Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Parshat Bo

Rashi begins his commentary of the Torah with his famous question. Why does the Bible begin with the account of creation and of the patriarchs. Surely G-d did not need to tell us all of that; this is not a history book. Rather says Rashi, the Torah should have begun with the first real mitzvah (commandment), that of declaring the new month, which is in this week’s Torah reading. It is clear from this question that today’s Torah reading introduces a qualitatively different type of Torah. Therefore it must also herald the beginning of a different Jewish Nation that is able to accept and relate to such a Torah. What is so special about the Mitzvah of declaring the new month that it should be the first commandment that G-d gave us as a nation?

King Solomon tells us in Koheles (Ecclesiastes) “There is nothing new beneath the sun” (1; 9). “Beneath the sun” is a phrase used to denote the natural order, the scientific laws of the observable universe. Everything has been set in motion from the time of creation, and therefore there is nothing “new” that can occur. All that we are able to do is to better understand how these laws operate, and thus to find ways of using them to our benefit. But we are not able to actually create anything new.

Of course this implies that there are “new” things, but that they are “above” the sun, beyond the realms of science and nature. Our Rabbis tell us that “beyond the sun” refers to G-d, the spiritual world, and the Torah which is our gateway to that world. Actual creation and renewal is possible, but only through the study and observance of the Torah and its laws. This is the world order that we as Jews have access to if we choose to delve into it.

The Hebrew words for new month are “Rosh Chodesh”. “Chodesh” is closely related to the word “Chidush” meaning renewal. By giving us the Mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh, G-d is also giving us the power of Chidush. Here we have our opening into the world of Torah and closeness to G-d, the world beyond the sun. Therefore, Rashi questioned why the Torah doesn’t begin at this point, when we are given the key to renewal that separates us from the rest of the world.

Why is this the first commandment given to the Jews before leaving Egypt? Why couldn’t G-d wait until they were standing at Mt. Sinai, and they could have had access to the renewal of the new month at the same time that the rest of the Torah was given to them?

The book of Exodus begins with “There arose new king...”. The Chiddushei HaRim2 asks how is it possible that the Torah describes the king of Egypt as “new”, implying that he was somehow connected to this higher order beyond the parameters of the sun? He answers that G-d puts this power into the world, and it is intended for the Jews to connect to. If, however, they forget that they have this ability, and don’t utilise it, others are able to make use of this potential for renewal against them. This is what happened in Egypt. The Jews forgot what they were there for, and that they could connect to the spiritual power of Torah, the inheritance of their forefathers. Therefore Pharaoh and Egypt were able to use it to enslave them, as it says “There arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Yosef”. Pharaoh was only able to forget about Yosef because the Jews had also forgotten.

Therefore, in order to get out of Egypt, the Jews needed the ability to start again. Despite the fact that they had sunk to the lowest levels of morality, and become as Egyptian as the Egyptians, G-d gave them the gift of Chodesh and Chidush so that they could rise out of the slump and begin again. This is why the new month sacrifices that are commanded in the Torah include a sin-offering. It is a mini Day of Atonement and gives us the chance to begin again.

Many other nations have risen to become superpowers, but eventually their strength collapses inwards as their society disintegrates. All the nations that once ruled the world no longer exist, they have been relegated to the realm of history. Once the social rot sets in, they find no way out. Only we Jews have survived every up and down of history. Whenever we hit a spiritual low and there appears no way out, G-d punishes us, but at the same time gives us the opportunity to begin again with a clean slate. Our G-d given ability to renew ourselves, as individuals and as a nation explains the seemingly impossible longevity of the Jewish nation in world history.

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