The First Command



The closing segment of Parashat Bo begins with the section: “Ha-chodesh ha-zeh lakhem rosh chodoshim”( “This month is the beginning of months for you, it is the first month of the year for you.) (12:1). In his commentary on the first chapter in the Torah, Rashi quotes the famous question of R. Yitzchak - why didn’t the Torah begin with this parashat? The assumption which lies at the background of this question is that the Torah is essentially a book of command, and it should therefore begin with the first command that was given to Israel. Whether or not that assumption is valid is not the topic at hand. It is, however, important to note the shift from narrative to Halakha that occurs at this point in the Torah. 


The Torah relates the historical events that took place up until the heated exchange between Moshe and Pharaoh. Pharaoh warns Moshe that he may never come see him again, and Moshe storms out of the palace in anger. The stage is set for the final plague, which will bring about freedom from bondage.  However, before continuing, the children of Israel must be told the commands of the Pesach sacrifice. In other words, the presentation of the commands of Pesach at this point is actually a continuation of the narrative. 


However, when considering this halakhic section, one is struck by a redundancy. Chapter twelve contains three separate subsections, each of which deals with the various commands of Pesach. The first subsection goes from verse 1 until verse 20. The second follows immediately and continues until verse 28. The third picks up after a brief narrative section and goes from verse 43 until verse 50. Why couldn’t all the commands be given in one section? What is the purpose and meaning of this division? Before continuing, I would strongly recommend reading the relevant sections from the Chumash.


II. From Yahweh to the People


In truth, there is no real redundancy regarding the first two sections. The first begins, “And Yahweh spoke to Moshe and Aharon in the land of Egypt saying,” and documents the prophecy revealed to Moshe and Aharon. The second section begins, “And Moshe called all the elders of Israel and told them.”  This section describes the transfer of hilkhot Pesach from Moshe to the people.  There are many examples where the Torah only documents the divine command to Moshe, and we assume that Moshe passed it on (see, for example, Shemot 10:2). Conversely, there are cases where only the command to the people is explicit, and we conclude that this was preceded by a divine command (see Shemot 16:32; Ramban, Shemot 16:4). However, in our parashat, which introduces us to the halakhic narrative, the Torah documented both the divine command as well as passing the information to the people. 


It therefore comes as no surprise that the first section is more detailed than the second, as was already noted by the Ramban:


And Moshe called to all the elders of Israel and said to them” – this parashat is abbreviated, as it was commanded by Yahweh in the previous parashat, since it is obvious that Moshe told Yisrael everything in detail and taught them the entire topic. All this is included in the verse, “as Yahweh commanded Moshe, so did they do.”


Indeed, the basic format and content of both sections are the same. The beginning of both deal with “Pesach Mitzrayim,” the commands of Pesach that were practiced that particular year in Egypt. Both sections then shift to “Pesach dorot,” the commands that are to be practiced in following generations. 


It is noteworthy that the second section is not merely a brief summary of the first; it contains information not previously mentioned. Clearly, this “additional” information was part of the original divine message, but it was only revealed to us when the Torah documented the transmission of hilkhot Pesach to the people. 


An exhaustive study of this section would demand noting all the differences between the two sections. For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that the details added in the second section regarding Pesach Mitzrayim appear to be technical;  they are relevant to the instruction given to the people themselves, as they are about to perform the korban Pesach. In the first section, we read the general command:


And they shall take the blood, and put it on the two side posts and on the upper door post … (Shemot 12:7)


In the second section, we are supplied with the pragmatic details of the performance:


And take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch with it the lintel and the two side post. (Shemot 12:22)


This explains most of the additional information found in the second section. The only interesting exception is the prohibition that no one should leave their house until morning (chapter 22), which does not appear in the first section at all. Was this prohibition said explicitly to Moshe but only mentioned when the commands were given to the people? Or perhaps it was said to Moshe only implicitly, when Yahweh said:


And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the house where you are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you when I smite the land of Mitzrayim. (Shemot 12:13)


It therefore had to be spelled out explicitly to the people. 


Regarding Pesach dorot, however, the respective descriptions of the two sections are totally distinct. The first section shifts from the one night of korban Pesach practiced in Egypt to the seven day festival during which chametz is prohibited. In contrast, the second section continues to discuss the korban Pesach:


And it shall come to pass, when you shall come to the land which Yahweh will give you, as He has promised, that you shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say to you, “What do you mean by this service?” That you shall say, “It is the sacrifice of Yahweh's Passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Yisrael in Mitzrayim when He smote Mitzrayim and delivered our houses. And the people bowed their heads and worshipped.”  (Shemot 12:25-27)


The people are commanded to instill within their children the relevance of the korban Pesach for future generations. They are commanded to pass on a living dynamic tradition by internalizing and eternalizing the meta-historical experience of yetziat Mitzrayim. This unique message, which must become integral to the essence of the children of Israel, is emphasized specifically when the Torah repeats what the people themselves were told. 


III. The Development and Emergence of National Identity


The most puzzling part of the halakhic narrative is the third section.  As we mentioned, the first two halakhic sections actually constitute a continuation of the narrative. Following those sections, the Torah continues the story of yetziat Mitzrayim: “And it came to pass, in the middle of the night, and Yahweh smote every firstborn in Egypt” (12:29). The Torah recounts the events of that night and those of the following morning when the children of Israel marched to freedom.  The section concludes:


And it came to pass on that very day, that all the hosts of Yahweh went out from the land of Mitzrayim. It is a night of watchfulness to Yahweh for bringing them out from the land of Mitzrayim; this is Yahweh's watch-night, for the children of Yisrael in their generations.  (Shemot 12:41-42)


Then for some unexplained reason, the narrative ends and another halakhic section dealing with the korban Pesach, which, according to the narrative had already been sacrificed, is inserted. Immediately following this, the Torah repeats itself:


And it came to pass on that very day that Yahweh did bring the children of Yisrael out of the land of Mitzrayim by their hosts.


What is the explanation for the “artificial” insertion of the third halakhic section? Moreover, what is the significance of the concluding verse, which is both redundant and out of context?


The commentators noticed this difficulty. Rashi simply notes that this parashat was given on the fourteenth of Nisan. His solution is based on the rule “ein mukdam u-me’uchar ba-Torah," the Torah does not necessarily correspond to chronological events. However, he offers no suggestion for why it was written where it was - after the story of yetziat Mitzrayim took place.


The Ramban was hesitant in applying this rule. (See his commentary to Bamidbar 16:1, in which he argues that this rule should be applied only when the change of order is explicit and there is a reason that the Torah parted from chronological order.)  Consistent with his approach, the Ramban offers a reason to justify the sequential break. The Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, suggests that the parashat deals with Pesach dorot, which would explain its post yetziat Mitzrayim location. 


Before attempting to explain the odd location of this parashat, it is important to make an additional note. The term “be-etzem ha-yom ha-zeh” (“on that very day”) appears only 11 times in the entire Torah, and three of those instances are in our chapter in reference to yetziat Mitzrayim. The first time is in chapter 17, in the first halakhic section, when Yahweh tells Moshe about Pesach dorot: 


For on this very day have I brought your hosts out of the land of Mitzrayim.


The second time is in verse 41, during the narrative that describes yetziat Mitzrayim:


And it came to pass on that very day, that all the hosts of Yahweh went out from the land of Mitzrayim.


The third time is in verse 51, which appears after the third halakhic section:


And it came to pass on that very day that Yahweh did bring the children of Yisrael out of the land of Mitzrayim by their hosts.


The obvious question is why the Torah repeated itself three times. 


There are subtle differences in the wording of these three pesukim, which may point to a solution. In the first verse, Yahweh refers to the children of Israel as “tziv’oteikhem” (your multitudes). In the second verse, the children of Israel are referred to as “tziv’ot Yahweh” (Yahweh’s multitudes). In the third verse, they are referred to as “bnei Yisrael” (the children of Israel). Perhaps by repeating the same idea almost verbatim, the Torah is emphasizing the development of the Israeli nation. 


The first reference, which took place on the first day of Nisan, relates to the people as an undefined human mass (“your multitudes”). In the second reference, this human mass is characterized as Yahweh’s multitudes. What generated this change? What dramatic event took place since the first of Nisan that led to such a radical reformulation of collective identity of the people? The third reference introduces us to the “children of Israel.” This human mass now has a national identity. What brought about this change?


According to our Sages, Pesach begins the national geirut process of the children of Israel. Geirut, in its ideal form, is comprised of three components: circumcision, mikva, and korban. This is learned from the collective geirut of Israel, which began with the circumcision that preceded the korban Pesach and continued with the mikva and korban that also took place at Sinai. 


Mori Ve-Rabbi R. Soloveitchik zt”l, noted that geirut has a national element as well as a religious one. On the one hand, a ger accepts the yoke of heaven and the rules of Torah. On the other hand, he joins the national entity of Israel. Therefore, it is reasonable that yetziat Mitzrayim, which signals the beginning of the geirut process, contains both elements. Moreover, it may be that both of these elements are connected to the korban Pesach. 


R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk suggested that that the korban Pesach can function as a korban geirut. The religious component of the korban is clear: sacrificing a korban is an act of worship. The transformation from “tziv’oteichem” to “tziv’ot Yahweh” was accomplished through the collective act of worship of the korban Pesach.  


However, the korban Pesach is also associated with the national element of geirut. In fact, there are only two positive commandments that are punished by karet if unfulfilled - korban Pesach and circumcision. Both are expressions of being part of the national covenant, and failure to fulfill either is punished by being cut off from the nation. 


This aspect of the korban Pesach is expressed in the third halakhic section, which was intentionally separated from the first two:


43) And Yahweh said to Moshe and Aharon: This is the ordinance of the Passover; no stranger shall eat of it.

44) But every man's servant that is bought for money, when you have circumcised him, then shall he eat of it.

45) A foreigner and a hired servant shall not eat of it.

46) In one house shall it be eaten: thou shalt not take any of the meat outside, out of the house, neither shall you break a bone of it.

47) All the congregation of Yisrael shall keep it.

48) And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the Passover to Yahweh, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that its born in the land, for no uncircumcised person shall eat of it.

49) One Torah shall be for him that is home-born and to the stranger that sojourns among you. 

50) And all the children of Israel did as Yahweh commanded Moshe and Aharon, so they did


The Torah stresses that the korban is unique to the children of Israel and prohibited to non-Jews. Emphasis is placed on the national covenantal act of circumcision as a prerequisite for partaking of the Pesach. Finally, the Torah concludes, “And all the children of Israel did as Yahweh commanded Moshe and Aharon, so they did” (verse 50). This verse should be contrasted to the parallel verse concluding the first two halakhic sections (verse 28), where the word “all” is left out.


I propose that the Torah intentionally separated the commands of Pesach into two distinct sections. The first section, which flows as part of the narrative, is intended to document the religious development of the people. It traces the dramatic transformation from a group of slaves serving an idolatrous nation to a committed people, involved in worship and sacrifice. The narrative continues to relate how the people became free from Egyptian bondage and became servants of Yahweh. The narrative concludes with the verse, "And it came to pass on that very day, that all the hosts of Yahweh went out from the land of Mitzrayim," which, in a shift from the original “tziv’oteikhem,” refers to the people as “tziv’ot Yahweh.”


At this point, there is a break in the narrative. The Torah returns to the commands of Pesach in order to document the national development of a disparate group of slaves into a national unit. The commands of Pesach relevant to the collective identity of Israel as a covenantal nation are documented separately, and the Torah symbolically returns to the narrative by repeating the verse, "And it came to pass on that very day that Yahweh did bring the children of Yisrael out of the land of Mitzrayim by their hosts." However, at this point, it is Bnei Yisrael who leave Mitzrayim.


Based on the above, we can return to the divine command that preceded the ten plagues. In Parashat Vaera, when Yahweh commands Moshe to go to Pharaoh and free the children of Israel from bondage, Yahweh says:


That I may lay my hand upon Mitzrayim and bring out my hosts, my people, the children of Yisrael, out of the land of Mitzrayim by great judgments. (Shemot 7:4)


This verse contains a redundancy.  “I will take out (1) my hosts (2) my people, the children of Israel – from the land of Egypt.” It is possible to interpret this repetition as an explanation. Who are my hosts? The answer is “my nation, the children of Israel.” However, based on our analysis of the halakhic narrative in parashatt Bo, the repetition should be interpreted as relating to two distinct ideas. The term “tziv’otai” is a reference to the religious development of the people in attaining the status of “tzivot Yahweh.”  “My people the children of Israel," on the other hand, emphasizes the unique covenantal nationalistic status.