by Rabbi Josh Gerstein
In a few days’ time, Jews around the world will gather their children around the Seder table and recount the story of the Jewish people’s Exodus from the Land of Egypt. Within the Torah itself, the story is recounted in Sefer Shemot: Parshat Bo. In that portion, the verses relate the details of the final ten plagues and the mass exodus of a nation of slaves to a free people in the desert. Spread throughout this narrative are the first three divine commandments that were given to the people of Israel as a nation: sanctifying the new moon, “God said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year…” (Exodus 12:1); the Pesach holiday and its various laws, “For a seven day period shall you eat matzoth, but on the previous day you shall nullify the leaven from your homes…” (Exodus 12:15); and the redeeming of the first born, of man and beast, “Then you shall set apart every first issue of the womb to God and every first issue that is born to livestock… Every first-born donkey you shall redeem with a lamb…” (Exodus 13:11-13) In a Torah portion dedicated to one of the most climactic events in Jewish history – the Exodus – one cannot help but wonder if perhaps these important mitzvot fail to receive the introspection they deserve. It would behoove us to take pause in order to discover the deeper meaning behind these commandments, and more importantly, to understand the significance of why they were the first ones commanded to the Jewish people immediately preceding their departure from Egypt towards the Land of Israel.
I believe that a deeper look at each of these three unique commandments will reveal a common theme; namely, that these mitzvot respectively relate to the Land, the Torah and the People of Israel. Taken together and taken to heart, they guarantee the successful establishment and continuity of a vibrant Jewish State in the Land of Israel. And since the Exodus from Egypt was quite literally the first step towards the process of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel as we know it today, with these three commandments the Torah sought to provide us with a guidebook outlining how we can complete the journey.
The first commandment, the sanctification of the new moon, is further explained by Maimonides. In “Book of Commandments,” he writes that this mitzvah is inherently and irrevocably connected to the Land of Israel. Maimonides teaches that the calculating the new moon — and therefore the Jewish months and calendar — can only be undertaken on the condition that there is a single Jew dwelling within the Land of Israel. He adds that if there would ever be a situation whereby the Jewish people would be completely uprooted from the Land of Israel and there would no longer be a Beit Din there, then none of the calendar calculations would have any bearing. (Positive Commandment, 153) Similarly, in his Responsa, Rabbi Moshe Sofer explains that if Jewish settlement would cease in the Land of Israel in our times, then so too would the sanctification of the new moon also be nullified—and with it, numerous other commandments that are tied to the calendar. It therefore falls upon us to strengthen the growth and settlement of the Jewish people within the Land of Israel with all of our might. (Chatam Sofer 1:203) With this lesson in mind, it becomes clear that the commandment to sanctify the new moon is in fact a monthly affirmation proclaiming the centrality of the Land of Israel for the Jewish people. It is a declaration that the Land is not just a place where we live, but rather living in it “is equal in weight to all the commandments in the Torah.” (Sifrei Deuteronomy 80).
The second mitzvah mentioned above concerns the Pesach holiday, specifically the commandment to remove the leavened bread from the home the day before the holiday begins. Many of the commentators ask, why does the leavened bread need to be physically removed from the home? Would it not serve the same purpose if it remained in the home, but simply is not eaten?
In answer to this question, in his work “Gold from the Land of Israel,” Rabbi Chanan Morrison cites a fascinating idea from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. He writes, “The difference between a slave and a free person is not just a matter of social standing. One may find an educated slave whose spirit is free, and a free person with the mindset of a slave. What makes us truly free? When we are able to be faithful to our inner self, to the truth of our Divine image — then we can live a fulfilled life, a life focused on our soul’s inner goals. One whose spirit is servile, on the other hand, will never experience this sense of self-fulfillment. His happiness will always depend upon the approval of others who dominate over him, whether this control is de jure or de facto. What is chametz? Leaven is a foreign substance added to the dough. The leavening agent makes the dough rise; it changes its natural shape and characteristics. Destruction of all leaven in the house symbolizes the removal of all foreign influences and constraints that prevent us from realizing our spiritual aspirations.” (Gold from the Land of Israel pg 113-114) Explains Rav Kook, when the Torah commands the Jewish people to “clear out your homes of all leaven” it is teaching that just like leaven (a foreign substance added to the dough) needs to be removed, so too when the Jewish people were on the precipice of redemption from slavery in Egypt they needed to remove all of their outside influences, i.e. the spiritual leaven that had crept into the Jewish home from the Egyptian culture. This was a necessary prerequisite in order to obtain true freedom, and a vital process in the full realization of their spiritual potential as a nation in the Land of Israel.
The third and final commandment mentioned in Parshat Bo is that of sanctifying the first-born animals, including the first-born donkey: “Every first-born donkey you shall redeem with a lamb….” As we know, the donkey is not a kosher animal and is in fact often cited as a typical example of something which is purely physical and without spiritual value. Why did the Torah designate this ignoble creature to have the special holiness of bechor? In his work “Sapphire from the Land of Israel,” Rabbi Chanan Morrison provides an inspiring teaching from the writings of Rav Kook, whose message is so relevant for our modern times. He explains that when the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt, “…they sunk to the lowest levels of immorality and impurity. Outwardly, they were indistinguishable from their Egyptian masters. Even the angels were unable to distinguish between the two nations. They questioned God’s decision to save the Israelites at the Red Sea, protesting, “These are idol worshippers and these are idol worshippers!” But like the donkey, the impurity of the Jewish people was only on the surface, hiding a great inner holiness.” (Sapphire from the Land of Israel) The encouraging message of the necessity of redeeming even a first-born donkey is that outer appearances does not tell of inner spiritual strength and holiness. An animal such as the donkey, which from the outside appears completely devoid of holiness, is in fact worthy of being redeemed because of the divine spark hidden on the inside. The same is true of the Jewish people; regardless of external appearances, behaviors or beliefs, each person contains a divine spark within him and is worthy to come close to God.
Writes Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, “The redemption from Egypt and the complete redemption in the future are one continuous act of God’s strong hand and outstretched arm. They began to operate in Egypt, and continue to act in all subsequent events.” (Orot, p. 44) In order to experience the final redemption speedily in our days, we need only embrace and internalize the importance of these lessons: the centrality of the Land, the primacy of the Torah, and the unique holiness of the people of Israel.