Parashat Bo

Rabbi Boaz Tomsky

Jewish time. We've all heard that before. It is a declaration that gives us the permission to come and go as we see fit. It is a statement that enables one to arrive at set appointments, at their leisure. Jewish weddings are notorious for this. The most striking two words on any wedding invitation is "Promptly at…" Still everyone feels it is perfectly fine to come "fashionably late". Is this the appropriate perspective we should have about the concept of time? To answer this, we must first understand where Jewish time originated.

In this week's Torah reading, we find the evil Pharaoh not letting the Bnai Yisroel depart from his land. The eighth and ninth plagues of locusts and darkness are carried through. Now, Moshe approaches the king in preparation for the tenth plague, the slaying of the firstborn. Moshe said, "so said HaShem, At about midnight (kachatsot) I shall go out in the midst of Egypt." Rashi cites a question with regard to the wording of the verse. The Passuk says, the plague would occur kachatsot - around midnight. Why was it necessary to only provide an approximate time for when the plague would occur?

Rashi answers that it was purposely said in this manner for the sake of the Egyptian astrologers. Perhaps they would miscalculate the precise moment of midnight. The plague would occur at exactly midnight unbeknownst to the astrologers. They, in turn, would wrongly conclude that Moshe provided inaccurate information. Therefore, to avoid this potential misunderstanding, Moshe gave a more generalized time for when the plague would occur.

The question screams out, who cares what these wicked, corrupt Egyptians think? After all, this is the tenth time a tragedy has befallen upon Mitzraim. Every single thing that Moshe said thus far has come been completely accurate. He's been right nine out of nine times. The odds are certainly in his favor to go ten for ten. Yet, these astrologers still have the audacity to accuse Moshe of making a mistake! It's irrational and completely absurd!

Furthermore, the astrologers could only make this statement after all of the firstborn Egyptians died. So what difference does it make if it happened a few minutes before or after midnight? The plague still occurred!

Certainly such wicked individuals search for any excuse to deny that there was any sort of Divine intervention in their midst. Seeing the flawless leader Moshe and hearing an accurate message didn't change them even an iota. The reality is, we don't care what the astrologers think because after witnessing all they have seen, they remained wicked. The reason Moshe gave an inaccurate time for the plague was for the sake of the Bnai Yisroel. If they would hear the sly remarks of the astrologers, they wouldn't know how to respond to them. The astrologers could negatively affect some of the Jewish people. Doubt and uncertainty could creep up into the minds and hearts of the Bnai Yisroel. They could potentially lose their confidence and trust in Moshe as their leader. This was too much to risk and therefore Moshe was compelled to amend the words of HaShem and say kachatsot.

Immediately afterwards, the Bnai Yisroel are given their first Mitzvah, the concept of Rosh Chodesh, the new moon. One could ask, why was this was the first Mitzvah to be introduced to the Bnai Yisroel? If you were to randomly ask people of what they perceive to be the most important Mitzvah (if we could even say such a thing) we'd hear a whole slew of responses, ranging from Shabbat to loving your neighbor. Few people would suggest Rosh Chodesh as their choice. Why then, would HaShem elect to offer the Bnai Yisroel this Mitzvah over all the other seemingly better choices?

Initially one could properly respond that the new month is necessary in establishing the proper times for all of the chagim - holidays. Without the knowledge of when to celebrate the chagim, many other Mitzvot would be impossible to perform. Therefore, Rosh Chodesh becomes the requisite for other Mitzvot and is appropriately given first. This would also explain the mindset of why Antiochus and the Syrian-Greeks banned the observance of three specific Mitzvot: Shabbat, Brit Milah, and Rosh Chodesh. Shabbat and Milah are understandable, they represent a special sign and covenant with HaShem. But why Rosh Chodesh? Since without this Mitzvah, we would have no idea when we should celebrate our chagim throughout the year.

It is clear that the Mitzvah of establishing the new month is indeed an important one. There could be another reason why Rosh Chodesh was selected. At this point in time, Moshe publicly said, "kachatsot". This was a weighted decision but, so as not to cause doubt and mistrust among Klal Yisroel, Moshe elected to say it this way. However, now a new problem arises. The Bnai Yisroel now are given the perception that it isn't necessary to be exact with time. As long as things are eventually done, then the rest doesn't matter. This is why HaShem introduced the Bnai Yisroel with the Mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh. Judaism does believe in the exactness of time. We need to calculate the proper days of each month. Whichever day we decide should become Rosh Chodesh becomes Rosh Chodesh. It is our own responsibility to be exact and precise with our months and days.

It is not a coincidence that within this section is the statement, "ushmartem et hamatsot - that we should guard our Matzah from turning into leaven." The difference between Matzah and Chamaits is a split second. If the dough is allowed to rise, it is no longer Matzah, instead it is chamaits. This is the message the Torah is teaching us, be exact with our time. A split second could make all of the difference.

Rashi further cites the words of Rebbe Yeshaya, " do not read guard your Matsot rather read guard your Mitzvot. Just as one shouldn't tarry in making their Matzah so it won't become chamaits, so to, one shouldn't delay in the performance of a Mitzvah so the opportunity won't slip away from your grasp. Instead, the Mitzvot should always be performed immediately." Rebbe Yeshaya is teaching that the negative trait of tardiness is simply unacceptable. Promptness is a requisite to performing Mitzvot and adhering to the Torah properly.

This was why Antiochus and the Syrian-Greeks were so adamantly against the performance of Shabbat, Milah, and Rosh Chodesh. All three of these Mitzvot are connected to the preciseness of time. Shabbat must only be celebrated on the seventh day of the week. Milah is on the eight day of one's life. Rosh Chodesh enables Klal Yisroel to know when each of the Jewish holidays are to be celebrated throughout the year. Antiochus wished to disconnect Klal Yisroel from doing the Mitzvot which were directly connected with the concept of time. By eliminating time Mitzvot, he hoped this disconnection from time would foster assimilation among the Jews and increase the Hellenistic culture. [The miracle of the oil could also be described as the suspension of time.]

Being precise with our time is so important in our Jewish beliefs. Yet, ironically, we dismiss its importance by covering it up with excuses. We say, "I'll be there at 12:00'ish…you know…Jewish time." Yes, we do have Jewish time. But that means exactly at 12:00! You must arrive at chatsot not kichatsot. That is the true Jewish time.

The importance of time, is clearly articulated in the book, Zadig, A Mystery of Fate. It states, "What, of all things in this world, is the longest and the shortest, the swiftest and the slowest, the most divisible and the most extended, the most neglected and the most regretted, without which nothing could be done, which devours all that is little, and enlivens all that is great?" The answer, "Time. Nothing is longer, since it is the measure of eternity. Nothing is shorter, since it is insufficient for the accomplishment of your projects. Nothing is more slow to him that expects; nothing more rapid than him that enjoys. In greatness it extends to infinity, in smallness it is infinitely divisible. All men neglect it; all regret the loss of it; nothing can be done without it. It consigns to oblivion whatever is unworthy of being transmitted to posterity, and immortalizes such actions as are truly great. Time is man's most precious asset."

First Published January 11, 2003  for National Council of Young Israel Weekly Divrei Torah