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Derasha Parshat Bo

01/23/2024 12:00:00 AM


My wife led a wonderful Siyum on Bereisheet for the Kindergarteners yesterday.  R’ Tirschwell prefaced the occasion by going back to the beginning of Bereisheet, and that astonishing first comment from Rashi.  If the Torah is a book of Mitzvot, Rashi asks, then why do we need to know about the Creation? It is to establish, contrary to those who say that the land of Israel was stolen by the Jews, that Hashem created the world and therefore controls who gets which land.  

Back on Oct 8, I finished Yom Tov only vaguely aware of what had taken place the day before. But one didn’t need details to know that Israel was in for another worldwide referendum on whether it had any right to the land of Israel.  And so I too spoke at the end of the Chag about that Rashi, written 800 years ago in a context in which no political claims could matter.  We spend so much time speaking about history and archeology and evidence about kingdoms and sovereignty.  These are all good things to know because that is the way that debates on the world’s stage are carried out.  That first Rashi is not exactly useful in a UN debate, but it should be useful to us.  He laid the foundation of what we need to know.   

At the same time, Rashi does acknowledge that the Torah should have begun with the first Mitzva, which appears in this week’s Parasha.  I want to point out an important parallel between these two beginnings.  Rashi’s first comment really comes before the Torah has spoken.  His second comment is the first time he speaks about the language of the first word of the Torah, the word “B’reisheet.”  He points out that the word announces a beginning.  The word Reishit really denotes two things: First, that it is the beginning of something, of a process of some sort which will now unfold.  Secondly. it is a beginning without any precursor.  There is nothing that comes before.  

Among the processes set in motion with Creation is the beginning of time.  Clocks begin with Creation.  Similarly, the first Mitzva, a book later, also has to do with time.  The Mitzva of Kiddush HaChodesh (sanctifying the new moon) puts the setting of the calendar into the hands of the Sanhedrin.  Not the beginning of the week but the beginning of the month is in our hands.  Another aspect of time begins here.  

This is the first indication that we’re marking here another, parallel, beginning.  We follow the beginning of time with the first Pesach, which is the birth of the Jewish people as a nation.  As we near the end of the Parasha, another two Mitzvot are introduced which are also about beginnings: Tefillin and the status of first born humans and animals.  The two boxes of Tefillin are placed on our heads, at the initiation of thought, and on our arms, the initiation of action.  It’s no wonder that we do it at the beginning of the day.  

The Mitzva of marking the first born is designed to differentiate our way of handling this status from that of Egypt.  We imbue the first born with a sense of holiness, with a strong sense of connection to Hashem.  Israel’s status as the first born of nations is the first thing Moshe Rabenu is told to announce to Paro -- “B’nee B’choree, Yisrael (my child, my firstborn is Israel).  Egypt thought of itself as the leader of nations, the first-born, if you will.  But it viewed that not as a sign of dependence but its opposite.  It was a sign that it was self-made.  In last week’s Haftara, Paro is quoted as saying that “i made myself” (Yechezkel, 29:3).   We all know what that means.  I have a Mechutan who says that he can spot a “self-made man” at 100 paces.  People with that sense about themselves are often insufferable in their arrogance.  But the unmistakable aspect is that they have little connection to Hashem.  The book of Bereisheet is a long polemic against the first-born because it seeks to displace this notion.  

The Torah’s view of the Bechor as acutely dependent on Hashem can be seen in the word itself.  All of the letters are “seconds” -- Beit is 2, Kaf is 20 and Reish is 200.  The word denotes the first born but it announces that this first born knows that he is not self-made.  He is the product of something that came before.  This is the reason that the first born were destined for the service of Hashem.  That’s the proper role for one who knows that he is connected to Hashem. 

This Parasha is the second beginning of the Torah, a beginning with a strong overriding sense of dependence.  It is this which brought the Jewish people to its first Geula (redemption).  And it is this sense of dependence which will bring us again to the status of Geulim (the redeemed).  

Sun, April 14 2024 6 Nisan 5784