Here is a seemingly simple question: what was the first commandment given to the Israelites? An understandable answer would be the one that begins the Ten Commandments: “Lo yihyeh l’cha elohim aheirim al-panay. You will have no other gods before me.” But it is preceded by several others, given to the Israelites at the cusp of their liberation from slavery in Egypt. The first is the institution of a calendar. “Ha-hodesh ha-zeh lachem rosh hodashim. This month,” God says, “The month where you will experience freedom for the first time, this will be the first month of the year for you.” God gives the Israelites a way of keeping time that is different and distinct from how they had marked the painful passage of the last four hundred years in captivity: a new calendar for a new people.
Picture this moment (at the Passover Seder, we are meant to tell the story of the Exodus as if we had experienced it ourselves; I want you to employ that same immersive imagination right now). After a lifetime of degradation, the Israelites have just witnessed a succession of terrible and terrifying plagues to bring about a freedom that they have neither known nor could imagine. Entire rivers turned to blood. Swarms of frogs. Bodies covered in lice and flies. Fields filled with the rotting carcasses of livestock. Faces disfigured by boils. Fire raining from the sky. Crops stripped bare by clouds of locusts so thick they blotted out the sun. And then darkness, so deep that you could not see your hands in front of your face. Then Moses stands before them and says to prepare for the final plague, the horrifying retribution to Pharaoh’s earlier decree to murder newborn Israelites: the death of the first born, avoidable only by smearing the blood of a freshly slaughtered lamb on the doorposts and lintel of your house.
The reason I offer these gruesome images is to give us a sense of how absurd this first commandment must have felt to the Israelites. They are standing in the midst of incomprehensible devastation, called toward an uncertain future by a man they have never met (who honestly seems more Egyptian than Israelite) and a God barely recognized by their ancestral memory. And then they are told to adopt a new calendar: “This month will be the first month of the year for you.”
But there is a powerful message in this commandment. Rabbi Megan Goldmarche wrote in a short reflection yesterday, “In the midst of one of the most terrifying moments in Israelite history, God and Moses pause to let the people know: we are creating history, we are creating a moment that will remain with your descendants forever.” The institution of a calendar is a reminder that they stand at one point on the long arc of history. And I don’t think this is to deny their fear or uncertainty, but to remind them that they and their ancestors (that is us and our ancestors) have traversed obstacles greater than the difficult path set before them. Or to borrow a quote from the greatest movie of all time (fact, not opinion): “Although we know there is much to fear, we were moving mountains long before we knew we could.”
The Rambam teaches that by instituting a new calendar at this moment, our spiritual compass is constantly oriented toward the miracle of our collective liberation – and its lesson that the world as we see it now is not the only one possible and (perhaps more importantly) that we have the will and the fortitude to make the journey from the world that is to the one that could be. Throughout our history, this knowledge has sustained us against impossible odds. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav teaches: “The world is a very narrow bridge, the key is to not allow fear to consume you.” How do we allay despair? By looking back on all of the narrow bridges that our ancestors have walked, beginning with that improbable journey from slavery to freedom.
I believe we have found ourselves in one of those moments now. We stand on a narrow bridge, caught between the devastating heartbreak we feel within our community and the rage (sometimes dangerously misdirected) of a world convulsing in pain. Our tradition calls our attention toward the particular, to care for and defend our own, while also demanding that we open our hearts to the universal, with compassion for and an obligation to protect the other. And there are those in this room who are also piecing together lives broken by illness (both physical and mental), or the end of a relationship, or job loss while also trying to hold the fragments of a world rent by catastrophe – some of which we have contributed to, some of which we have played no part in, all of which we are responsible for fixing.
And so our tradition says: when the way forward seems unclear, look back. And by looking back, move forward. “This month will be the first month of the year for you” – a reminder, when nothing seems possible, that we have overcome the impossible many times before. Our job is to take that next step.
Next week we will observe Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees (this is one of four new years in our calendar, if you want to know why – ask me after services). I actually love celebrating this holiday in a place like Chicago, which is decidedly not green right now, because it reminds us in the middle of the bleak and unyielding winter of the seeds buried just under the frozen soil which will sprout and grow and flourish in the coming spring. You can’t see them now, but they are there – waiting.
By choosing hope over despair and action over apathy, by taking that next step forward even though we don’t know where the journey might lead us – who knows what seeds we are planting in this moment that will one day grow into something new, something unexpected, something that we could not imagine right now. Perhaps they are the seeds of peace. Perhaps they are the seeds of comfort and healing. Perhaps they are the seeds of understanding and connection. It is my hope that we might one day see their blossoming – but if not in our time, may our children and our children’s children enjoy their fruit, looking back with gratitude and looking forward with courage.