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Parshat Bo: We Are What We Do

By: Reb Norman Meskin

Parshat Bo continues the description of the process that culminates with the end of the Jewish captivity in Egypt (yetzi’at mitzrayim). As the last of the ten plagues is brought upon the Egyptians, the Jewish people gather in their homes to celebrate the first Passover and to eat of the Paschal offering (korban Pesach).

Interestingly, the Torah describes in great detail the numerous requirements of this Paschal offering. All told, seventeen mitzvot are enumerated! Among other requirements, the offering had to be eaten (only) roasted; none of its bones could be broken; it could be eaten only by a designated group of people or family; and the meat could only be eaten in the family’s home.

The classic 13th century work, Sefer haChinuch, explains that these mitzvot serve to help us remember our miraculous exodus from Egypt and the gratitude that we must express to Hashem.

The Sefer haChinuch, in his commentary to one of these many mitzvot, then raises a very important question: Why are all these details necessary? If the goal is to help us remember the past, then wouldn't a simple commemoration be sufficient? What is gained by all of these extra rituals and details?

The Sefer haChinuch answers this question by invoking a profound psychological principle. In its simplest form, this principle is that our actions profoundly influence our character. As the Sefer haChinuch puts it, "האדם נפעל כפי פעולותיו" - "Man is affected by his actions." Our hearts and minds are molded and guided by our physical actions, both for the good and for the bad. If we engage in proper behavior (good actions), even without the proper motives, the actions will gradually lead us to become good people. And if, God forbid, we engage in bad actions, the actions lead us to becoming bad people.

The Sefer haChinuch then explains that, for this reason, God gave the Jewish people numerous commandments, so that they (we) would have numerous positive actions that would serve to make us into better people.

It is, therefore, not surprising that God gave us numerous special mitzvot regarding the Passover offering, because belief in Hashem’s involvement in the events surrounding the Exodus from Egypt comprises one of the "great pillars of our Torah" and needs to be firmly implanted in our hearts and minds.

To concretize this concept, let’s focus for a moment on a much simpler mitzvah: The requirement to say Birkat haMazon after a meal. This mitzvah is easily understood: One has to thank the host or hostess when one is a guest in their home and, likewise, one has to thank Hashem for the food that one eats.

But anyone who has been in one of numerous camps, teen programs, or Day Schools, might find the following form of Birkat haMazon (“bentching”) very familiar: “Rubadubdub, thanks for the grub, yea God!”

In order to avoid this kind of minimalization and trivialization of a Biblical commandment, the Rabbis, in their wisdom, instituted a series of requirements (halachot) that serve to develop the proper mindset to the performance of this mitzvah: Washing hands before eating (netilat yadayim); making a bracha on the bread (haMotzee); washing hands after eating (mayim acharonim); gathering together a group of people who ate together (mezuman); and saying Birkat haMazon over a cup of wine. As the culmination of this entire series of actions, one’s state of mind when saying the bracha has, hopefully, been enhanced and elevated.

I believe that this example highlights the importance of the principle articulated by the Sefer haChinuch: The numerous halachot  that we are required to perform are not to be perceived as obstacles to adhering to the Torah’s requirements (to the will of God), as some might suggest, but rather as aids along the way - as tools to be used to further our service of Hashem.