By: Rabbi Shelton Donnell & Esther Edelsburg;
Congregation Kol Haneshama, Jerusalem
“Adonai said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, ‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Exodus 12:1-2). What follows are the commandments concerning the Passover. The command and all its particulars interrupt the story of the plagues.
According to the Ramban, “This is the first commandment that God commanded Israel through Moses.” And Rashi, in his commentary on Genesis 1:1 notes, “The Torah might have begun with ‘This month shall mark for you…’ as it is the first commandment given to Israel.” If the Torah was just an account of the commandments and based solely upon them, then it would have been appropriate to begin here with the first commandment given to Israel. But, the significance of the Torah is in its being a chronicle of the covenant between God and Israel. Moreover, this covenant is a dynamic and not a static one.
With Parashat Bo, the people begins a new stage in the development of its covenant with God. “The Children of Israel” become “The People of Israel.” The descendants of Jacob are about to become one nation with a common destiny and not just twelve brothers and their clans. And it is from this that derives the importance of the first commandment given to Israel through Moses. And because of this significance, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.” It shall have the greatest significance.
At the time that the sages were creating the Mishnah, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote that the Jews were never redeemed from Egypt by God rather, they were driven out by Pharaoh. And more, that Judaism is a superstition (supertitio) and not a legitimate religion (religio), and that those who left Egypt were not a nation but only a rag-tag rabble. Against the likes of Tacitus the Haggadah and Passover itself, emphasize the national identity of the people of Israel and the legitimacy of the Revelation of Torah (and Halakhah), the Jewish tradition and of the people. That is why the commandment to remember the Exodus from Egypt is so important that it was the first commandment received by the people.
1) Is there a difference between the terms “Children of Israel” and “People of Israel?”
2) Is there a difference between the understanding of the concept of national identity between the sages of the Mishnah and Jews today
3) In the Israeli song by Sholom Artzi, “Pitom Kam Adam,” are the words, “All of a sudden a man gets up one morning and he feels that he is a nation, so he starts to walk. And to everyone that he happens to meet he calls out ‘Shalom!’” What do you think the words, “and feels that he is a nation” mean? Is there a special meaning in light of our commentary?