“Could it be from Rosh Chodesh?” the authors of the Hagadah ask, raising the possibility that one might celebrate the Pesach[1] and tell the story of the Exodus beginning on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, a full two weeks before Pesach. Presumably, the basis for this question is the Torah’s command to “Guard the month of the Aviv, i.e. Nissan, and make Pesach to the Lord your G-d, because it was in the month of the Aviv that G-d took you out of Egypt and night” (Devarim 16:1). We are to celebrate Pesach during the month of the Aviv and we must celebrate it at night but the Torah, at least in the book of Devarim, gives no particular date such must be. Moreover, it was on the first of the month of Nissan that G-d commanded Moshe and Aharon regarding both the korban pesach and the eating of matza (Shemot, chapter 12). It is at this point, with the command to sanctify the “month” of the Exodus as the first month of the year, that Rashi suggests the Torah should have begun.   

Yet as is well-known and as the Haggadah responds, the seder can only take place on the night of the 15th of Nissan “at the time when matza and maror are before us”. Timing is everything. 

For good reason the idea of time serves as the introduction to the Exodus. The difference between a free person and a slave revolves around time. A free person is in control of their time; a slave is not. Monday, Saturday, Tuesday, Friday, night or day, it matters little to a slave. The purpose of observing Shabbat, told to us in the Aseret HaDibrot no less, is lema’an[2], “so that your male and female slave may rest as you do” (Devarim 5:14). G-d did not take us out of Egypt so that only we would not be slaves, but to ensure nobody be (mis)treated as a slave. And we must actively remember this message each and every week. “Remember", the Torah continues” that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your G-d took you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your G-d has commanded you to observe the sabbath day” (Devarim 5:14).

In a more modern context, two people can work side by side at the same company doing similar work for similar (lots of) pay. Yet one is free and one is little more than a modern-day slave. The latter feels they must work seven days a week to get ahead while the free person has the ability to say, I have to leave, even as negotiation on a 10 billion dollar contract is continuing.

The importance of time resonates throughout Pesach. The one and only difference between matza and chametz is that of time. By definition, only those ingredients that can produce chametz can be used to make matza. Prepare it in less than 18 minutes[3] and we can fulfil the great mitzva of eating matza, take longer than 18 minutes and one is liable for the penalty of karet[4], excision from the Jewish people.

But it is not just time we must be most cognizant of, we must pay great attention to the times in which we live. The powerful Midrash of the four children is based on four conversations between parent and child recorded in the Torah. In three of the cases the child asks a question and in one the parent, absent being asked, tells the child “for the sake of this G-d took us out of Egypt” (Shemot 13:8). Hence the origin of the sheino yodea lishol. Yet while the answer to the Tam, the simple child (and the sheino yodea lishol) are taken from the Torah verbatim, the answers to the chacham and rasha are not. The authors of the Haggadah replaced the answers provided by the Torah with their own! Did they really think talk about the afikoman or blunting teeth was better than the answer provided by the Divine author of the Torah?

Yes, and for good reason. Our Torah is a Torat Chaim, an eternal Torah, that must be our guide in each and every generation. The raw material is never to be changed but how we mold these priceless jewels and ensure they are relevant, meaningful and inspiring for each time and place takes great thought and wisdom. Approaches that may (or may not have) worked in Europe were often disastrous for those growing in the liberal democracies of the West. And approaches that work in Israel may fail in America. A pat answer may work with simple children but is sure to fail with a chacham or rasha. The questions may remain the same but the answers require constant review and tweaking. Over time these tweaks can make quite a difference.

The authors of the Haggadah did not actually ignore the Torah’s answer to the chacham[5]. Rather, they inserted it in two different places. The first part, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and G-d freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand” (Devarim 6:21) is placed as the immediate response to the Mah Nishtana. We begin the Haggadah recounting the Exodus. That makes perfect sense in the context of Pesach, but not so much in relation to the Biblical question of the (wise) child, “What (why?) are the decrees, laws, and rules that our G-d has enjoined upon you?” (Devarim 6:20) a question that in the Torah has nothing to do with Pesach.

The second part of the Torah’s answer, “And He took us out from there, in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He swore unto our fathers" (Devarim 6:23) appears much later at the end of Maggid as the proof text to the claim that “In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as if they had left Egypt”.

The answer to the wise child begins with an appreciation of G-d’s hand in history but is only complete when s/he can apply that answer to his/her own time and circumstances. We must ensure that we feel the joy and excitement of Pesach in particular and Judaism as a whole, wherever and whenever we may live. Such requires a combination of the old and new, or in the words of Rav Kuk, Hayashan titchadesh vehachadash yitkadesh, the old will be renewed and the new will be sanctified (the ring is so much more beautiful in Hebrew).

The sanctification of time is the first mitzva given to the Jewish people. The Torah could have started here but, of course, it did not. Instead, it started “In the beginning” with the sanctification of time, not by the Jewish people but by the Divine Creator Himself, Who exists beyond the confines of time. We humans, so confined by the limits of time, are blessed with the ability to sanctify time, thus linking us to the Creator and eternal time[6]. Time truly is relative; let us use it wisely. 

[1] In the Biblical context, Pesach refers to the korban pesach, the pascal lamb brought on the 14th of Nissan and eaten at night, when the celebration of chag hamatzot, the holiday we call Pesach, begins.

[2] In Biblical Hebrew it is the word ki, because, that serves to link cause and effect. The word lema'an means for the purpose of, a very different type of reason. We sit in a sukkah lema'an yeidu so that further generations shall know of the Exodus, and we wear tzizit lema'an tizkeru so that we remember all the mitzvot but specifically that G-d took us out of Egypt.

[3] This is the modern definition of chametz for our scientific era that measures (Olympic) time to the thousandth of second. In the time of the Mishna they actually looked to see for signs of leaving to determine its status, not minutes on (a not yet existent) clock.

[4] The exact nature of the heavenly penalty of karet is a matter of debate and being a heavenly punishment is ultimately unknown and unknowable. Yet on the level of pshat, the Torah is clear that karet means being cut off, or more precisely cutting oneself off, from the Jewish nation. It is reserved for those sins that mark the key identifiers of a Jewish way of life such as desecrating Shabbat, eating chametz on Pesach and eating any food on Yom Kippur.