Little hand big hand.
(photo credit: Israel Weiss http://artframe.co.il)
‘This month shall be to you the beginning of the months...’ (Exodus 12: 2)
recent period has been tumultuous, fraught with the disastrous earthquake in New
Zealand, the horrific tsunami in Japan and upheaval throughout the Arab
The Egypt about which we will read this Pessah season was likewise
marked with natural disasters (10, to be precise) and probably the most
significant social upheaval in history: the revolution of a relatively small
group of enslaved Israelis who managed to bring down the Egyptian Pharaoh and
find freedom. What parallels, if any, may be gleaned for contemporary Egypt, and
what role ought Israel to play, since it may be deeply affected by such changes?
We must begin by exploring how our sages understood the first commandment God
gave the Jewish nation: the commandment we read this Shabbat of Pessah
preparation: “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be
for you the first of the months of the year” (Exodus 12:2).
understood this command to be of cardinal significance: first because it is the
first commandment and secondly because it was heard throughout the land of
Egypt! It is identified as having been an “awesome divine
The author of the Pessah Haggada uses the speech of the
individual who brings his first fruits to the Temple on Shavuot (as described in
Deuteronomy 26:5-8), as the basis of our account of the Exodus.
declaration of praise is “The Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and
with an outstretched arm, with great awesomeness and with signs and
The Haggada explicates each of these miracles: “a strong hand”
refers to the cattle plague; “an outstretched arm” refers to the sword; “with
great awesomeness” refers to the Revelation of God; “signs” refers to Moses’s
rod; and “wonders” refers to the plague of blood. Each of these interpretations
is self-evident within the biblical account, except for two: how can “an
outstretched arm” refer to the sword, if there was no plague or disaster “by the
sword” in Egypt, and what does the text mean by the “revelation of God”? The
Revelation that we know of occurred at Sinai, after the Exodus, and pertains to
Shavuot, not Pessah!
The 13th-century Italian work Shibbolei Haleket cites a
Pesikta D’Rav Kahana (a collection of Aggadic midrash) that when the firstborn
Egyptians heard of Moses’s declaration that the Egyptian firstborn would be
slain, they started a rebellion against Pharaoh, and against those of their
parents who sided with Pharaoh, killing 600,000 Egyptians. The Avudraham derives
the fact that the Egyptian revolution began from within the ranks of the
firstborn Egyptians from Psalm 136:10. And what inspired the Egyptians to rebel
against Pharaoh? The Ritva maintains that it was the first commandment of our
special biblical portion Shabbat Hahodesh, which was the Revelation heard
throughout the Land of Egypt.
That is why Exodus 12 opens with the words
“And the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron in or throughout the land of Egypt”
(and the Midrash Shemot Raba 15:5 refers to this as a divine revelation within
the impurities of Egypt); I would also suggest that the commandment be
translated, “This renewal [of the moon, hidush] shall be for you the beginning
of the month, in accordance with Rashi’s reading based on the Midrash and the
interpretation of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch.
The sun, Egypt’s major
deity, appears to the beholder to be constant; the moon changes, and from the
depths of its waning emerges the new light of rebirth. Pessah is the festival of
our freedom, based on the inalienable right of every human being to be free. The
moon is the symbol that change and revolution are possible even against the most
entrenched despot; and change for the sake of freedom is the highest expression
of God’s will.
Although the Arab world does not have a history of
democracy (for democracy without freedom is valueless, as we know from the Hamas
government in Gaza and Hitler’s Third Reich), Israel has demonstrated to the
Arab nations the many gifts true democracy can bring. Although most revolutions
fail, generally creating an even more corrupt government (witness the French,
Communist and Iranian revolutions), there have been notable
Let us pray that the present unrest will usher in a Middle
East of true freedom and peace.
Certainly Israel must aid every
government based on the freedom of its citizenry.The writer is the
founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and
chief rabbi of Efrat.
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