Personal Freedom and National Freedom – Parashat Bo
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, we read about the Jewish nation’s foundational event – the Exodus from Egypt. At the beginning of the Torah portion, we read about the plagues that G-d brought down upon the Egyptians after they refused to liberate the Children of Israel, Moses’ and Aaron’s confrontations with Pharaoh, the Egyptian king’s obstinance and refusal to surrender to G-d; and then we read about the Passover sacrifice that the Children of Israel were commanded to sacrifice and eat on that big night – the last night in Egypt, right before the liberation. At the end of the portion, we learn a number of commandments aimed at commemorating and teaching about the Exodus from Egypt and its significance: redemption of the first-born, Passover, putting on tefillin (phylacteries) and more.
These were not the first commandments given to the Children of Israel. Several days before their exodus from Egypt, they were given an interesting commandment, the first one given to the Jewish nation:
The Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, 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, 1-2)
In the first verse, it is emphasized that this commandment, whose content we will discuss shortly, was given to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt. This points to the fact that it was significant to give this commandment before the exodus. What is this important commandment?
There are actually two layers to this commandment. In the first, simple, one, the commandment is to count the months according to a certain order – Nissan is the first month, Iyar the second, and so forth. Why was this important? The important 16th century Italian commentator and physician, Rabbi Obadia Sforno, wrote:From now on these months will be yours, to do with as you like. This is by way of contrast to the years when you were enslaved when you had no control over your time or timetable at all. While you were enslaved, your days, hours, minutes even, were always at the beck and call of your taskmasters. Therefore, “This month shall be to you the head of the months”.(Sforno on Exodus 12, 2)
Freedom is expressed by control over your own time. The slave does not control his time. It is controlled by the will of his master. A free person, however, does control how and when to spend his time.
But this commandment has another layer that is reflected in the words of the great commentator, Rashi:
He [God] showed him [Moses] the moon in its renewal and said to him, “When the moon renews itself, you will have a new month”(Rashi on Shmot 12, 2)
According to the sages, the words “This month shall be to you” includes directions for generations to come, indeed customary for many years, which is the commandment to sanctify the new month. This entails determining Jewish times in accordance to a Beit Din (court), even when there is some doubt regarding when the new month begins – based on the renewed appearance of the moon as determined by the leaders of that generation. In actuality, by fulfilling this commandment, the nation determines its own calendar. It is not a permanent calendar dictated in advance by nature, but rather it is a dynamic calendar decided upon by the nation’s representatives.
According to this commentary, we note the uniqueness of this commandment and the connection between it and liberation from slavery. As Sforno wrote, the slave’s time is not his own; the time of a free man’s is. The commandment to sanctify the new month transfers this principle to the national sphere. Not only is the individual’s time his own, but also that of the nation is independently managed. It is not nature that dictates the Jewish nation’s calendar, but the nation that determines its own calendar.
Just as personal freedom does not stand alone, but rather marks the path to implementing the freedom by pouring real and true content into life, so too with national freedom. It is not enough that the Jewish nation is not enslaved to a foreign ruler. Freedom obligates us to pour Jewish spiritual content into our national lives and to fulfill the purpose for which G-d liberated our forefathers from Egypt: to upkeep the covenant with G-d, walk in His path, and serve as a spiritual and moral role model for all of humanity.