Thisweek is the last of the four special readings we do in the shul on Shabbos in the month and a half leading up to the festival of Passover. We call this week “Parshas HaChodesh”. As the Maftir we read the section in Exodus 12:1-20. The general topic of this section is the presentation of the laws of the Paschal Lamb. However before leading in to those laws the Torah says “And this month [Nissan] will be to you the first of all months” (Exodus 12:2). Rashi says that the simple meaning of this verse is that Nissan should be considered the turn of the New Year and the first of all months on the Jewish calendar. This verse is the reason we read this section on this Shabbos. Since the verse emphasizes the sanctification of the first Jewish month, Nissan, our sages established this section as one of these four special readings to be read every year on the Shabbos proceeding Rosh Chodesh Nissan. The deeper question that needs to be understood here is what is unique about this Rosh Chodesh that we should emphasize it more than any other, and why is this statement the lead in to all of the laws of the Paschal Lamb? In other words what is the deeper message we are supposed to be getting out of this special reading?
As a prelude to delving into this passage we should first focus on the comments of the Netziv on the abovementioned verse. He says that “the first of all months” should be understood as the choicest of all months. In other words this month, Nissan, is the choicest of all months for you, the Jewish people. Why is this month the choicest of all months for us as a people? The Netziv continues by saying that the month of Nissan was the month in which the Jewish nation was created and formed, in the Exodus from Egypt. As a result this month and the mitzvos of Passover that we do in it are our opportunity to renew our commitment to our purpose as a nation which is to serve Hashem and live according to His Will as His nation in this world. In other words the verse is teaching us that the reason that Nissan is the first month on the Jewish calendar and our New Year is because this is the month that we were created and formed as a nation.
One of the difficulties with understanding the month of Nissan as the New Year on the Jewish calendar is the fact that we also celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the New Year in the month of Tishrei. The truth is that there are really numerous “New Years” on the Jewish calendar. For the purposes of our discussion we are going to focus on the two most famous New Years, the one in Nissan and the one in Tishrei. In the Rosh Hashanah prayers we say “hayom haras olam” today is the day of the creation of the world. All of the commentaries point out that really the first day of Tishrei was not the day the world was created but rather the day man was created. There are many references to the creation of man on Rosh Hashanah. On the other hand the creation of the Jewish people was in Nissan during the Exodus from Egypt. Jews are human beings also and only one of many nations, what than was specifically created in Nissan that is represented in Jewish nationhood?
The very first Rashi on chumash points out that Rav Yitzchak the darshan said that really the Torah itself could have started from the verse “And this month shall be for you the first of all months” (Exodus 12:2) since it is only at that point that the Torah begins to relay all of the commandments of Hashem to the Jewish people. The reason the Chumash started from the Genesis story and related the development of the forefathers in the land of Canaan was just to teach us that “The Power of His ways he told to His nation”. This is somehow supposed to strengthen the Jewish claim to the land of Israel when the nations raise doubts as to our rights. We should take this Chumash and say from it that the Almighty created the universe and that He controls it; that He removed the other nations from this land and gave it to us. We see from all of this that the Torah has two beginnings. The real beginning of the Torah is when it begins to relate the Almighty’s Will to us as His nation, which is here in Exodus. The more auxiliary beginning of the Torah is the Genesis story. This is a fascinating and in some ways mind-boggling statement. How can we as Jews entertain the belief for one second that we could suffice without written testimony of the fact that the Almighty created the universe and everything in it?
The answer to this question can be understood through a deeper appreciation of what the Exodus from Egypt means. Many of the great Rishonim ask why in all of our prayers as Jews we always mention that this is “zecher l’yetziyas mitzrayim” (in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt) and not “zecher l’maseh bereishis” (in remembrance of the creation of the Universe). Our sages teach us that the world was originally created with ten utterances. These are seen in the Chumash as the points where the verse says in the Genesis story “And G-d said let there be… and there was…” Our sages also teach us that there were ten plagues performed by the Almighty in Egypt. Each one of these ten plagues was parallel to one of the ten utterances that the world was originally created with. Furthermore the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai each paralleled one of the ten plagues and original utterances. Our sages are alluding to the fact that Hashem at the time of the Exodus and ultimately at Mount Sinai was recreating and realigning a new universe from the shards of the old one created in the Genesis story. This new universe was necessary to create for the nation called the Jewish people. This people, the descendants of Avraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were specifically chosen to be G-d’s servants. In order to do achieve this purpose they must live in a universe which is tailor made for them to fulfill this purpose. The Ramban in parshas Noach says that the word “bris” – covenant in Hebrew is based on the same Hebrew root as “briyah” – creation. He adds that when one makes a covenant with G-d then G-d creates a new system of governing the realities of the creation to fit the conditions of that covenant.
When the verse says “And this month shall be for you the first of all months” (Exodus 12:2), it therefore means that the entire fabric of reality is being rewoven for you. Time is the ephemeral element of change within our reality. On the one hand time is as immutable as the most tangible element of our material world, but at the same time it is ephemeral and fleeting. Time is the vehicle through which G-d brings about change in the essential fabric of reality. Many say this is like a motion picture reel. As each “image” passes quickly through the projector light we get the impression that the figures are moving and changing when in fact all there is behind the projector is many separate “screens” or “images”. The word for the passage of a “year” in Hebrew is “shanah”, which is the same exact letters that are in the Hebrew root for “shinui” or change. In other words time passage is the vehicle through which Hashem through His ongoing Divine input brings about a consistent flow of changing realities. The nature of this new universe that has been created and calibrated for the Jewish people and their covenant with Hashem is being established in this verse “And this chodesh (month) shall be for you the first of all months” (Exodus 12:2). The word for month is “chodesh” which is the same word in Hebrew for the word “chidush” which means “new”. Every month is a new dimension of time a new aspect of the total picture of a year – a change. The Jewish life cycle is about growth and change. It is about renewal and constant review of ourselves and our ways. Rosh Chodesh is a time for repentance and atonement. Each month we need to take stock on whether we have used the life force and vitality invested within us by Hashem responsibly or whether we need to make adjustments.
On Rosh Chodesh Nissan this responsibility to take stock on our actions and renew our commitment to our covenant with Hashem is at its peak. This is the pinnacle time for us to do tshuvah as the Jewish nation since this is the time when we were created as a nation. On Rosh Hashanah we need to do tshuvah as well but there the tshuvah is a little more general in that we need to do tshuvah as a human being, as one of the Almighty’s creations. The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah teaches that on Rosh Hashanah every single created being passes in front of Hashem like sheep in a line, Jews and non-jews alike. On Rosh Chodesh Nissan it is a time for us to do tshuvah specifically as Jews, and specifically on our purpose and responsibilities to ourselves as part of this great nation that have made a covenant with the Almighty to accept His Torah and keep it and live it forever.
The Talmud Yerushalmi teaches that the verse “And this month shall be to you the first of all months” (Exodus 12:2) in a fascinating way. We have in our oral transmission the following teaching. If a young girl was defiled before the age of three her hymen will heal and she will be no different than a virgin when she grows. If however this took place one day later after she turned three then the hymen will not heal and she will grow up with the physiology of a girl who is not a virgin. The Yerushalmi says that one of the principles we learn from the verse above is that the Jewish court system has the responsibility to establish and sanctify when the new moon is each month and declare the new month. This accounts for the fact that a Jewish month (which is based on the lunar cycle) can either be twenty-nine days or thirty days depending on exactly when the new sliver of the moon appears visibly in the sky. If the court establishes the new month on day twenty nine based on witnesses who saw the new sliver of the moon so the next day is already the first day of the nest month, if however they only establish the new month on the thirtieth day then the following day after that will be the first day of the new month. This can have ramifications as to which day the Jewish festivals will fall out on. We know that Pesach is the fifteenth of Nissan. But based on the system for determining the first day of the new month that first day of Pesach could either be a day sooner or a day later. If a young girl’s third birthday were to come out in lets say the fifth day of the month of Iyar and the courts would determine that the first day of Iyar is the day following the twenty ninth of Nissan (which lets say was a Tuesday) so if she would be defiled on the following Sunday after she was already three then her hymen would not heal. However, had the court sanctified the new month one day later thus making the day of the defilement one day before her third birthday, then her hymen will heal. This is as absolutely mind-boggling statement made by the Yerushalmi. From this teaching we see that not only do we have our own court system to determine our holidays, but as we established above we live in a universe tailor made for us. When G-d said this Chodesh will be for you, He meant you will have the ability to make “chidush”, to make new physical realities based on your court systems adjudication of time for your nation in your universe. The Almighty has handed over to us the keys to bring about changes in the very physical fabric of this universe that we live in.
Perhaps at this point we can grasp a little bit of the meaning of the Midrash that Rashi brings on the verse “And this month shall be for you the first of all months” (Exodus 12:2) The Midrash asks why does the verse say “this” chodesh? It answers that when Hashem was teaching these laws of time and the adjudication of time by the court system to Moshe Rabbeinu, he couldn’t understand the full application of the idea. Hashem thus instructed Moshe to look in the sky and see “this chodesh”. He showed Moshe a picture of the new sliver of the moon in the sky so he would know what it looked like. At face value this is difficult to understand. Why did Moshe struggle to understand? What did he see in that sliver in the sky that couldn’t be understood through simple verbal communication without visual aid by anyone who had ever seen the sky before? Perhaps we can understand this Midrash based on what we have learned. Moshe could not understand how it was possible that human beings could have such dominion over time. There is no rational basis within the human psyche to support this conclusion. It was necessary to take Moshe above the physical dimension into the consciousness of prophecy and show him the deeper spiritual realities embedded deep within the fabric of this universe that Hashem has made. When Moshe saw “this chodesh” the prophetic vision of the spiritual reality of the Jewish people and their dominion over time which G-d has granted them as part of their responsibility to keep the Torah and live it, then he understood and taught it to us.
The Jewish people are a nation whose very existence is based on miracles. We have outstood the test of time. Where nations and kingdoms have fallen the Jews have survived. Through persecution and tribulation we have persevered. This week on Shabbos we need to remember how and why we have this unique quality. We are an eternal nation we have a point of transcendence beyond this physical material world. We have the keys to change the fabric of reality. We must remember that along with this unfathomable gift and privilege there is equally awesome responsibility to use this power for the one purpose of serving Hashem and nothing else. Only then will we become the nation about which Hashem says “Yisroel my child that in you I am glorified in the world”!