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The First Mitzvah Given in Egypt Wasn’t What You Think

by Rabbi Dan Margulies (Posted on January 26, 2023)
Topics: Bo, Sefer Shemot, Torah

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There is a well known and much discussed idea that the first mitzvah that Bnei Yisrael were commanded upon the Exodus from Egypt was the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh. This is based on a pasuk in this week’s parsha: “הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים” (Ex. 12:2). The month of Nissan, the month of our freedom, would be the start of our calendrical cycle. This was popularized in the Midrash Tanchuma (Buber) Bereshit 1:11 and the first commentary by Rashi on the Chumash.

I would like to suggest and share with you a thought which runs counter to this idea, while trying to shed some light on a deep ethical problem in the Torah and to provide some manner of resolution and support for the Torah’s structure.

In last week’s parsha, Moshe and Aharon confront Pharaoh and Bnei Yisrael before the plagues of Egypt begin, which conclude this week with the tenth and final plague and Yetziat Mitzrayim. “וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְי אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֒ וַיְצַוֵּם֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאֶל־פַּרְעֹ֖ה מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרָ֑יִם” (Ex. 6:13). Hashem commands Moshe and Aharon to go to Pharaoh and to the children of Israel. In the third chapter of Masechet Rosh Hashanah in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Rabbi Shmuel ben Rav Yitzhak asks what does it mean that God commanded them to approach Pharaoh and to approach Bnei Yisrael? What were they commanded? Were they actually given a command at that moment? What was this mitzvah that Moshe and Aharon were given, the first mitzvah Bnei Yisrael were given in the beginnings of the Exodus?

According to the suggestion from the Talmud Yerushalmi, it was the mitzvah to free slaves, shiluach avadim, which appears in several places throughout the Torah: freeing a Hebrew slave after six years of labor, freeing a Hebrew slave on the Jubilee year, what support and provisions a person has to give a Hebrew slave upon their release, etc. The suggestion is that at the moment of the Exodus, at the moment of being freed from slavery, Bnei Yisrael were commanded regarding how they should treat their future slaves. Now, this should be shocking to us. How could a people who suffered in slavery ever even contemplate or entertain the notion of holding slaves themselves?

The Torah, for whatever reason, temporarily accommodated the institution of slavery even among Bnei Yisrael. But it becomes clear from this framing, as is explicated by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher in an essay in his encyclopedic work Torah Shleimah, that this idea from the Talmud Yerushalmi means that at its core the national destiny of the Jewish people, the mission of the Torah for our nation and for the world, is in contrast to the idea of slavery. It is to push against the institution of slavery, to help bring humanity to the point where the very idea of one person owning another is seen as an inherent contradiction; is seen as a fundamental breach of basic human ethics.

Rav Kasher develops this idea further in the aforementioned essay (which I translated recently). Fundamentally, I think this at least helps give us a sense that our rabbis, Chazal, were aware of the ethical challenges posed by the fact that the Torah does allow slavery, even if it is very mitigated and limited compared to slavery practiced in other societies, and with legal redress for slaves as we will see next week in parsha Mishpatim.

The message for a nation of freed slaves should be to strive for freedom in the world. Rav Kasher connects this idea to the statement of Hillel found in Massechet Shabbat: the core ethical principle of the Torah is what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow (Shab. 31a). A person has to act with basic decency and basic ethics orienting human behavior. In the 20th century Rav Kasher lamented, and it is true even into the 21st, how terrible and painful it is that so many people continue to struggle with how to treat other people appropriately with basic decency—with a recognition and appreciation of the humanity of the other.

If this really was the first mitzvah commanded to Bnei Yisrael upon the Exodus from Egypt, then this is the touchstone, the cornerstone of the revelation of God’s law and God’s guide for humanity in the Torah. That means those underlying principles: How do we recognize the humanity of others, how do we implement that in our lives, and how do we make sure to express it in all of our actions, is something that has to be at the core of our understanding of Torah. 

Shabbat Shalom.