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Parshat Bo

Vaya’asu- Obedience and Innovation

Between the plague of darkness and the plague of the firstborn there is a section that deals with a completely different topic: the laws of the upcoming Pesach and the Pesach festivals that will follow in years to come. At this point the Children of Israel are commanded to take a lamb into their home so it may be sacrificed at the appropriate time. The Torah tells us that the Children of Israel do as Moshe and Aharon tell them and obey the command: “The Children of Israel went and they did as God commanded Moshe and Aharon so they did.”

Though these words may seem dry, the Torah is describing a revolutionary change that has taken place in the attitude of the people of the Children of Israel, completing a process we have not really focused until this point. Moshe’s initial arrival in Egypt was met by the people with anger, fulfilling Moshe’s prediction that “they will not believe me and will not hearken to my voice.” Indeed, the Torah describes that the people did not listen to Moshe because of their impatience and their hard work. And yet here they obey.

The Mechilta learns a number of things from this verse. It points out that the word “va’yaasu,” “and they did” is grammatically incorrect. The verse should have said “vayelchu la’asot,” “they went to do.” The end of the verse is also redundant; it is unnecessary to say “ken asu” “so they did,” since it already said “vaya’asu,” “and they did.” So the midrash suggests that the Torah purposefully emphasizes the two verbs, both going and doing, in order to give the people credit for both. Additionally, the second verb, vaya’asu,” “and they did,” teaches us that God gave them credit for their intention to fulfill the commandment even before they actually did so. Finally, the conclusion of the verse, “so they did” teaches us that Moshe and Aharon also did what was commanded. (Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, Parshat Bo, Masechta d’Pischa Bo, 12)

The midrash uses its unique style to illustrate the changes that are happening at this point in time. The first change is that the people expect a reward for their actions. The people finally feel a sense of protection, responsibility, and perhaps even justice; God has given them a commandment and they know He will reward them accordingly. The second change is the Children of Israel are no longer being measured according to their physical output and achievements; rather, from this point on they will be evaluated based on their spiritual values, their thoughts, and desires. This change exposes them to the aspect of God, their Creator, Who knows their innermost thoughts and intentions.

The final change is that they are finally freed of the rule of men who do not subvert themselves to the same system of laws and commandments that apply to their people and who do not recognize that we are all equal in the eyes of the one and only God. These three changes may seem like basic truths to us, but within the darkness of Egypt such ideas were a beacon of light.

The Ramban cites this midrash, but he reads the end of the verse differently. He explains that the words “so they did” teach us about the people’s absolute obedience, their precise fulfillment of Moshe’s command.

When they departed from before Moshe they went to the sheep and made the Pesach sacrifice in the right time, and it is customary for scripture to repeat and say “so they did” [when it wants] to emphasize that they did not leave out anything from all they were commanded, as I explained in Noach. (Bereishit 6, 22) Similarly, “And Moshe saw all the work, and behold they did it as God commanded so they did.” (Shmot 39, 43) And our Rabbis explain this in a midrash. (Ramban Shmot 12, 28)

Ramban’s commentary brings us back from the realm of theological revolution to the mortal realm of action. Yet his words can also help us understand the frame of mind the Children of Israel had at this point, and the unique situation they were in. What exactly was it that caused the Children of Israel to be so precise with their actions, to realize God’s command exactly as it was given to them?

At this point the Children of Israel had a very primal perception of mitzvot. It’s difficult for them to understand the nature of the instructions they received, to go beyond the letter of the law into the spirit of the law so they could innovate or play (l’hishta’asheya) with the Torah as their children will do in future generations. At that time the Children of Israel were pressed by the tremendous force of God’s awesome revelation. It brought them to a point where it was perfectly clear to them that there is a greater power that guides the world and everything that happens in it. And while the command for action bridges the gap between them, their anxiety, fear and inability to delve deeper leads to a very literal and precise interpretation of the text.

The parallel the Ramban brings from the Mishkan teaches us that this exactitude is indicative of a general religious approach. Just as the commandments concerning the Mishkan were not derived from an existing reality but rather from spiritual principles that could only be realized through precise execution, similarly, the Children of Israel understood all of God’s commands as a collection of metaphysical, almost magic, actions. Just as one cannot change even one number in an entry code and still expect the door to open, so too God’s word is like a secret code that He has given to His followers.

This model is a familiar approach to halacha, described by Rav Kook as follows:

Like all mitzvot which the Torah gave a unique character and description, we are not allowed to make up a form that is different from what is written in the Torah. Even when there is only a small proof in the Torah that a mitzvah has a particular form, even if it is not all that explicit, still we cannot exchange it for a different form. And this is an important rule when it comes to mitzvot- their forms may not be changed or switched with another form that is not the form that was given in the Torah. (Da’at Cohen, Teshuva 197, b’Inyanei Sreifat Gufot)

The first steps a person takes to recognizing God are often motivated by fear or awe. These feelings incline a person towards a literal reading or explanation of the commandments. The principle of meticulousness in every letter and the fear of even the smallest deviation is evident in the tenor of the laws of Pesach throughout the generations. It can be found in the law that chametz is not even permitted bimashehu, even if it is only the smallest portion of the mixture, and in all the stringencies adopted surrounding the laws of the holiday; these can be traced back to the first Pesach and the perception of the Children of Israel at that point. This same mindset seems to be the source of the metaphors of judgment that are attached to the meaning of the holiday- chametz as a metaphor for sin, and our physical search for it as symbolic of an internal, spiritual search of ourselves.

The spiritual development that is necessary for the transition from the Written Torah to the Oral Torah comes with a certain amount of freedom, room for ingenuity and vision.

But the transition from one stage to the other does not mean that our religious perception should change completely. There is no room for this next stage if it is not firmly based in honesty, meticulousness, and obligation. For example, someone who lacks the neurological connections necessary to move his body needs physical therapy that exercises his muscles and body. Moving them in certain precise ways will stimulate the right places in the brain. Once these come to life he will be able to move his limbs on his own and have greater mobility, flexibility, and independence. But if this first stage is not executed precisely he cannot progress and will never be able to move independently.

This explanation allows us to construct another way to relate towards the details and minutia of halacha. It allows us to look deeper and broader onto the expanse in which they operate. And when we serve God through this deeper, wider perception, it brings us to the next stage in the Pesach experience. From this new vantage point the details look like a work of art and the judgment of Pesach is draped in Divine kindness.


English translation by Debbie Zimmerman

Sat, March 24 2018 8 Nisan 5778