Torah Weekly

For the week ending 12 January 2008 / 5 Shevat 5768

Parshat Bo

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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G-d tells Moshe that He is hardening Pharaoh's heart so that through miraculous plagues the world will know for all time that He is the one true G-d. Pharaoh is warned about the plague of locusts and is told how severe it will be. Pharaoh agrees to release only the men, but Moshe insists that everyone must go. During the plague, Pharaoh calls for Moshe and Aharon to remove the locusts, and he admits he has sinned. G-d ends the plague but hardens Pharaoh's heart, and again Pharaoh fails to free the Jews. The country, except for the Jewish People, is then engulfed in a palpable darkness. Pharaoh calls for Moshe and tells him to take all the Jews out of Egypt, but to leave their flocks behind. Moshe tells him that not only will they take their own flocks, but Pharaoh must add his own too. Moshe tells Pharaoh that G-d is going to bring one more plague, the death of the first-born, and then the Jews will leave Egypt. G-d again hardens Pharaoh's heart, and Pharaoh warns Moshe that if he sees him again, Moshe will be put to death. G-d tells Moshe that the month of Nissan will be the chief month. The Jewish people are commanded to take a sheep on the 10th of the month and guard it until the 14th. The sheep is then to be slaughtered as a Pesach offering, its blood put on their door-posts, and its roasted meat eaten. The blood on the door-post will be a sign that their homes will be passed-over when G-d strikes the first-born of Egypt. The Jewish People are told to memorialize this day as the Exodus from Egypt by never eating chametz on Pesach. Moshe relays G-d's commands, and the Jewish People fulfill them flawlessly. G-d sends the final plague, killing the first-born, and Pharaoh sends the Jews out of Egypt. G-d tells Moshe and Aharon the laws concerning the Pesach sacrifice, pidyon haben (redemption of the first-born son) and tefillin.


The Greatest Lie

“You shall safeguard the matzot…” (12:17)

Still as a sentry, my refrigerator had been standing in the same spot for many months; Pesach was approaching now, however, and it would have to move.

Grudgingly, its small wheels struggled through months of sticky under-fridge-grunge, and then suddenly, a pristine white form came into view. Stiff as a board, but devoid of even a hint of mold, a flawless monolithic slice of white bread greeted its first light of day in many a month. (I could almost hear the timpani of Also Sprach… from “2001: A Space Odyssey” welling up to a crescendo)

I marveled at our chemical society that manages to immortalize the transient with no less skill than an Egyptian embalmer.

“You shall safeguard the matzot…” Rashi comments that the word matzot can be read as mitzvot, meaning that just as we should guard the matzot from tardiness, similarly we should not delay our performance of mitzvot; rather when a mitzvah comes to hand, we should do it immediately.

This Rashi is perplexing. Rashi is the parshan par excellence; he tells us the literal meaning of the Torah and it is not his style to deliver homilies.

Secondly, the comparison is difficult to comprehend; there’s an enormous gulf between not doing a mitzvah in a timely fashion and between chametz. For delaying a mitzvah one receives no punishment at all; the punishment for eating chametz, on the other hand, is karet, spiritual excision and premature death.

Quite a difference!

The basis of all atheism is the perception that the world has always been here and always will be here. It’s an easy mistake to make. Time seems immutable. We divide time into minutes and seconds, but that’s only for our convenience. To the untutored eye, time is a megalithic existence with no beginning or end. Time just is.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The very first word in the Torah — Bereshet — comes to contradict that presumption. Bereshet, “In the beginning…” G-d created beginning. Time itself is a creation.

In Hebrew, the word for time is zman. The same root appears in the word hazmana, which the Talmud uses to mean “preparation.” Time’s greatest lie is that each moment seems to be prepared from the moment that precedes it; that each moment obliges the one that follows.

Look into a flame flickering and moving.

All we really see when we look at the flame is the combustion of that split-second, for as soon as it shines, that particular flame is burned and is now ash. The flame you see in the next second is a different flame, and the moment after that there is yet another flame… and another… and another…

We know that each nanosecond of a burning fire is a separate event; yet the flame gives every appearance of being continuous.

The Midrash describes how G-d made Himself known to Avraham Avinu. Avraham was like a traveler who comes upon a great building ablaze with light and remarks that such a building must have an owner. Avraham Avinu looked at the Creation and saw that this world must also have an owner.

In Hebrew, the expression “ablaze with light” could also mean “ablaze with fire.” In other words, Avraham saw that this world was like a burning flame, that every single second was a discrete existence. He saw that the seeming continuity and immutability of time was a lie.

It was this perception that showed G-d that Avraham was worthy to see the reality behind the lie, and as a result the Creator of time appeared to Avraham.

The truth of this world is that God re-makes the world every single second. Every moment is like a flame that blazes and is then replaced with another.

Matza has only two ingredients: flour and water. Bread has a third ingredient. Time.

Just as the addition of time to matza turns it into chametz, so doing a mitzvah in a tardy fashion injects into it the illusion of time.

And there can be no greater lie than that.

  • Sources: Maharal and others

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