The majority of the 20 mitzvot/commandments in parashat Bo concern Passover. Shortly before the freedom Exodus, God conveyed, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year” (Ex. 12:1).
“This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year”Exodus 12:1
This mitzvah is connected to the flight from slavery, as well as a year-round commandment: the establishment of a calendar.
Why did God command the institution of the calendar at that moment?
Slaves are not free to determine the use of their time. It is an instrument of free people. God introduced the calendar in anticipation of the fuller agency that would soon follow.
With that, we note the paradox of replacing the constraints of slavery with the restraints of a system of 613 mitzvot.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”Janis Joplin
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” sang Janis Joplin. Explaining those iconic lyrics of his, Kris Kristofferson elucidated, “It looked like I’d trashed my act. But there was something liberating about it. By not having to live up to people’s expectations, I was somehow free.”
Judaism presents a different conviction: Freedom comes with expectations situated within covenantal relationships between humans and God, and between humans and humans.
For many Jews, the mitzvot give their lives meaning and purpose in profound and perceived holy ways, allowing their souls to sing through the course of everyday life. At the same time, for some, the power of the mitzvah system also comes, and in growing magnitude, with a blinding intolerant outlook toward those who live their lives differently.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer (in his Entering Jewish Prayer, p. 37) wrote, “Routinization is a very common disease. Anything that is done constantly, day in and day out, in a fixed manner, can become so much a part of human habit and pattern of action that it is done without thought. It leaves the realm of conscious action and becomes part of automatic functioning. Buber called this ‘the leprosy of fluency’... an outward performance with no inner meaning” (ibid.).
Linked is the assumption that the more mitzvot one does, makes that person a more authentic Jew. As a yardstick, there is a logic with that thinking, but it does not yield the fullest picture.
There are many Jews who are considered Orthodox, halachic-living Jews, and are rewarded by the State of Israel for that lifestyle. Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are barely supported by the state, if at all, since they are not perceived as being authentic representations of Judaism but rather whittle down Judaism by picking and choosing which mitzvot to follow.
At the end of the day, all Jews winnow and select, even Halacha-following Jews.
A case in point: God’s magnificent holy creation is under tremendous strain and abuse from human-produced climate change, and so the care of this world, on loan to us and the rest of humanity from God, is paramount. Yet, with that imperative as outlined by Rambam, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and other halachic authorities, there are too many observant Jews who ignore this vital Jewish precept but are still accorded the status of mitzvot-following Jews.
By the same token, there are too many non-Orthodox Jews who do not engage with the mitzvot. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan taught that the halachic system should have “a voice but not a veto” (Judaism Without Supernaturalism, p. 28). For too many non-Orthodox Jews, the veto automatically overrides even listening to that voice.
But to dismiss those Jews as not being authentic Jews misses the point; as stated above, all Jews cull from the Jewish tradition. In addition, Judaism has existed for over a millennium and has remained vital because it has developed. Talmudic scholar Rabbi Judith Hauptman points out Halacha has a long tradition of evolving in response to changing social and societal conditions.
With the breaking down of the ghetto walls, particularly in the 19th century, Judaism faced then, as it still faces today, what Rabbi Ira Eisenstein called “Judaism under freedom.” Being separate within the ghetto made it easier for the continuity of Judaism and the Jewish people. The challenge since then is how to reconstruct a system in that new, freer reality – no easy task.
For some, in response, there has been a circling of the wagons – a rebuilding, if you will, of ghetto walls to separate from both other Jews and the world at large.
Which brings us to a crocheted kippah-wearing minister in the government of the Jewish state who said, “I may be a far-right person, a homophobe, racist, fascist, but....” I vehemently disagree with his views, based on the Jewish values I live by and cherish, gleaned from the Torah, the Talmud and Jewish thinkers throughout the centuries. But I need to also understand that he has staked his claims through the Jewish values he lives by.
So where does that leave us?
This divide goes to the heart of what it means to be a Jew: a narrow focus versus a more open focus.
The former is oriented toward the 613 mitzvot, with the belief that the world is best understood through that system because that is how the world operates – a halachic framework of judgment realized through reward and punishment.
The other school of Jewish thought: treating the mitzvot as a means and not an end, seeing the primary Jewish vocation as repair and healing.
Both of these orientations provide direction, purpose, meaning and safety for those who follow either. All are important qualities for a committed and meaningful life.
WHICH BRINGS us back to the mitzvah of creating a calendar.
Rashi (Gen. 1:1) raises the question that the Torah should have started with Exodus 12 and the calendar mitzvah and not with Genesis 1.
Answering his own question, Rashi states that the Torah begins with the Creation story to establish that the world created by God belongs to God, and so God was and is empowered to give the Land of Israel to the Jewish people.
That can be a reading of the text, but it is not the only one. We can also submit that the Creation story of Genesis 1 and the establishment of the calendar in Exodus 12 are representative of the two schools of Jewish thought presented above – a more open and a more circumscribed orientation. Genesis 1 presents a more universal understanding of our role and our place in the world, while Exodus 12 points to a narrower bearing and concern.
All human identities have both insular and cosmopolitan strains. In the concentric circles of identity and life, striking a balance is a great existential human challenge.
That debate is playing out today in many countries and societies around the world. The soul of the world in general, and the soul of the Jewish people and the Jewish nation in particular, hang in the balance between the two.
Within this parasha, we read about many of the critical moments in our escape from slavery to freedom. The place we left (Egypt) is called Mitzrayim – “the narrow and constricting place.”
It is a chapter of our history we reference every day in the siddur/prayer book and which we highlight during Passover – reminding us that in the balance between the constricting and the more open, we should lean toward the latter.
The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.