Hadrash Ve-Haiyun
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by Efraim Levine

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Moshe said, “This is what Hashem has said, about the time of midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the first born of the Egyptian slave girl behind the millstones and every first-born animal.” (Shemos 12:4)

The above posuk states that at the moment of midnight every first born in the land of Egypt would die. Although the posuk literally says “at approximately the time of midnight,” Rashi explains that the use of the word “approximately” was only intended for the Egyptians who were incapable of calculating the exact moment of midnight. In truth the death of the firstborns would occur at the exact moment of midnight. The commentators note that midnight is not a moment in time. When the night is divided into two parts every slice of time is either part of the first half or part of the second half. The Commentators therefore ask that if the intent of the posuk is that death would occur at the first moment of the second half or at the last moment of the first half then it should have indicated so more clearly. How can the posuk use the word midnight, which does not occupy space in time? How could the death of the Egyptians occur at a moment that does not exist?

The Brisker Rav, Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveichik answers that the moment of death also cannot be defined in time. A person is alive one moment and the next moment he is dead. The exact moment of death cannot be pinpointed to any specific moment in time no matter how short it may be.

We will try to expand on this idea. This world as we know it is defined by time and space. However, this is only true with regard to mundane objects and activities. Something holy and spiritual is not confined to these limits. For example the holiest place on earth was the Holy of Holies. The holiest object on earth was the Ark, which contained the Tablets that Hashem gave the Jewish people. Although the Torah gives precise measurements for the dimensions of the Ark and the chamber of the Holy of Holies, yet chazal teach us that the ark did not occupy any space within the Holy of Holies. This is because only in the realm of the mundane are objects limited to space. Thus the ark, which was holy and resided in a chamber that was completely holy, did not possess the constraints of space. The same is true with regard to time. A spiritual experience cannot be defined within the realm of time. The moment of death even for an evil Egyptian firstborn was a spiritual experience. When a soul leaves this world and enters the World of Truth it undergoes a spiritual transformation. Due to the spirituality of the event it cannot be defined within the realm of time.

Hashem was precise when he said the Egyptian firstborns would die at the moment of midnight. Just as the moment of midnight is not defined likewise the moment of death is not defined. During the entire first half of the night the firstborns were alive. However, the first moment of the second half they were dead. At what moment did they die? Midnight.

With this idea in mind we may perhaps explain another mitzvah in this week’s parsha. The posuk says “This month shall be reckoned to you as the head of months. It shall be to you as the first of the months of the year” (Shemos12:2). Chazal derive from this posuk the requirement to sanctify to beginning of each month based on the lunar year.

The commentators note that most of the world follows a calendar based on the solar year. Why did Hashem instruct us to base our calendar on the lunar year instead?

The solar year is defined by of the orbit of the earth around the sun. It takes approximately 365 days for the earth to complete its orbit. On the 366th day we can precisely pinpoint the beginning of a new year.

In contrast the lunar cycle is based on the orbit of the moon around the earth. It takes approximately 29 and a half days for the moon to complete its orbit. After twelve cycles we have a year. From the vantage point of man the new moon first begins to appear as a thin sliver near the beginning of the month. It continues to wax throughout the month until the fifteenth day. On this day a full moon is visible. This is due to moon’s position relative to the earth and sun. As the month continues the moon begins to wane until it appears as a thin sliver and then disappears completely. It is noteworthy that on all days of the month at least part of the moon can bee seen. The exception to this is the last six hours of the last cycle and the first six hours of the new cycle. During these twelve hours it is impossible to see the moon due to its position relative to the earth and sun. The first moment that the new moon can be seen after the six hours from its new cycle is called the molad. The molad indicates that approximately six hours ago the new cycle had begun. Beis Din at this point sanctifies the new month retroactively from the beginning of that calendar day.

We see that at the exact moment of transition the moon is hidden from the naked eye. This is in contrast to the completion of the solar cycle, which marks the beginning of a new year on the 366th day.

The Torah commands us to sanctify the new moon, symbolic of sanctifying our time with spiritual pursuits. When calculating the calendar, the lunar year serves as our model for our calendar. We see the moon in the latter part of the past month and we see it again in the early part of the new month but not the actual moment of transition. Our inability to define in time the exact moment of our calendar transition reminds us that our experience in this world should be spiritual just as all spiritual experiences are not defined by time.


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Efraim Levine 5761/2001