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Torah Commentary
Bo (January 16, 2016)

Bettijane Eisenpreis

Parashat Bo is one of the most action-packed sections of the book of Exodus, perhaps of the whole Torah.

It tells the story of the last three plagues — locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn. By the end of the parashah, the Exodus has begun, although the Israelites do not cross the Red Sea in safety until the next parashah.

In the midst of all the drama, it is easy to miss the two lines I have quoted above. The Lord speaks to Moses and Aaron, telling them that the month of the Exodus, the month we now call Nisan, shall be the first month of the year. He goes on to describe many elements of what has become our Passover observance, including the special meal and the eating of unleavened bread for seven days.

There is a traditional saying that “There is no before or after in the Torah,” so it is not surprising that God commands the people to celebrate Passover before they have actually “passed over.” Given the fact that Passover always has been and continues to be one of our most important holidays, it is no surprise to see it highlighted in the midst of the story of the Exodus. The themes of spring, of rebirth and of people successfully combatting oppression appeal to many people — Jews and non-Jews alike. Who doesn’t enjoy a Seder (other than the person who has to prepare it)?

But even before God tells the people how to observe Passover, He tells them when. “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months,” He says.

If the month of Nisan is the beginning of the months, why do we observe the New Year in the seventh month, Tishri? In the Bible, Rosh Hashanah is simply referred to as the holiday of the blowing of the Shofar. But it makes sense in an agricultural society that both Passover, the spring holiday which marks the beginning of the growing season, and Rosh Hashanah, which comes in the fall, just before the time of harvest, would be important. (Actually, Sukkot, the real harvest festival, was very important in ancient Israel — possibly more important than Rosh Hashanah.)

Even though we don’t live in an agricultural society, it always has seemed foolish to me to start the year in January. When you buy a concert series or sign up for a course of study, you don’t start in January. Nothing starts in January except lengthening daylight. Janus, the Roman god for whom the month is named, is portrayed as having two faces so that he can look both forward and backward. It’s true that most school years do start in the fall and end in the spring. But still, starting the year in the spring makes all kinds of sense. The world is starting anew. Grass begins to grow, flowers to bloom. People come back from Florida and say “hello” to us. We start planning vacations or courses of summer study.

Just as the story of the Exodus paused to set Nisan as the first month and to tell us to observe the Passover, so the world pauses, takes a deep breath and thanks God that we have survived another winter. “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.” I’ll drink to that — all four cups of wine!

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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