“And the People Bowed their Heads and Prostrated Themselves”
by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
Chapter 12 of Exodus, that is found in this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, plays a crucial role in Jewish history and in the evolution of the 613 commandments. It records the first Mitzvah/commandment that G-d gave to the Jewish people as a people, rather than to individual Jews (e.g. circumcision)–the Mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh, the Jewish community’s monthly celebration of the new moon.
Aside from the law of the new moon, the first 28 verses of Exodus 12 include other important precepts–the laws of the Pascal offering, details regarding the rituals of the seder as it was observed in Egypt and several additional laws that pertain to the Passover holiday. These laws play a crucial role in preparing the nation for liberation from Egypt, making the people ready for the historic redemption that would be celebrated and commemorated forever by the Jewish people.
So important are these mitzvot, that the Torah interrupts the preceding narrative of the ten plagues to present these Mitzvot immediately before the final plague of the Death of the Firstborn is visited upon the Egyptians that result in the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt (Exodus 12:29-36).
After describing the Pascal offering and the personal preparations that the Israelites are to make in their homes, (smearing their doorposts with blood, etc.) the Torah predicts that the Jewish children will ask questions about the seemingly strange rituals of Passover. The Torah, in Exodus 12:26, declares: ?וְהָיָה כִּי יֹאמְרוּ אֲלֵיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם: מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם , And it shall come to pass that when your children say to you, “What does this service mean to you?” The Torah advises the parents to respond that the Pascal feast is offered to G-d, to recall that the Al-mighty passed over the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt, when He smote the Egyptians, but He saved the Jewish households.
So deeply affected were the people upon hearing these instructions and commandments, that the Torah states: Exodus 12:27, וַיִּקֹּד הָעָם, וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ , And the people bowed their heads and prostrated themselves.
The Torah then reports (Exodus 12:28) that the Children of Israel went and did all that G-d commanded Moses and Aaron.
Rashi states that the people bowed their heads in gratitude for three things that they had just heard: the thrill of learning that they would be freed (Exodus 12:26), that they would be given the land of Israel (Exodus 12:25) and that they would be blessed with many generations of children (Exodus 12:26).
The Da’at Sofrim addresses the fact that the people of Israel made an unusual point of bowing at this point. He explains, that, previously, in Exodus 4:31, Moses had gathered all the elders of Israel to call the people together, so that he could transmit the words of G-d to them and the commandments that they received. At that point too, the Torah describes the people as bowing in acknowledgment of the “gift” of the newly received laws. Similarly, says the Da’at Sofrim, now, when they received the information regarding the redemption, they bowed as well.
The ArtScroll commentary suggests that the Jews bowed in gratitude because of the news they received that they would have children, despite the fact that the particular child described in Exodus 12 would become known as the רָשָׁע –“Rasha,” the wicked, or prodigal child in the Hagaddah.
While all children are challenging at times, some are more challenging than others. Nevertheless, all children must be seen as a source of blessing. Child-rearing, as challenging as it may be, is to be seen as a sacred opportunity for parents to mold, direct and educate their children to proper behavior and proper values, turning them from rebellion to cooperation.
Perhaps another reason that the “Rasha,” the prodigal child, is mentioned here, is because a rebellious child often does not feel or identify with the miracles of Jewish history, and is often indifferent to Jewish perpetuity. It is important to help every child connect, especially through the study of Jewish history, so that the feelings of Jewish destiny run through every Jewish child’s veins. That is indeed a challenge, even for the most gifted and devoted parent.
Why is the chapter structured to appear as if the people are bowing down when they hear the questions and answers of the prodigal child? For as long as the rebellious child is still talking, there is always hope that the child will one day connect.
This is a profound message for all parents, and is particularly important to Jewish parents.
May you be blessed.