Parashat Bo / Where Does the Torah Begin?

Here, in the middle of Exodus, a new narrative is created, the narrative of a new time frame.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

The first question biblical commentator Rashi asks when interpreting the first verse of the Torah (Genesis 1:1) is: “Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah should have started from ‘This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you [Exodus 12:2],’ which is the first commandment God gave to Israel. Why then does the Torah begin with ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’?”

Rashi’s working assumption is that the Torah is a book of laws given to Israel by God, and based on this, he argues that it should have opened with the very first commandment, which appears in this week’s portion, Parashat Bo, the third portion in the Book of Exodus. The entire first part of the Torah - that is, Genesis and the first quarter of Exodus - is, in his view - superfluous.

This is an excellent point on which to begin a discussion about the Torah, because it relates to its textual nature, provoking questions such as, “What kind of text is the Torah,” and, “What is the Torah’s purpose?” Rashi cites one of its chief characteristics: The generic division into historical narrative versus laws. This duality constitutes a major stumbling block for those who seek to provide a coherent answer to the question, “What is the purpose of the Torah’s text?”

Whereas the historical narrative that characterizes the first verse of Genesis, and continues without interruption until this week’s reading, describes the past, the legal part of the Torah which surfaces for the first time here - and will come to the fore in succeeding portions - relates to the future. From each of these two parts, a different meaning can be deduced of the text.

While the narrative’s purpose is to tell us who we are and how we have become what we are today, the legal part in essence tells us, in the second person, what should be done from this point onward. History and ethics are two very different disciplines, and they give rise to texts that have different purposes. And we haven’t even mentioned the following questions: What happens when the text describes phenomena that are contrary to the Torah’s laws? What happens when the laws forbid the incidental nature of the historical narrative?

The contradiction inherent in this discussion offers fertile ground for interpretations of both the Torah’s narrative and its laws. If the Torah is a text whose goal is to depict how the Jewish people’s story began, the legal passages - including the Book of Leviticus, which is, for the most part, a legal document - can be seen as the history of the creation of the nation, in terms of the laws given at a specific point in time and within a specific context. If, on the other hand, the Torah is regarded as a handbook intended to instruct the reader as to what must be done every moment of the day, the historical passages can be explained as a text that is intended for practical use in the present. Indeed, this is Rashi’s approach, as seen in his commentary on Genesis 1:1.

The duality becomes especially acute when the text shifts from one genre to another, as in the middle of this week’s Torah portion, although this shift does not constitute a truly clear-cut jump between genres: Rather, it is a cautious, reflective response to the questions relating to the Torah’s nature and goals. On God’s behalf, Moses tells Pharaoh that the next - and final - plague will be the death of the firstborn, and Moses adds that this time, too, his words will be ignored by the Egyptian ruler, who will not let the Children of Israel go. Then, a moment before the plague is inflicted and the Israelites’ dramatic exodus in the middle of the night takes place, God stops the narrative in order to transmit his law.

The first verse of this law is intended to shape the manner in which the Jewish people will measure time: “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you” (Exodus 12:2). Although this is a law aimed at the coming generations and it is intended to shape the future, its origins are integrally linked to historical narrative.

Here, in the middle of Exodus, is the point at which a new narrative is created, the narrative of a new time frame. From this point onward, the narrative will not go backward to relate everything that has happened since the Creation. Instead, it will move forward, to relate how history has developed from the Exodus from Egypt to the present. The years will be counted from the Exodus onward; the cyclical counting of months will similarly begin from this moment in time.

The second legal commandment that God issues stipulates that his people must take a lamb on the tenth day of the first month in the new calendar (time can now be measured, after all), must slaughter it ritually on the 14th day and smear its blood on the entrance to their homes, to protect them from having their own firstborn children condemned during the plague that will kill all Egypt’s firstborn children. The law is an integral part of the narrative; it is a local, one-time commandment, whose granting and execution take place in the context of the biblical narrative. However, that narrative immediately collapses and turns into description of a law that transcends time: “And this day shall be unto you for a memorial, and ye shall keep it a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever” (Exod. 12:14).

Although it essentially stops the narrative flow, the law does not replace it and in fact refers to it, thus giving rise to a reflective narrative that shifts from describing an ongoing chain of occurrences to a praxis. Moreover, through that praxis it becomes a repetitive event, a memory, a reflection. The halting of the historical narrative part of the biblical text thus heralds a second historical starting point: Henceforth, the memory of the events in Egypt will be preserved and reenacted ritually year after year.

Moses continues to command: “And it shall come to pass, when ye be come to the land which the Lord will give you, according as He hath promised, that ye shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you: What mean ye by this service? That ye shall say: It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s passover, for that he passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses” (Exod. 12:25-27).

This passage is not just a directive to perpetuate a memory, because such information cannot be preserved in the people’s minds solely through the power of the commandment. The latter instead refers to a process of taking action, which stimulates various questions: What is the nature of this work? Why is it carried out? What is its goal? In the wake of this commandment, the story will be told and the memory will be reenacted.

Perhaps this is a response to Rashi’s question, although it is a different one from what he proposes. Perhaps the Torah really does begin from, “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months,” and from the commandment concerning the Passover sacrifice. But that same commandment also returns to the story and, in any case, it demands that the narrative go back to recount how everything began: how the world was created, how Abraham was chosen, how his descendants left Canaan and journeyed to Egypt, how they became slaves, how God inflicted plagues on Egypt, how he commanded us to establish this day as a reminder and how we reached this moment.

The answer, then, to the question, “Then why does the Torah begin with ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth?’” is that the Torah actually begins with “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months.” And in order to emphasize and maintain that commandment, the Torah goes back and opens with “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

"Pharaoh Urges Moses and Aaron to Depart," woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, from the 1860 "Die Bibel in Bildern."

Click the alert icon to follow topics: