Unlike Moshe’s previous meetings with Pharaoh in which he was instructed by G-d to ask Pharaoh for the Israelites’ release and threaten him with plagues if he did not comply, in the opening scene of Parshat Bo, G-d gave Moshe no such instructions. He simply told him, “Bo el Paroh, ki Ani hichbadti es libo – Come to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart” (Shemos 10:1). There is no point in asking Pharaoh for anything because even though he repented after the seventh plague and admitted that he was wicked and G-d is righteous, (9:27), nevertheless G-d had taken control of his will and would not let him do what he really wanted to do at that point, to let the people go. This is because Pharoah still deserved another three plagues so that his punishment should match his crimes. Each plague was a punishment for each crime committed by Pharoah, culminating in the slaying of the first born in retribution for the murder of the Jewish children (Rashi to 8:17).
G-d does not enjoy meting out punishment, neither does He initiate it. Punishment is the automatic outcome of derelict human behavior: “Mipi Elion lo seitzei ha’raos v’hatov; Ma yisonein adam chai gever al chata’av – Evil and good do not come from G-d, they are a direct result of mans’ actions” (Eichah 3:38-39). The full quota of the ten plagues had to be inflicted on Pharaoh not only because he deserved them for enslaving the Israelites for 210 years, but also so that the Israelites would witness the inevitable consequences of sin: “U’lma’an tesaper b’oznei vincha u’ven bincha es asher hisalalti b’Mitzrayim – So that you may tell your children what I did to the Egyptians” (10:2). As Rashi points out, the Torah does not use the active form, but the reflexive form of the verb – hisalalti – because punishment is the reflexive outcome of sin.
Interestingly, the Torah uses the word “bo” (come to Pharoah) instead of “lech” (go to Pharoah). Each one of us must silence the voice within us that, like Pharoah, might say, “Who is G-d that I should obey him?” (5:2). We need G-d’s help in silencing that voice. And so G-d says “come with me” and I will help you overcome that rebellious voice within you in the spirit of “If one comes to purify himself, G-d assists him” (Avodah Zarah 55a).
“Kachatzos halayla Ani yotzei b’soch Mitzrayim – When the night splits, I will go out in the midst of Egypt” (11:4). The miracle of the Exodus was the second installment of the miracle which saved Avraham in his battle with the four kings. We are told that the mud Avraham flung at them was miraculously transformed into lethal weapons. But this magic ceased abruptly for Avraham at midnight: “Vayecholek aleihem layla” (Rashi to Bereishis 14:15). That miraculous night split in two. The first half of that night was used to save Avraham. The second half of that night was reserved for the miracle of the Exodus on the night of the fourteenth of Nissan, Leil Shimurim. “It is a night in which G-d guards you to bring you out of Egypt” (12:42).
The numerical value of “bachatzi halyala” (12:29) is 190. As a result of the splitting of the night, 190 years were deducted from the intended slavery of 400 years resulting in actual slavery of 210 years.
“Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim – The month of Nissan is the first month of the year for you, the Jews” (12:2). For the rest of the world, the first month of the year is the month of Tishri when the world was created. The New Year of Tishri celebrates the physical creation of the world. True, we Jews celebrate it too and are judged on that day for the sins we have perpetrated in the physical world we inhabit, but for the purpose of our spiritual existence, Nissan is the first month.
The word “Nissan” contains within it the word “nes,” miracle. Nissan was the first month in which the fate of the Jewish nation was first controlled by miracles, like the ten plagues visited on the Egyptian taskmasters, the Exodus of slaves from the all powerful land of Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea and the clouds of glory, the well of Miriam and the mannah that protected and sustained us in the wilderness. Unlike the rest of humanity which is governed by the horoscope, the Jews have the ability to overcome the fate that the stars have preordained for them, by following the laws of the Torah. It is the Torah that counts for us and by which we count the months of the year. The month of Nissan in which the Exodus – the prerequisite to the giving of the Torah – occurred is the first month of our year.
Nissan was a month that the Egyptians celebrated too. But for a different reason. The month of Nissan is governed by the zodiac sign of the sheep. The sheep is referred to in the Torah as “ashteros tzon,” because sheep make their owners prosper, “she’ma’ashiros es baaleihen” (Rashi to Devarim 28:4 based on Chullin 84b). The sheep which produces wool each year is a symbol of continuous prosperity, and as such it was worshipped as an Egyptian deity. The danger for the Jews was, and still is, that they too would worship wealth, rather than G-d. Too avert this danger, we were commanded to slaughter the deity of prosperity on the fourteenth of Nissan.
We began this procedure of the Korban Pesach on the tenth day of Nissan, which we are told was Shabbos HaGadol. On that Shabbos, we took the sheep and earmarked it for the slaughter which would take place four days later on the fourteenth day of Nissan. The sheep, which was the Egyptian symbol of physical prosperity, was first taken on Shabbos which celebrates the creation of the physical world, Shabbos Bereishis. It was guarded for four days until the afternoon of the day of Pesach on the fourteenth of Nissan, when it was slaughtered in celebration of the Exodus, which led to the spiritual world of the Torah. The taking of the sheep for slaughter was not done in secret behind the Egyptians’ back, but was done in their face and it was announced four days before it happened, to give the Egyptians a chance to object and kill the Jews before they could slaughter their god. But that did not happen because the mitzvah of Korban Pesach protected us: “V’haya lachem l’mishmeres ad arbaah asar yom lachodesh hazeh, v’shachatu oso kol kehal adas Yisrael – And you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the month and you shall kill it towards evening” (12:6).
That Nissan celebrates our spiritual being rather than our physical existence is also evident from the fact that Nissan is in the spring, the season of planting and not in Tishri, the season of reaping. For us, the point of this world is to prepare ourselves for the world to come. Here is where we plant the seeds of reward to be reaped in the next world: “Fix yourself in the corridor so that you may enter the hall” (Mishnah Avot 4:16).
“V’achlu es habasar balayla hazeh tzli aish u’matzos al merorim yochluhu – Eat the meat during the night, roasted over fire with matzah and bitter herbs” (12:8). These three ingredients, the meat of the Korban Pesach, the bitter herbs and the matzah, which were all eaten together, had one characteristic in common: speed. “V’achaltem oso b’chipazon, Pesach hu laShem –You must eat it in haste, it is the Pesach offering to G-d” (12:11). Time was of the essence. We had to leave Egypt quickly before we would change our minds and elect to stick with the status quo, rather than risk the uncertain and dangerous existence of freedom in the wilderness. And we had to leave quickly before G-d would change his mind too and begin to focus on our sins, rather than passing over them. After all, the angels were questioning G-d’s decision to save the Jews, and arguing that the Jews were also idol worshipers just like the Egyptians.
The ingredient that accelerated the arrival of the Exodus, reducing it by 190 years to 210 years, was the intensity of the slavery. This is signified by the maror: “Vayimoreru es chayeihem ba’avodah kasha – They made the lives of the Israelites miserable with harsh labor” (1:14). If all of the contributions that the Jews made to Egyptian society, starting from the time of Yosef, culminated in slavery and persecution, then what was the point? We’d better get out of here and get out fast. And the fastest way of preparing provisions for the journey was to bake unleavened bread and save the time it would have taken for the dough to rise. “Vayofu es habatzeik asher hotzi’uh miMitzrayim ugos matzos, ki lo chametz, ki gorshu miMitztrayim, v’lo yachlu l’hismamei’ah – They baked the dough that they had brought out of Egypt into unleavened cakes, since it had not risen. They had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay” (12:39). (And the fastest method of preparing the meat of the Korban Pesach was tzli aish, to roast it.)
“Ach asher ye’acheil l’chol nefesh hu levado yei’asheh lachem – The only work that you may do is that which is needed so that everyone will be able to eat” (12:16). Why is it that one is not allowed to cook on Shabbos but one is allowed to cook on Yom Tov? Shabbos celebrates the creation of the physical world. In recognition of the fact that it was G-d who created the world, we cease all skillful work on Shabbos, including cooking, which demonstrates our mastery over nature. Yom Tov celebrates the creation of the spiritual world. Pesach celebrates freedom. Shavuos celebrates the giving of the Torah and Sukkos celebrates our dependence on G-d under whose protective clouds of glory we live for seven days. On these spiritual days of Yom Tov, when we most resemble G-d, we are permitted to prepare food for ourselves in the same way as we are permitted to prepare food for G-d’s mizbe’ach.