The Mark Of Liberation: First Steps
Marking their doorposts with blood, the Israelites took the first step toward redemption, that of naming themselves as oppressed and determined to break free.
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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?
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