In This Issue:
Rabbi Steven Finkelstein
Shaul Yaakov Morison
Rabbi Chaim Jachter
In the middle of this week's Parashah, Hashem presents Bnei Yisrael with their first Mitzvah, Kiddush HaChodesh, sanctifying the new month, “HaChodesh HaZeh Lachem Rosh Chodashim Rishon Hu Lachem LeChodshei HaShanah,” "This month shall be for you the beginning of months, the first shall it be to you of the months of the year" (12:2). Essentially, Hashem is commanding the Jewish people to establish a proper calendar starting with the month of Nissan. Imagine for a moment that you were God. You are about to redeem a nation of slaves and provide them with a system of laws that will transform them into a holy nation. The time has come to give them their first commandment. Certainly it should be something fundamental, a commandment that can serve as the foundation or basis for the entire Torah way of life. Which commandment would you choose? Perhaps to believe that there is only one God. Maybe to observe Shabbat or to keep the dietary laws. Maybe the importance of loving your neighbor as you love yourself.
Hashem, however, chose a commandment that did not make our list. The first commandment He gives is to establish a calendar. What makes this Mitzvah so important? How does a calendar serve as a foundation for the rest of Torah way of life?
I believe the answer to this question can be found in the commentary of Rav Ovadia Seforno. Seforno explains the words "it shall be for you the beginning of months": henceforth, months of the year shall be yours, to do with them as you will. During the period of the bondage, your time did not belong to you it was used to work for others and to fulfill their will. Therefore, "this shall be the first month of the year to you," for in this month your existence as a people of free choice began. In other words, a slave's time is not his own. He is always on call awaiting the master's next command. In this setting it is impossible for a slave to decide for himself how he will spend his time. The decision is not his own.
As the Jewish People prepare for redemption, freedom, and ultimately receiving the Torah, they must first internalize the message of Rosh Chodesh, the idea that along with their freedom comes responsibility. As free people they will be held accountable for how they spend their time. Indeed, as free people they will have the wonderful opportunity to fill their time with positive and productive activities. Alternatively, they can choose to sit back and squander away their time or to spend it inappropriately. The decision will be theirs.
This Shabbat, as we study this Mitzvah, we can each take advantage of the opportunity to reflect on our own use of time, to make sure that with the arrival of each new month on the calendar we can look back with pride and say we have used our time well, that we are one step ahead of where we had been the month before. We are one step purer. We are one step holier. We are one step closer to achieving our utmost potential.
In this week’s Parashah, Mosheh informs Bnei Yisrael of Makat Bechorot, the plague in which Hashem would kill all Egyptian firstborns, and of the protection that the blood of the Korban Pesach would give Bnei Yisrael against the plague. He states, “VeAvar Hashem Lingof Et Mitzrayim VeRa’ah Et HaDam Al HaMashkof VeAl Shetei HaMezuzot UPhasach Hashem Al HaPetach VeLo Yitein HaMashchit Lavo El Bateichem Lingof,” “Hashem will pass through to smite Egypt, and He will see the blood that is on the lintel and the two doorposts; and Hashem will skip over the entrance and He will not permit the destroyer to enter your homes to smite” (Shemot 12:23). One difficulty often raised concerning this Pasuk deals with the apparent contradiction between the beginning of the Pasuk, which states that Hashem Himself will smite Egypt, and the end, which states that Bnei Yisrael will be protected from the Mashchit (destroyer) that Hashem will send. During the Pesach Seder, we stress that Hashem, not a messenger of his, performed Makat Bechorot. If the Mashchit is not Hashem and Hashem is the one administering the plague, then who is the “destroyer,” what is his function, and what protection do Bnei Yisrael need from him?
Makat Bechorot is a unique plague because it is never referred to simply as “Bechorot,” but always “Makat Bechorot.” Conversely, the Haggadah refers to the other Makot as simply “Dam,” “Tzephardeia,” “Kinim,” et cetera. What is the purpose of Makat Bechorot’s unique name?
Rav Matis Blum, in his Sefer Torah LaDaat, answers both these questions by employing the well-known theory that all of the Egyptians’ punishments were Midah KeNeged Middah (measure for measure) in relation to the Egyptians’ cruel treatment of the Jews. For example, Paroh decreed death by drowning the Jewish males in his decree of “Kol HaBein HaYilod HaYorah Tashlichuhu,” “Every son that will be born – into the river shall you throw him!” (1:22). Therefore, his army died by drowning at Yam Suf as Midah KeNeged Midah.
Using the same principle, Rav Blum delves into another of Paroh’s earlier decrees. Paroh commanded his midwives saying, “Im Bein Hu VaHamiten Oto,” “If he (the Jewish newborn) is a son, you are to kill him” (1:16). The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:14) explains that Paroh gave the midwives a sign to distinguish between male and female babies. If the baby is looking down in the womb, it is male; if the baby is looking up in the womb, it is female. This would allow the midwives to kill the baby even before it would exit the womb. Although the midwives resisted this decree and no babies were actually killed, Paroh deserved to be punished for the decree itself, as Hashem counts a Nochri’s bad intentions towards punishment (Yerushalmi Peiah 1:1).
The Midah KeNeged Midah punishment for this decree is found in Makat Bechorot. The Makah itself is a punishment for Paroh’s imprisonment of Bnei Yisrael, who are like Hashem’s sons. Hashem makes this clear when he tells Paroh through Mosheh, “Beni Bechori Yisrael VaOmar Eilecha Shalach Et Beni VaYaavdeini VaTemaein LeShalecho Hineih Anochi Horeig Et Bincha Bechorecha,” “My firstborn son is Yisrael; so I say to you, ‘Send out My son that he may serve me,’ but you have refused to send him out; behold, I shall kill your firstborn son” (4:23). However, one specific aspect of the Makah is a punishment for Paroh’s decree to the midwives. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 17:5) states that during Makat Bechorot, women pregnant with a firstborn died as well. The death of Egyptian boys while still in the womb is a Midah KeNeged Midah punishment for Paroh’s decree of death upon Jewish boys still in the womb.
This view can answer both original questions. The “destroyer” was the Malach who administered the first part of Makat Bechorot, the death of the pregnant women. At this point, the fetuses’ status changed to that of live babies, although they remained in their mothers’ wombs. Hashem, while administering the main part of Makat Bechorot, killed all firstborns as well as all the fetuses. Bnei Yisrael were protected both from Hashem’s main plague and the “destroyer’s” plague. The word “Makat” in the name “Makat Bechorot” hints at the extra part of Makat Bechorot, the death of the pregnant women and their unborn first children.
It is important to note that Paroh was punished twice for his wish to eradicate the Jewish males. Since he separately decreed both death in the womb and death by drowning, his nation’s pregnant women were killed and their babies died in the womb in addition to his army drowning in Yam Suf. Every small action taken by a human being is subject to punishment by Hashem, even if several of these actions are part of a string of actions to reach one goal like Paroh’s actions. Makat Bechorot proves that every action taken by a human being is significant, and as a result, all actions must be carefully examined and reconsidered.
In Parashat Bo, when Mosheh warns Pharaoh of Makat Bachorot, the plague of the first born, rather than list an exact time when the Makah would occur, he says “KeChatzot HaLayla,” “like the middle of the night” (11:4). If Mosheh was trying to prove a point with a warning, why wouldn’t he be as precise as possible? Mosheh obviously knew when the plague was set to occur, so why didn’t he give Pharaoh an exact time?
Chazal say that Mosheh used this imprecision in case Pharaoh’s advisors incorrectly calculated midnight. If the plague was thought to have started even a second earlier than prescribed time, it would have desecrated Hashem’s name. Pharaoh’s advisors may have decided that Hashem was wrong, or that Mosheh was a liar, thus discrediting Hashem.
This shows the importance of never doing or saying something that may be a Chilul Hashem; Even saying something that is close to the truth about Hashem, but is not completely truthful, needs to be avoided, as to not risk damaging another human’s perspective about Hashem.
If words that contain only a little untruthfulness are detrimental to the sanctity of Hashem’s name, we must be extremely careful with our actions. Actions, even more so than words, can define a person and what he or she believes in. Just as we need to be careful with our speech regarding Hashem, we must be extremely careful with our actions, and ensure that they broadcast only positive things about Hashem.
In this week’s Parashah, Hashem instructs Mosheh as to the Halachot of the Korban Pesach. The Pesukim relate a number of specifications that must be met in offering and eating the Korban. These include the prohibitions of eating it raw and eating it after being cooked in water. Why does the Torah require us to make sure the Korban Pesach meets all of these specifications? One particularly puzzling Pasuk in this section states, “VeChachah Tochelu Oto Motneichem Chagurim Na’aleichem BeRagleichem UMakelchem BeYedchem VaAchaltem Oto BeChipazon Pesach Hu LaShem,” “So shall you eat it: your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; you shall eat it in haste – it is a Pesach-offering to Hashem” (Shemot 12:11). Rashi explains that one must eat it while ready to leave on the journey to Eretz Yisrael. Why did Bnei Yisrael have to be ready while eating it? They had to finish eating it by midnight, and the Torah clearly states later in the Parashah that they left Mitzrayim in midday! Finally, why does this puzzling Pasuk end with the words “Pesach Hu LaShem”? It seems quite unnecessary to state here that it is a Korban Pesach!
The Mitzvah of Korban Pesach was inherently pleasant to fulfill. No matter how many specifications there were, it was still a delicious roasted lamb or kid. This pleasure was compounded with the fact that the entire generation has never been able to eat a lamb or kid before this occasion, as it was the idol of the Mitzrim. Now, Bnei Yisrael were able to eat the Korban right before the Mitzrim’s eyes, and their oppressors were powerless to react. Bnei Yisrael may have thought that since their situation was finally good, there would be no reason to leave Mitzrayim and rise to higher spiritual levels in Eretz Yisrael. Hashem, therefore, instructed Bnei Yisrael to make the Korban exactly according to His specifications and appends “Pesach Hu LaShem” to the end of the Pasuk to remind them that the Korban is not for their personal enjoyment. It is instead a symbol of elevation from the depths of Mitzrayim to the heights of Eretz Yisrael. This is also why Bnei Yisrael had to be ready to leave while eating the Korban. The Korban symbolized their spiritual ascent to Eretz Yisrael, and they had to be ready for their physical ascent as well.
Later in this section, the Torah states, “UShmartem Et HaDavar HaZeh LeChok Lecha ULeVanecha Ad Olam,” “You shall observe this matter as a decree for yourself and for your children forever” (Shemot 12:24). Today, we cannot observe this mitzvah, so why does the Torah say that we shall make this Korban forever? Today, we live in a society where we can rise to great spiritual heights without fear. However, as symbolized by the Korban Pesach, one can always rise higher in Judaism. This message will be carried on forever.
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