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Shalom Orzach

Chag Sameach!

There are many firsts in the portion of Bo. Among them is the appearance of the new moon, referred to as  “…the first of the months of the year for you.” 12:2. Each plague is a first, we encounter matzah, the unleavened bread for the first time. There is an additional obscure first that with all these dramatic events may understandably pass unnoticed; that of “Chag” – Festival, Yom Tov. 

The repetitious and seemingly endless series of negotiations continue and following the threat of the upcoming plague of locusts and the plea of his very own courtiers, Pharaoh in a curious twist concurs to allow representatives of the Israelites to “go” and worship their God. Seeking further clarification, he asks Moshe, 10:8; מִ֥י וָמִ֖י הַהֹלְכִֽים  Who are the one’s going. Implying that in his mind this “worship” necessitates the leaders or priests but not everyone, Moshe famously responds 10:9;

…בִּנְעָרֵ֥ינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵ֖ינוּ נֵלֵ֑ךְ בְּבָנֵ֨ינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵ֜נוּ בְּצֹאנֵ֤נוּ וּבִבְקָרֵ֙נוּ֙ נֵלֵ֔ךְ כִּ֥י חַג־יְהֹוָ֖ה לָֽנוּ

“We will all go—regardless of social station —we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe God’s festival.”

What is this festival that Moshe refers to? Surprisingly many of the commentators are silent on the matter. Abraham Ibn Ezra, the Spanish commentator (1089-1164) explains the term means feast as the people would partake of the sacrifices offered to God. Perhaps this is a way of avoiding the question of what exactly was this Festival. Additionally the future uses of this word are less enigmatic and clearly mean festival. Notably Chag Hamatzot as Pesach is also termed cannot reasonably be understood as the feast of matzot. This half baked product can surely not be considered as the food of feasts! So returning to the question, what chag could Moshe have possibly been referring to? Pesach was yet to occur, though it was in advanced stages of development. Was he potentially proclaiming this moment as The Festival of Freedom? Even this possibility appears overhasty as according to the negotiated agreement those leaving for this occasion were due to return after the festivities or feastivities.

I wish to suggest that it was this very moment of equality, inclusion of “our young and old, our daughters and sons…” the whole community without exception and yes regardless of social station, that will be gathered together, is worthy of celebration. That unprecedented (first) moment of creating a people like no other at that time, and of course in such stark contrast to the structured hierarchy of Egypt, later Greece, and so many other civilizations that were to follow, where oppression, discrimination and abuse are systemic and as such normative. Such a vision initiating this march to freedom, is surely the supreme festival that informs and frames all others that were to occur.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Shalom Orzach is a senior educator and consultant for the iCenter and serves on faculty for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. He was a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, following which he was the Executive Director for Jewish Renewal at the UJIA in England. Shalom is an acclaimed public speaker on contemporary Israel who brings extensive knowledge, humor and passion.
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