Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            We traditional Jews believe that all verses in the Torah are equally holy, but they're not equally famous. And one of those very well known verses appears in this week's parsha.  Chapter 12 of Exodus begins:  This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year (Exodus 12:2).  The popularity of this verse derives from its inclusion in the very first comment by Rashi (Reb Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105) in the Chumash:  Rabbi Yitzchak said, "The Torah should have begun with 'This month shall be your first month,' it being the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded."  Why would Rabbi Yitzchak assume that the Torah should begin with the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people rather than the Creation story?  It would seem that the assumption was that the Torah should be a law book, but the reality is much more complex.  The term Torah is often translated as the Law, which would support Rabbi Yitzchak's assumption.  However, perhaps a more accurate translation would be the Instruction.  So, I think that we can conclude that our instructions from this holy text are derived from a combination of the narrative and the legal material.  Let's try to understand how the Torah instructs with both laws and narrative.

            There's an important comment made by the Sefer HaChinuch (Book of Education, anonymous, 13th c.) about the nature of mitzvah performance.  This whole book was written to catalogue the mitzvoth in light of the opinions of Mamonides (1135-1204).  So, a very rational approach to the mitzvah system is presented.  The book proposes that mitzvoth represent a pedagogic scheme to produce good people.  Based on that premise, we have the following explanation for the sixteenth commandment in the book, namely the prohibition of breaking the bones of the Paschal Lamb sacrifice.  "It is not respectful for royalty to break bones while consuming a meal, only the poorest and hungriest of the nation do this…Why has God commanded so many mitzvoth to commemorate this one miracle?...Now, my child, listen carefully and I will teach you to truly benefit from the Torah and its mitzvoth.  Know that a person is impacted according to one's actions, and one's heart and thoughts are always drawn to these actions whether they are good or evil…Therefore we are told to do good things, because even the most evil ones will eventually be influenced for good…This is why our Sages said, "God wanted to give merit to the Jews, therefore Torah and mitzvoth were increased for them (tractate Makot 23b)."  So, according to the Sefer HaChinuch the primary educational vehicle of our religion is the mitzvah system.

            However, this presents us with our initial problem.  If mitzvoth are primary, why is the first quarter of the Torah filled with stories before we even get to the mitzvoth?  The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, 2nd Gerer Rebbe, 1847-1905) gives a complex, but fascinating answer to this conundrum.  According to tradition (Pirkei Avot, 5:1) the world was created with 10 statements.  These pronouncements by God, like 'Let there be light!,' are the spiritual basis for our world.  They inform us that the physical world around us hides another reality, namely that God stands behind all the nature surrounding us.  As time went on, humans, mainly our Patriarchs, discovered God behind this fa├žade.  The Sfat Emet then explains that this awareness carried with it an obligation.  How do we express our recognition of God's presence?  We can't allow knowledge to lie fallow without appropriate action on our part.  But what?  Our venerable ancestors decided to spread this realization to the rest of the world.  That was sufficient until the bondage of Egypt.

            In Egypt the equation changed.  Our knowledge of God shifted from academic to practical.  If the mere knowledge of God's existence requires us to behave in certain ways, how much more so, when God starts performing miracles on our behalf.  Therefore the signs and wonders surrounding the exodus from Egypt resulted in a plethora of mitzvah behavior directly designated as memorials to the exodus.  The list of practices, of course, includes activities like the Seder, celebrating Passover, eating matzoh and refraining from chametz.  However, there's an extensive list of activities which don't seem directly connected to the exodus.  This list includes:  all the other holidays, Shabbat, tefilin, redeeming the first born, bringing first fruits to Jerusalem, being kind to strangers, wearing tzitzit, and many others.  What gives?  Without individually explaining the relevance of each practice, the general answer is that we can't separate the mitzvoth from the stories, nor the stories from the mitzvoth.

            We think of the Passover practices as commemorations of past events.  Wrong!  It's important to note that the first Passover sacrifice and Seder took place before the exodus.  The killing of the first born took place at midnight after we had already consumed the Paschal Lamb, and we didn't depart until sunrise.  These mitzvoth aren't memorials to the events; they are part of the story.  Every year we don't just repeat the story; we relive the events anew.  That's why we say at the end of the recitation of the story:  In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt, as it is said: "You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that the L-rd did for me when I left Egypt."  That last quote is a verse from this week's Torah reading, which demands that we tell the story in the first person, because we must feel that it happened and is happening to us.  When Menachem Begin was Prime Minister of Israel, he started bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel.  When he greeted them at Ben Gurion airport, he prayed aloud that this was fulfilling the Biblical promise of the ingathering of the exiles. 

            We can't view the stories as separate from the mitzvoth, and vice versa.  Mitzvah performances without cognizance of the story are empty acts, and telling the stories without doing the mitzvoth are just fairy tales.  The Torah, our instruction manual, requires both the physical act and intellectual involvement, which put us right into the story, and make us one with our history.                             

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