The first mitzvah given to the people of Israel appeared last week- to count all the months of the year beginning from Nissan. It is the month whose significance is contained in that “in it you came out of Egypt.”
The story of leaving Egypt is filled with flashy miracles – beginning with the plagues leading to the eventual liberation of an entire nation of “young and old, sons and daughters,” after centuries of enslavement in a land from which even a single slave could not escape. The most spectacular demonstrations occur this week as we read about the splitting of the red sea and “manna falling from the sky.” Yet all this is only a buildup for next week’s highlight- the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which begins with the first of the ten commandments, “I am the Lord Your G-d who took you out of Egypt…”
So these three weeks, we have three main elements: 1) the first commandment to the Jewish nation to begin counting from the month of Nissan, 2) the miraculous Exodus, and 3) the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. What is the inner connection between these three things? Furthermore, these passages provide legendary images that pervade our daily prayers, literature, and festivals. But what is the enduring lesson for a more ordinary, less entertaining, world that lacks these supernatural amenities?
The central point can be found in Maimonides explanation of the first of the Ten Commandments. From the wording “I am the Lord your G-d” it is hard to determine a clear instruction; this first “commandment” would appear to be more of an introduction. Others explain it as a directive to “believe.” But after the Jewish people had witnessed such fanfare in leaving Egypt such an introduction, or instruction, seems unnecessary.
Maimonides, therefore, in his book of Law, explains these words as a continuous instruction to be proactive in thinking about “G-d.” In other words, children may envision G-d as an old man in the clouds with a long beard and big black eyes. Other religions may suggest multiple powers guiding the universe, or physical representations of G-d. Thus, Maimonides relates that simple belief in a higher power is not enough. After belief, one must then “think about” and clarify the details of that belief.
Outlining the first of those details, he writes: “The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who [continuously] brings into being all existence. All the beings of the heavens, the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the truth of His being…The knowledge of this concept is a positive commandment [Exodus 20:2]: “I am God, your Lord….”
So here we have a unique mitzvah. Unlike most positive commandments, which require some physical act (i.e. giving charity, or building a Sukkah) this one involves pure contemplation. It is a command to exercise and refine our mind. One of the main points stemming from the above description is that supernatural involvement is not limited to revealed miracles; in ordinary daily life there is also constant intervention. This supernatural direction can take two forms: (a) revealed miracles beyond the natural order, such as the miracles which accompanied the Liberation from Egypt and (b) miracles “clothed” in natural “garments” (like the story of Purim).
Divine direction within the natural order can take the form of appearing entirely ordinary- the growth of a tree or birth of a child. The true concept of Divine Providence is that it is continuously active, every day and in every detail except that “the one to whom a miracle occurs does not recognize his miracle.” Indeed good fortune (“mazel”) in the three general areas of human needs- joy from children, exceptional good health, and financial success- are key areas to ponder the limitations of our efforts and the auspicious string of events and enormous blessings that make this success possible.
Returning to the questions: the deeper message by ordaining the Jewish people to count all the months of the year from the month “in which you came out of Egypt,” with revealed miracles, and the constant reminders of these events within our prayers and festivals, is that even when miracles are totally obscured by the natural order, it is vital to ponder and remember that the whole world in all its details is being directed, namely everyone and in all details of his and her daily life.