Parashat Tazria: True Freedom

The most significant social upheaval in history? Revolution of a small group of enslaved Israelis who managed to bring down Egyptian Pharaoh.

Little hand big hand (photo credit: Israel Weiss
Little hand big hand
(photo credit: Israel Weiss
‘This month shall be to you the beginning of the months...’ (Exodus 12: 2)
The recent period has been tumultuous, fraught with the disastrous earthquake in New Zealand, the horrific tsunami in Japan and upheaval throughout the Arab world.
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).
Our sages 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 revelation.”
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.
His final 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 wonders.”
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 exceptions.
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.