoration of the people — but “what am I” if I don’t speak the truth, even if it’s not pleasant?” Rabbi Loevinger notes that Moses’s blessing for the tribe of Reuben — that they “live and not die” is rather unenthusiastic – and indeed, the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes that having once been a strong tribe as would have befitted that of the first born son, it later became a tribe of marginal importance. He observes further that Moses says, “When Moses charged us with the teaching…” (Devarim 33:4) he seems to be emphasizing his own place in the transmission of God’s Torah. Rabbi Loevinger sees this in the light of the first part of Hillel’s aphorism, “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” He comments, “Even though he was called a very humble man, he had every right to remind the people of what he actually did. Perhaps this gave his blessings more legitimacy and his words greater power.”
So Rabbi Loevinger suggests that by correlating Moses’s final words with Hillel’s aphorism, Rashi seems to be offering an interpretation of the entire chapter, not only of this one verse. He says, “According to this reading, Moses spoke out of a sense of urgency, a sense of truthfulness, and a legitimate desire for recognition of his real contributions. Thus, Moses’ final blessing also becomes his final moment of teaching us by the example of his life, a life dedicated to ideals, actions, and truth. That’s what makes him Moshe Rabbenu [“Moses our teacher”], not just Moses the leader.”