Parshas Bo; Friend in High Places

Sometimes a small act can facilitate larger events. I remember during my first year in Yeshiva I was sent to reserve a bimah down by the Kotel on Friday night, just before the Yeshiva would come down and daven there. I saw one free bimah with about four people standing round it. Politely, I asked if I could have it for the 200-or-so people in my minyan. The people gave me a look which, if verbalised, would have resembled a more abrasive form of ‘I don’t believe you have that many people coming, you just want our bimah.’ Anyway, the last laugh was mine when I saw their faces upon sighting the rows of about 200 yeshiva bachurim singing and dancing down to the Kotel together heading straight for…their bimah. And in fact, they joined our minyan that night as far as I remember. The point, at least as far as this dvar torah is concerned, is that it can take a small act (saving a bimah) to allow a larger act (mass minyan) to occur. There is a similar theme present in this week’s sedra Bo (gematria of 3 corresponding to its 3 plagues; ba’al haturim) which we shall pG discuss.

After the plagues of locusts and darkness in the sedra, HaShem relates the warning for the plague of the firstborns to Moshe, who in turn relates it to Pharoah (perek 11). Then, there’s a brief interlude from all the action of the plagues, in which HaShem gives the Bnei Yisrael their first mitzvah as a people; namely Kiddush hachodesh; declaring the new month, and then the mitzvah of the korban pesach (perek 12). It is only after this that we are told about the performing of the plague of the firstborns and our consequent exit from Egypt. The important thing to note here is that, unlike the rest of the plagues, in the plague of the firstborns the Torah splits up the warning and the actual plague. One can ask two questions here. Firstly, chronologically, the giving of the mitzvos of kiddush hachodesh and pesach actually came before the warning of the plague of the firstborns (chizkuni 12;1). Why, then, did the Torah switch the order round and in doing so divided the warning from the actual plague? Secondly, why are these mitzvos chosen to precede the final plague and our exodus? Let’s discuss kiddush hachodesh first… Each festival has its particular theme and message, and HaShem ensures that these days are easier for us to internalise this message and build on it. For example, one theme in Purim is the ability to recognise HaShem behind a hidden screen, so to speak. Thus, the day of Purim is made particularly apt to internally processing this message. The same goes for Chanuka regarding sticking strong to our Torah ideals, and Yom Kippur for teshuva and atonement, Shavuos for re-accepting the Torah, etc. This is the normal course of events. There is, however, a way in which this does not occur. If we (ie beis din) do not declare the new month (Kiddush hachodesh) then there are no festivals that month and no special Divine Assistance for that period comes down for us to enjoy and make the most of (Ritva, rosh hashanah. He cites an example where once, Beis Din did not declare the month - due to Roman decrees - and there was no Yom Kippur that year). Thus, a central idea of the mitzvah of kiddush hachodesh is that we are in a partnership with HaShem, so to speak, and HaShem responds to our actions, the greatest example of which is our ability to control, so to speak, the Divine Assistance of the festivals. This is the way HaShem set the world up, and there are many examples, a few of which we shall cite…

Firstly, HaShem Himself says that it was our screams and cries from our slavery in Egypt which ‘pushed’ HaShem to come and redeem us (Shemos 2;23, 3;7-9). Moreover, the gemarra (megillah 29a) comments that everywhere we were exiled to, the schechinah (HaShem’s Presence) went with us, and that HaShem will not ‘go to the Jerusalem in the higher world before we make our Jerusalem and inner communities holy’ (Taanis 5a). Likewise, Shlomo Hamelech’s Shir HaShirim describes us and HaShem as bride and groom, with other places describing our relationship as that of Father and son (eg devarim 14;1 and the avinu malkeinu). Either way, it’s a relationship. In fact, one can see this relationship and theme of HaShem corresponding to our actions across history; there are rarely parts in Jewish History where things are ‘normal.’ Either we have experienced periods of highs and glory, or endured lows of brutal persecution and suffering. For that is our direct relationship with HaShem; either we are keeping and building the relationship, or we are ignoring it - there is no ‘middle level.’ To quote Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai ‘Happy are you, Bnei Yisrael, for when you perform HaShem’s Will then no nation can rule over you. And when you do not do HaShem;s Will, He hands you over to the hands of the lowest nation’ (Kesubos 66b) [‘Happy are you’ even when we are handed over to other nations after not doing His Will, for this shows a direct relationship between us and Him, for He directly responds to our actions.] Perhaps the most vivid expression of this relationship is that of the Sfas Emes in explaining the rule that one gets more reward for doing a mitzvah when commanded than doing a mitzvah when not commanded. He says that when one does a mitzvah which he is commanded to do, he joins with HaShem in that HaShem commanded it and you performed it - as if HaShem was the brain and you were the body who acted out the thoughts of the brain. [The word mitzvah comes from the root tzevet, a team; R’ Tatz.] In short, the idea is that our direct relationship with HaShem means that our small actions can ensure larger responses from Above. [The extent of the responses and, indeed, the nature of our acts needed to elicit such responses will vary from person to person and from generation to generation; compare our acts at Purim and Chanukah as an example.]

This helps us to answer our two questions. This is why kiddush hachodesh is the first mitzvah, for it shows that what we do down here - in this context the mitzvos we perform - are ‘matched’ by HaShem and He does much more in response. And this is also found in korban pesach; that it was our commitment to follow HaShem’s Command and slaughter the Egyptian gods in front of their eyes and thus prepare ourselves to accept HaShem’s Kingship, which facilitated our being taken out of Egypt. Thus, these two mitzvos separate the warning of the plague and its performance, for this conveys the message that it was in the merit of this mitvah that we were redeemed. In short, a relatively small act on our part brought on a much larger act from HaShem in redeeming us.

This also connects to the mitzvah given at the very end of our sedra; Tefillin. Tefillin also show this relationship between us and HaShem; our tefillin describe HaShem’s oneness and greatness, etc, whilst the gemarra says that HaShem also has tefillin, which describe the greatness of the Jewish People (chagigah 3a-b). Moreover, the mitzvah of the shel yad is the action of tying them on our arms, whilst the mitzvah of the shel rosh is not the action of putting them on our heads, but rather the end result of them being on our heads (Rambam start of hil. Tefillin) - representing the idea mentioned above; that first one does their action and then HaShem corresponds with providing His end result; in this case of Tefillin that one becomes re-sensitised to tapping into the spiritual world (which is why the shel rosh is positioned where a baby’s skull was once soft, and could thus easily tap into spirituality). In summary, in a world where people feel and genuinely believe that their actions do not count/matter, a challenge is to break out of this mould, just like HaShem brought us out of Mitzrayim. Indeed Yetzias Mitzrayim can also be read Yetzias Metzarim - breaking out of limits.

Have a great Shabbes,

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