For three weeks now, we have been vicariously reliving the Exodus experience. It all began with the enslavement of our ancestors, the Children of Israel. Moved by our people’s anguish and heaven-piercing cries, we cheered God’s election of Moshe as the leader of the redemption. With Moshe as our leader, we joined in his resounding request, “Let my people go,” only to stiffen at Pharaoh’s hard-hearted refusals. Last week, the hammering devastation of the first nine plagues made us nervously tremble with both fear and triumph; but this week, we shudder in horror at Moshe’s final exhortation to Pharaoh threatening the tenth plague — the plague to end all plagues: “Thus says the Lord: Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die … ” (Ex 11 :4-9). We expect the Torah to then relieve our built-up tension, to recount the final blow and our subsequent liberation. We expect the Torah to continue, as it actually does twenty-nine verses later: “in the middle of the night the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt…” (Ex 12:29). But instead, the Torah introduces Israel’s first commandment, “ha-chodesh hazeh lachem” (Ex 11: 10), the sanctification of the Jewish calendar. Why? What is the Torah’s purpose in introducing this commandment at this time? Why does the Torah interrupt its literary continuity?
Rashi in the first words of his commentary on the Torah likewise asks our question, albeit from a different angle. Rashi quotes Rabbi Yitzhak: “The Torah which is a book of laws, should have begun with the verse, ‘This month shall be unto you the first of the months,’ which is the first commandment given to Israel. What then is the reason that the Torah begins with creation?” In other words, while we just asked why does the Torah interrupt the narrative with mitzvah, Rabbi Yitzhak asks why does the Torah interrupt mitzvot with narrative. The basic issue seems to be what is the purpose of the Torah? Is the Torah a book of commandments or a book of sacred stories? Both? Or more?
The prayer that is traditionally recited at the time of Friday night candle lighting includes a parent’s petition: “May I merit to raise children and grandchildren, wise and understanding, who love Hashem, are in awe of God, people of truth, holy offspring, who yearn for spiritual connection. May they light up our world with Torah and good deeds, and with their every effort and action serve their Creator.” Mitzvah teaches us how to act. Narrative gives us context to understand why. The Torah interrupts its story to bridge law and narrative; it calls time out for us to reflect on the interconnected hows, whys, and whats of being Jewish.
Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels, PhD, is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Newton Center.