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In his commentary on the first words in the book of Genesis, the medieval commentator Rashi asks a somewhat unusual question: Why does the Torah begin with the creation of the world? Why not begin in Parshat Bo, in chapter 12 of Exodus? There, the Israelites are given the first of many mitzvot (commandments) to observe: namely, the commandment to sanctify the new moon of Nissan, and to declare it the first month of the year, in honor of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt.
A Free People
Rashi’s question assumes that the Torah is fundamentally a book of law, and so should begin with the giving of laws. Yet his comment also reflects a deeper truth about these verses in Exodus–verses which depict a different kind of mythical beginning. While the story of the world might begin in the first chapter of Genesis, the birth story of the Israelites as a free people in covenant with its God occurs here in Parshat Bo.
Sacred Time is Marked
Just as the creation of the world entails a new structuring of time, beginning with the cosmic first day, this Israelite creation story also entails a new arrangement of time. "And YHWH spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Mitzrayim (Egypt), saying: This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you" (Ex. 12:1-2). God seems to suggest that the Israelites should begin counting their year in a completely different way. In this new arrangement of time, the "first month" is the one in which the redemptive moment of liberation from slavery and degradation occurs. It is as if time itself is beginning anew.
This sacred beginning is marked in a particularly powerful way. On the evening of the 14th day of this first month, each Israelite household slaughters a lamb, paints the doorposts of the house with its blood, and eats the lamb in a ritual manner, roasted in fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. This is the first Passover ritual, the prelude to the exodus from Egypt–a nighttime meal eaten in trepidation, as all around the Israelite houses the Egyptian first born are struck down by the angel of death.
And yet, in the midst of this terrifying scene, the bloodstained doorposts conjure up an image of birth. After the long night of the first Passover, we can imagine the Israelites emerging in the morning through bloody portals, leaving Mitzrayim–literally, "the straits," the narrow place–and coming into being as a free people.
In Jewish sacred memory, we are instructed always to remember that our birth story is a story of liberation. As Moses tells the people, as soon as they have left Egypt: "Remember this day, when you went out of Mitzrayim, from the house of slaves, for with a strong arm YHWH brought you out from this place" (Exodus 13:3). We must remember that we were slaves, and that we were born into freedom by the Godly power of redemption. But what do we learn about liberation, from these verses in Bo? What did it mean to become a free people, on that first Passover night?
Up to this point in the Exodus story, the Israelites have been essentially passive characters in the unfolding drama of their redemption. Marking their doors with lamb’s blood is the first thing that the people of Israel are asked to do for themselves. This act thus becomes their first step towards freedom.
God has told them: "I will go through the land of Mitzrayim on that night, and I will strike down all the Egyptian first-born. And the blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and I will see the blood and I will pass over you, and there will be no plague against you to destroy you, when I strike in the land of Mitzrayim." (Exodus 12:12-13).
As Rashi points out, this instruction seems rather strange. Does God, the All-Seeing One, need blood on a doorpost to know who is Israelite and who Egyptian? Rather, Rashi notes, verse 13 says that "the blood will be a sign for you"–that is, a sign for the Israelites, not for God. But why did the Israelites need this sign?
In order to take a step toward becoming a free people, the Israelites had to mark themselves. An essential first step on any journey towards liberation is a willingness to identify oneself: to step up, to speak out, to mark oneself simultaneously as oppressed and as ready to break the bonds of oppression.
By painting their doorways, the Israelites were both claiming their identity and at the same time making public their rebellion. They willingly risked the possibility that nothing would happen that fateful night, that their Egyptian oppressors might not be killed and would rise the next morning to see the signs of a slave revolt, with the doors of each participant blatantly marked. They marked themselves as slaves, and they marked themselves as free.
This is the challenge that our ancestors leave for us. We may no longer be slaves, but the world is still far from redeemed, and these questions still echo for us: What are the steps that we need to take on our own journey of liberation? How do we mark ourselves as both oppressed and free? What is the risk that we each are willing to take, to signal the beginning of new possibilities? As the Israelite slaves were willing to mark themselves and take that first step, so too may each of us be willing to stand out, speak up, and make our mark on the road towards freedom.
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