IT'S A DATE
Rabbi David Walk
Recently a close relative celebrated a 'milestone birthday'. Many of us tend to make a big deal out of birthdays or anniversaries which end in a zero (or two). Personally, I'm not one of them. Even though birthdays don't move me, I happen to like my Gregorian Calendar birthday, because it's the Fourth of July. It's a fun day with fireworks, and, as a kid, my Dad OB"M was always home for my birthday. I think that was more special to me than notching another year on my resume. But the dates themselves are so arbitrary, that they don't hold that much significance to me. I mean, this past year July Fourth was the 28th of Ramadan in the Arab calendar, 21st of July in the Julian calendar, 14th of Tir in the Persian calendar, the 13th of Asadha in the Indian calendar, the first of the Sixth Lunar Month in the Chinese calendar, and, of course, the 28th of Sivan in the Jewish calendar (BTW I could go on and on, because there are dozens more, but I think you get the point.). And that last date isn't even my 'real' Hebrew birthday. That's the nineteenth of Tammuz. However, this week's Torah reading makes a point of instituting tremendous significance for a certain date, and that's the day we left Egypt.
To begin this process of showcasing that date, the Jews were commanded to set up a calendar system. This is the first commandment given to the Jews as a nation. 'This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year (Exodus 12:2).' Once we have a calendar system, based upon the cyclical newness of the moon, we proclaim rosh chodesh then we count until the middle of that month to celebrate the exodus from Egypt. The first Rashi in the Torah asks the famous question: The Torah should have begun with 'This month shall be to you the head of the months', so why does it begin with Creation (Genesis 1:1)? They all agree that this mitzva is crucial to the formation of the Jewish nation. But why? What is so important about our calendar that it's been proclaimed the primary mitzva?
The simple answer is that having a national calendar is important for cultural reasons. With our own calendar, we can claim independence from the Egyptian civilization and its mores. We're not only leaving Egypt physically, we're also leaving Egypt socially, culturally and religiously. Our break with the past is complete. But I think that there's more going on.
When you read further in chapter 12 another concept begins to emerge. Starting in verse 14 ('This day shall be as remembrance for you…throughout the ages') we see that the exodus must be remembered at all times and commemorated appropriately yearly. This idea gets repeated in verses 17, 24, 26, and 42. Then it is taken up again in chapter 13 in verses 3, 8, 10, and 14. Many of these verses are familiar to us from the Seder. It's beginning to emerge that getting the date right is very important, and probably for two reasons. Having our own calendar will assure that all Jews are celebrating at the same time, and that engenders national unity. But, I believe that we also want to celebrate the 'right' date. We are establishing the objectively correct anniversary of the exodus. Everything must be perfectly aligned to reenact the event. The season must be right; the moon should be in the same phase. That's why we need this calendar with solar years and lunar months.
What is accomplished by this? If I were a true mystic (kabbalist), I would say that if an event was momentous enough it could forever change that 'piece' of time. Therefore, whenever we reenter that specific timeframe, we can actually sense the aura or echo of that long ago event. Pretty cool, but I'm not sure that I buy it.
I think that we can subscribe to a vision of 'collective memory'. This term was coined by the French sociologist Maurice Halbachs in his book The Social Frameworks of Memory (1925). He was expanding on the work of his mentor Emil Durkheim who wrote about the effects of commemorative rituals. Halbachs' conclusion is very important to our use of historical holidays. He wrote: Both history and collective memory are publicly available social facts—the former 'dead', the latter 'living'.
When the exodus narrative has been etched into our collective memory and psyche, then the event and its impact remain as alive as those who continue to remember it. Now we can begin to understand the importance of all those verses requiring us to remember the exodus. However, I believe that one verse towers over all the others in importance, and that one is: Tell your child on that day: 'This ceremony is because of what God did for me when I came out of Egypt (3:8).' The critical point has now been made to the next generation: The previous generation truly feels as if they personally left Egypt. We're not trying so very hard to get the exact date and time down correctly for mystical reasons; we're striving for chronological correctness for pedagogic reasons. This experience has been drummed into my consciousness so effectively that every year when we reach this moment in time, I relive the exodus in my heart, mind and awareness. To achieve this level of historic mindfulness, I must calibrate my calendar very precisely. In that way, the calendar, the season, and my preparations all converge to make me feel that I'm leaving Egypt all over again. It's culturally induced déjà vu.
Judaism has become the religious, cultural and moral force that informs our lives and guides our people, because of its birth in the exodus and its education at Har Sinai. Judaism continues in that role only because of our continued connection to those events. Mark your calendar; etch your mind.