BECOMING DISTINCT – “Bo” – Ex.10-13:16 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
One Torah reading – this week’s — brings us our transition into our distinct nationhood, our distinctive calendar, and the very trademark of our homes. Warning the people that a destroying angel will descend on Egypt and kill the firstborn human and animal in every household, Moses delivers the Divine commandment to take a lamb for every Israelite household, and slaughter the lamb for a sacrifice to celebrate what will become the first Jewish festival – Passover. And why is it called Passover? Because before eating that lamb the Israelite must put some of its blood on the doorpost to signal that this is an Israelite home, so the destroyer will pass over it. That doorpost signal would later become the Mezuzah that decorates and identifies our homes today.
Passover is not just the first Jewish festival – the festival of freedom – but also marks the beginning of the Jewish calendar. This week’s reading tells us: “This month for you is the head of the months, first of all the months of the year.”
Now wait a minute. Are we talking about Passover or Rosh Hashanah?
In a way, both. The Talmud reminds us that our calendar contains no less than four New Years days including one in Nisan for kings and festivals and one in Tishri for numbering the years. The other two are for ancient tithes. Any Hebrew school student who can repeat the names of the months will start this way: Nisan Iyyar Sivan Tamuz – always starting with Nisan, the month of Passover.
Of course Passover does not begin the month of Nisan. It starts in the middle of the month, on the 15th. Our ancestors had two weeks to prepare for the first Seder, and we all know it takes at least two weeks to prepare for that event even now – finding the “khometz” (leaven) and getting rid of it, shopping for the Pesach food, inviting the guests, polishing the cup for Elijah (the Prophet whom we will welcome symbolically) – and we don’t even have to smear blood on the doorpost. Still, Passover remains a favorite family festival, the first Jewish holiday.
An interesting sidelight to this week’s reading would be to compare Passover with Shabat. Since the seventh day is mentioned as a day of rest in the story of Creation, we must consider it the first Jewish sacred day. Yet we find no reference to it in the lives of the Patriarchs. We don’t find Abraham making Kiddush. Not until the Israelites leave Egypt does the Sabbath appear in the Torah narrative. The manna that sustains the people in their trek through the desert comes to them six days a week, and they are warned to collect double manna on Friday. When they do that, it does not spoil and they can eat at leisure on Saturday. Slaves have no Sabbath, but free people do. Or they should. Maybe the Patriarchs kept the Sabbath without a special ceremony, since those Mitzvos came later. And in fact, no ceremony is mentioned for the Israelites in the desert either. But the Passover ceremony is defined quite practically: “If the household is too small to use a lamb, let them share one with their neighbor… Each according to what he eats, so shall you count for the lamb.” This mitzvah should not prove prohibitive. As Rashi points out, the standard “each according to what he eats” is understood to exclude the old and infirm who cannot eat a full morsel. Thus two neighbor families can celebrate with the same meal. And both will mark their homes. And both will taste freedom.
Can we do less? Today it’s not lamb, since animal sacrifice ceased with the destruction of the Temple. So maybe we share chicken. But the principle remains. Celebrate our freedom. Revel in our tradition. Sing “Dy dy yeynu.” Welcome Eliyahu – and feel that you, too, were redeemed.