Posted on April 7, 2022 by Carole Daman
The focus of this Dvar Torah is the maftir for Shabbat Hachodesh. The maftir, referred to as Parashat Hachodesh, consists of the first 20 verses of Chapter 12 of Shmot. Not only does it relate to Pesach, but it mentions both my and my son Avi’s Hebrew birthdays, the
10th (on an actual Shabbos Hagadol the year I was born), and the 14th of Nissan.
The significance of Parashat Hachodesh, Exodus 12:1-20, is evidenced by the very first comment by Rashi on the Torah. He implicitly suggests that it might have been more appropriate for the Torah to begin at that point rather than with the stories of Creation and the generations that followed. Parashat Hachodesh contains the first commandments given to the Israelite nation, addressed there for the first time as Adat Yisroel, “the community of Israel”. According to Sefer Hachinuch, a 13th-century work based on the Rambam’s list of 613 mitzvot, there are only three mitzvot mentioned in the Torah before this, all in Sefer Bereshit, the Book of Genesis: They are Pru Urvu– Procreation, Brit Milah -circumcision, and Gid Hanashe-the prohibition on eating the sciatic nerve.
According to Sefer Hachinuch, nine mitzvot are alluded to in Parashat Hachodesh and all but the first (which is to sanctify the new month) pertain to Pesach.
These commandments come after Moshe has warned Pharaoh about the coming Plague of the Firstborn but before it occurs. In fact, the actions that the Israelites are commanded to take make them worthy of being redeemed and protect them from being swept up in the plague.
The first command pertaining to Pesach, which only applies when they are in Egypt (so it is not counted as one of those nine mitzvot in Sefer Hachinuch), is that on the 10th of Nissan, they are to take a lamb to be slaughtered on the 14th and keep watch over it for the next four days. The phrase used is “it shall be to you as a Mishmeret.” The word Mishmeret appears only once before this in the Torah. It is when (Gen. 26:5) God tells Yitzhak that he will bless him with the land and numerous descendants because Avraham “has listened to My voice and has kept My charge (Mishmarti), My commandments, My statutes and My teachings.”
Using a noun instead of a verb from the same root, Shin Mem Reish, the Torah reminds us of God’s covenant with Avraham. The verb Shamar is used very frequently in the Torah to observe or keep the commandments, including in the next section of Parashat Hachodesh. With this first mitzvah, the Israelites show that they are capable of obeying God’s command and carrying on the mission of their forefathers. Interestingly, it is performed on Shabbos, which will be an important sign of the covenant in the future.
The Pri Chadash, a major 17th century Talmudist, sees the action of the Israelites as the reason the day became known as Shabbos HaGadol. As each Israelite fulfills his first mitzvah, he is like a Bar/ Bat Mitzvah who has become a Gadol.
The specific nature of what they have to do shows that they are worthy of being redeemed. The lamb is an animal sacred to the Egyptians and represents one of their gods. Openly taking a lamb for a sacrifice and holding it for four days indicates that the Israelites dropped their attachment to Egyptian gods but also that they have tremendous courage.
Several midrashim, including one cited by the 14th-century code of Halacha, the Tur, posit that the reason for the name Shabbos Hagadol is that there was a miracle. When the Egyptians came to inquire what was going on, the Israelites gave an honest answer, and yet the Egyptians did not harm them.
In the next verses, the Israelites get very specific instructions about the lamb, how they are to slaughter it on the 14th of Nissan, put its blood on the doorposts and lintel, then roast it and eat it that evening. Then the focus switches to God’s actions that night. How He will strike the firstborn and the Egyptian gods while passing over (pasachti) the Israelite homes marked with blood. That ends the first section of Parashat Hachodesh.
The second half of Parashat HaChodesh refers not to the present, known as Pesach Mitzrayim, but to how the day will be commemorated throughout the ages, known as Pesach HaDorot. I can only imagine how disorienting and encouraging it must have been to hear about future celebrations of these traumatic times!
Many of the commandments in the section of Pesach Mitzrayim will apply to the Pesach offering of future generations. They are not repeated in the text for Pesach Hadorot. Both sections are focused on eating, and the verb Achal, “to eat,” appears in each section seven times, But the food that is eaten or, in the case of Pesach HaDorot eaten or not eaten, switches from the Pascal lamb, the Korban Pesach, to leavened or unleavened grain. This is so even though when there was a Beit HaMikdash the focal point of the holiday’s observance and of the Seder was the Korban Pesach. As indicated in verse 19, the prohibition of having chametz in one’s possession applies to all seven days of the holiday. And while the obligation to eat matzah only applies to the first, or in the Diaspora, the first two nights of the holiday, many authorities, including the Vilna Gaon, hold that throughout the seven days when one eats matza, one is performing a mitzvah.
The importance of matza for Pesach Hadorot is emphasized not just by it being the focus in this section but by it echoing the language used regarding the lamb to be used for the Korban Pesach. There is no requirement to choose the lamb on a particular day and watch it in the future. The verb “to watch” Shamar is applied instead to the matza. In verse 17, we read “ushmartem et hamatzot” “you shall watch the matzas”. Hence the term Shmura matza for matza has been carefully watched from such an early stage that we can be sure that no leavening has taken place. The significance of this command is highlighted by Rashi’s comment that the letters in the word matzot may instead be read as mitzvot meaning that we should not delay when we have an opportunity to do a mitzvah. Just as the guarding of the lamb was our first mitzvah and an indication that we were ready to perform others, the matza becomes a prototype of how we should observe them.
Another aspect of matza that parallels the Korban Pesach is that it is a reminder that we left Egypt B’chipazon, “hurriedly”. The word chipazon occurs in Tanach only three times. It refers to the Korban Pesach in verse 11 and to matza in Deuteronomy 16:3. The third time it appears is in Isaiah 52:12 when Isaiah contrasts the final redemption with this one. In Deuteronomy 16:3, describing the observance of Passover, Moshe tells the people that “for seven days thereafter you shall eat unleavened bread, lechem oni bread of affliction- for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly B’chipazon.” The same idea is expressed in the Haggada when Rabban Gamliel explains why we eat matza. He quotes the verse from Exodus 12:39 “And they baked the dough they brought out of Egypt into matza cakes since it did not rise: because they were expelled from Egypt and could not tarry, neither had they made for themselves provisions.”
There are many opinions about what this need to rush was all about. They differ as to whether the source of the hurry was the Israelites, the Egyptians, or God. Opinions that focus on the Israelites differ as to whether being ready to leave immediately and being in a rush as described in verse 11 indicates the Israelites’ faith in Hashem and a feeling that redemption is imminent or rather a sign of their anxiety. The second alternative is that it is the Egyptians, who as we see in Exodus 12:33, pressured the Israelites to leave quickly saying “We are all dead men.”
If we look at the text in verse 11, God actually commands the people to be dressed to leave and eat the Pascal lamb B’chipazon. Indeed one of the reasons offered by the Maharal for this command in advance is to make it clear that it is not the Egyptians who are dictating the terms of the Exodus. Another explanation is that the performance of the mitzvot pertaining to the taking of the lamb and to circumcision may not have been enough to make the Israelites worthy of redemption. The Zohar tells us that the people had to be taken out of Egypt quickly because they had reached the 49th level of Tumah, impurity, and if they had sunk to the 50th level, they would never have escaped. The Arizal, the great 16th century Kabbalist, posits that Hashem gave them a gift by raising them up so that they “skipped” (Pasach) to the 49th level of Sharei Bina and that during the 49 days of the Omer, which precede Matan Torah it is our responsibility to work to achieve that level on our own.
There is an even deeper explanation of the chipazon, the hurriedness, with which we left Egypt given by contemporary thinkers including Rav Moshe Eisemann zt”l and Rabbi Efrem Goldberg based on the commentary of the Maharal on Rashi’s play on the words matzot/mitzvot in verse 17, which we mentioned above.
Paraphrasing the Maharal, Rav Eisemann wrote,
The passage of time is a function of the physical. God acts outside the “time” framework. We humans can get to some approximation of that timelessness only by doing things as quickly as we can. On Pesach, where the Ribono shel Olam was Himself involved in the process of redemption, and because of the Ribono shel Olam’s involvement, the process was timeless; things have to move as quickly as they can.
Mitzvot share that characteristic. A delayed mitzvah is a defective mitzvah.
As Rabbi Goldberg states in his 2018 podcast on Parashat Bo, matza is the symbol of God taking us out of Egypt because for us as finite beings to become eternal, holy people who can transcend the limitations of the universe we were taken out with speed, B’chipazon. Our mission is to achieve the spiritual and transcend the physical.
But our mission goes way beyond our own spiritual perfection. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l points out in an amazing essay on Parashat Yitro, by performing mitzvot in accordance with our covenantal relationship with Hashem we show the world that God exists even though He cannot be perceived by natural means. Our survival as a nation through the millennia, during which other nations have perished, signals that there is a divine force beyond history and nature.
One of the specific institutions contributing to our survival is the Jewish family. Besides Achal “to eat”, another word appears numerous times in both sections of Parashat Hachodesh. The word is Bayit, “house” or, sometimes, “household.” The lamb’s slaughter in the Israelites’ houses on the 14th of Nissan shares characteristics of sacrifices later brought at the Beit HaMikdash. Indeed Rabbi Yosef in the Gemara, Pesachim 96a, says that the three parts of the door on which the blood of the lamb was spread were like three altars. Most notably, this is because when a sacrifice was brought to the Beit Hamikdash, the animal’s blood was thrown on the altar. Another similarity is that the meal offerings were not allowed to become leavened, with rare exceptions. Also, like the altar in the Beit Hamikdash, the house that night provided a sanctuary for those seeking to escape judgment.
Especially after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the Jewish home has become a major focus in ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people and their recognition of their obligation to be ambassadors of Hashem to the rest of humanity. The Seder is a family event that takes place not in the synagogue but in our homes.
Now that COVID has receded, it will be easier to join with our families and/or, as in verse 4 of Parashat Hachodesh, our neighbors, to commemorate our redemption from Mitzrayim. May you all have a Chag Kasher V’Sameach!