Our parashat hashavua is significant in several ways, one of which is that starting here, the Torah begins to be full of the 613 mitzvot that it is so famous for. Up until this point, there has been a narrative describing generations of Israelites, but next to no commands. The famous medieval commentator Rashi asks in his notes on this parashah, “why did the Torah not begin here, with the beginning of the mitzvot? Why did it spend a book and more dwelling on non-halakhic matters, and non-Jewish as well?
There is another question to ask, and I offer it as one answer to Rashi’s question. In this parashah, we find the Israelites to be in the middle of the chaos of the final plagues brought upon Egypt, preparing for a precipitous leave-taking from their home, albeit a place of enslavement, for 400 years. We are neither at the end nor the beginning of the story, but somewhere in the muddled middle.
Yet G-d instructs Moshe to tell our ancestors that hahodesh hazeh lakhem rosh hodashim, “this month shall be your first month”. Why here? How is this a beginning?
These two questions can usefully inform each other. Consider: it is precisely in the middle of chaos that one seeks landmarks upon which to depend. The mitzvot are those landmarks for us. At any given moment of our lives, when we aren’t sure how to respond in word or act to whatever life brings us, a Jew can always sort it out by simply asking: where is the mitzvah in this moment? what am I obligated to do?
Yet Jewish life is certainly not only about the mitzvot. They are the framework of our religious path, and give us location, speed limits and merge signs. But the framework is an empty skeleton, incapable of sustaining life. It needs the flesh and blood of the stories that show us how the halakhah, the path, really looks in lived experience. The twelfth chapter of Exodus is the perfect place for G-d to begin to offer the mitzvot that will guide us forever after, because it’s only at this point that we see, spreading out before us, a world not bounded by slavery, but open to indeterminacy, and the responsibility to make meaningful choices.
The parashah begins with the word bo, “come here”. It is often interpreted to mean “come to yourself”, i.e. in the face of chaos and fear calm down, look inside.
It is true for us every day: chaos, and the opportunity to seek a framework that will order it. It doesn’t matter if the framework seems arbitrary to those outside of our story, because it has no rational explanation. It is simply one way forward, one promise of beauty and meaning out of the glorious contradictory maelstrom of all that is around us. Any day, every day, you can calm the chaos by looking about you and asking where is the mitzvah in this moment. Today can be for you the first of months.