Vayera: The summoning of courage

Shemos: The paths of the hated

Vayechi: I go myself

Vayyigash: Two types of power

Vayeshev: Jacob's dreams, Karl's dreams

Reader Response

January 30, 1998 / 3 Shevat, 5758
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg / Bo

Who rules? Man or G-d?

The 10th plague -- the killing of the first-born -- is the thesis. The laws of the New Moon are the antithesis. Tefillin (phylacteries) are the synthesis.

Does G-d reach out to man, or does man reach out to G-d? Is Divine guidance a matter of Divine intervention in human affairs, or a matter of human invocation of G-d into human affairs? Does G-d demand human submission before Him, or stimulate human achievement before Him? Is G-d the Ruler and the Jewish people the ruled, or do the Jewish people also rule themselves? Is the course of sacred history fixed in advance by G-d, or do the Jewish people fix their own sacred history?

The answer to each of these "either/or" questions is: there is no either/or. In each of the questions above, both alternatives are correct. A dialectical relationship between G-d and man is set forth in this Torah portion.

Its exegetical key is the puzzling insertion of the laws of Rosh Chodesh (the "New Month") into the narrative of the 10 plagues. The portion opens with the eighth and ninth plagues. It then describes the 10th plague -- the killing of the Egyptian first-born -- in split and double fashion. First, Exodus describes the 10th plague before the fact; it sets down what will happen, how the first-born will be killed. Then Exodus describes the 10th plague after the fact; what did happen, how the first-born were killed. In between, Exodus sets down the laws of the New Month.

To unravel this strange sequence, one detail in the laws of the New Month becomes indispensable. It is this: The human being, not the cosmos, is the final arbiter of the beginning of each Hebrew month. While each month begins with the first appearance of the moon in the sky, following its orbit of the back side of the earth, it is only a human sighting of the moon that constitutes its appearance, legally speaking. In Jewish law, no Hebrew month is deemed to have begun until two witnesses appear before the High Court, the Sanhedrin, in Jerusalem, to testify to having seen the first sliver of the moon's appearance.

Based on the laws of the New Month, we may set forth this concept: Even though G-d is the creator and controller of the cosmos, the need for a human sighting of the New Moon removes from Divine control the determination of the beginning of each Hebrew month -- and more. The need for a human sighting of the New Moon removes from Divine control much of the scheduling of the Jewish sacred calendar.

Jewish sacred life unfolds, in large measure, in relation to the determination of the first day of the month. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and each of the three Jewish festivals -- Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles (Pesach, Shavuos, Sukkos) -- are all determined by a date in a Hebrew month. Since human beings determine the time of the New Month -- i.e., the first day of the month -- human beings determine when all of these holidays fall.

Human beings help determine sacred time. Human beings participate in distinguishing between the holiness of the holidays and the profaneness of all the other times. Man does reach out to G-d. Divine guidance becomes a human invocation of G-d, a sacred human achievement before Him. The Jewish people do rule themselves in their highest moments and do fix their own sacred history. Yom Kippur cannot occur unless two human beings have spotted the moon and the Sanhedrin has marked that day as the first of the month of Tishrei, for there can be no 10th of the month of Tishrei (Yom Kippur) unless there is a first of the month. The same holds true for the great seder at Passover, on the 15th of the month of Nisan, and for the commemoration of the giving of the Torah on Shavuos, on the 6th of the month of Sivan.

Now, the laws of the New Month acquire their larger significance in the structure of Judaism by their placement in the Biblical narrative. These laws occur just after G-d has said what will happen to the Egyptian first-born and just before what did happen to them. G-d's control of the life and death of any human being reflects, of course, His absolute rulership over human affairs. All the more in the context of the Exodus.

G-d does not just determine who shall live and who shall die, He determines the fate of a nation; and not just any nation, but His covenanted, chosen nation, the bearer of His message, the carrier of His ethics and morality for all history. The 10th plague climaxes G-d's absolute control over human affairs. By decisively vanquishing the Egyptians through "weapons" (the plagues) they could neither fathom nor fight, He characterized enslavement as the paradigmatic anti-value. By decisively lifting the powerless, Jewish slave people to freedom, He characterized submission before G-d as the paradigmatic sacred value.

Taken together, G-d's defeat of the Egyptians and liberation of the Jews establishes that it is G-d who reaches out to man, that Divine guidance is a matter of Divine intervention in human affairs, of human submission before Him. G-d is the Ruler and the Jewish people the ruled; G-d is the One Who determines sacred history.

These lessons sandwich the laws of the New Moon. The great narrative of the 10 plagues, and precisely at the moment of their climax, gives way to a seemingly legalistic, unrelated recitation. "This month shall be for you the beginning of the months..."; and then, on the 10th of this month, shall begin the rituals of the Passover commemoration.

The point of this interruption of the dramatic Biblical narrative is more than G-d's need to fix in ritual the paradigmatic moment of G-d's intervention in history; more than the need to fix in the psyche of the Jewish people the need to remember; more than the need to relive the liberation from Egypt, or to teach it to the children and sustain it generation-to-generation. The point is that the great moment of G-d's revelation of His rulership over human history requires human response, human control, human initiative. "This month shall be for you" -- and by you -- "the beginning of the months."

By its carefully patterned literary split -- by the 10th plague predicted before the laws of the New Month and produced after them -- G-d speaks in pairs. The climax of G-d's omnipotence -- the killing of the firstborn -- is pierced by the human initiative of the Jewish people -- the laws of the New Month, predicated upon human witness. G-d speaks in pairs: I, G-d, rule; and you, human beings, rule. I intervene in your lives, and you intervene in the schedule of My sacred events. I reach out to you, and you reach out to Me.

Within the obvious limits of Divine omnipotence, the relation of G-d and humanity is dialectical and reciprocal. G-d needs humans to acknowledge His absolute power, but also grants human beings power. G-d establishes His uniqueness and oneness as the basis of all holiness, but leaves in human hands the timing of His holy events, the holidays of Judaism. G-d is the Master, yet shares His mastery. G-d reaches out to man, and enables man to reach out to Him.

The other three laws mentioned in this Torah portion fit and indeed finalize the dialectical structure embedded in the 10th plague and the laws of the New Month -- the dialectic of Divine rulership and human responsibility.

If human responsibility is fixed within the laws of the New Month, then within what law is Divine rulership fixed? The classic answer is the Sabbath. The Sabbath is anchored in the Divinely run cosmos. The Sabbath quite literally rolls around with each seventh rotation of the earth on its axis; the Sabbath is utterly independent of any human sighting or any other human activity. Jews do not consecrate the Sabbath; G-d does. The Sabbath is a metaphysical reality waiting only to be embraced.

Prism-like, there is another law that bespeaks the supernatural quality of the Sabbath: circumcision. It is to occur on the eighth day of a child's life. As such, no matter what day or what time of day a Jewish male child is born, he cannot be circumcised without having lived through part or all of at least one Sabbath. Every male Jew must taste the supernatural Sabbath in order to enter the covenant of circumcision. Circumcision, then, betokens the Divine rulership of the cosmos.

Circumcision, one of the remaining three commandments in this week's portion, stands opposite the laws of the New Month. Circumcision betokens Divine rule; the New Month betokens human responsibility. With circumcision and the New Month, G-d speaks in pairs.

The other two commandments in this Torah portion are the law of the firstborn and the law of tefillin (phylacteries). These also form one pair. Tefillin are Divinely designed devices to bring Jews to a consciousness of G-d's rule. A Jew who dons tefillin is a Jew who steps into a new spiritual realm, just as a Jew observing the Sabbath, or undergoing circumcision, steps into a preexistent, sacred realm. tefillin betoken Divine rule. On the other hand, the laws of the firstborn human being and animal are not based upon a preexistent reality. These laws -- to consecrate the firstborn for Divine service -- are the consequence of human activity. The existence of a first-born is not fixed supernaturally within the cosmos, but the result of human decision to bear children or to raise animals. With the laws of tefillin and the laws of the firstborn, G-d speaks in pairs.

Still more. With tefillin -- cited in the final verse in this portion -- G-d brings His pairs to ultimate interrelationship. The phylactery worn on the head contains four passages from the Torah. Two set down the Kingship of G-d (including the Shema) and two set down the laws of the first-born. Two substantiate G-d's rulership and two substantiate man's responsibility, and the two are united within a single, head phylactery. The head tefillin is the synthesis of Divine rulership and human response.


Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is the executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News and the author of several books on Jewish themes.

© 1998, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg