This week we read a special maftir Torah reading from Exodus to prepare us for the month of Nissan, the month of Passover. This special portion begins with a verse that sets the calendar for the Israelites: “This month shall be for you the first of months; it shall be the first month for you of the months of the year” (Exodus 12:2). In their interpretation of this verse, the rabbis of old focused on the repeated use of the words “for you.”
They understood this to mean that although God commands us to observe the holiday of Passover, the fixing of the calendar and the designation of the precise dates of that observance is up to human beings. So our celebration of Passover is a partnership between God and humanity. God provides the impetus, and human beings provide the follow-through to make it happen.
This type of partnership between God and humanity is a hallmark of the Passover story, the transformation of the Israelites from slaves to free people. When the Israelites are suffering in Egypt, they cry out to God for help; only then does the Torah record that God hears their cry and takes action to alleviate their pain (Exodus 2:25).
But what does God do? Does God use supernatural powers to make their chains disappear in an instant? No. Instead, just as the Israelites have called out to God, God in turn calls out to an Israelite, to Moses (Exodus 3:4). God asks Moses to become the divine partner in freeing the Israelites from bondage.
The partnership between Moses and God is not always an easy one. Moses becomes impatient when he sees the slow pace of change in Egypt. God becomes impatient when Moses asks again and again for proof that the plan God has outlined will really work. But neither abandons the other. They continue to work together through Pharaoh’s resistance and through the imposition of the plagues, until Pharaoh is nearly ready to release the Israelites.
At this key moment, also narrated in the special maftir Torah reading for this week, God once again turns to the Israelites and requires action of them. Each family is asked to take a lamb, slaughter it, and place some of its blood on the doorposts of the house (Exodus 12:3-7). The blood on the doorposts is a sign for God to “pass over” the houses of the Israelites when the last of the plagues falls on the Egyptians. The Israelites do their part, God does God’s part, and the Israelites depart from Egypt a free people.
Why is the partnership between God and humanity so important to the Passover story? Why does God fix the observance of Passover but leave the creation of the calendar in human hands? Why does God seek out a human partner to do the work of liberation? And why does God require a symbolic marking of each Israelite home before the Israelites march to freedom?
In narrating this central episode in the history of the Israelites, the moment that transforms them into the Jewish people, the Torah is teaching us what is required in order to turn the divine vision of freedom into a reality on earth. It is not enough for God to proclaim this vision.
And it is not enough for people to work to free themselves. True transformation only takes place when God and humanity partner with each other, channeling divine power through human hands and minds.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected] .