Rabbi David Walk
This week we read Parshat haChodesh. I don't know about you, but this is when I hit panic mode about Pesach preparations. I remain in blissful denial about the immanence of Pesach until after Purim. However, when we read this special section on or before Rosh Chodesh Nissan, there can no longer be any delay in feeling anxiety about the upcoming holiday. Although I am able to continue delaying the actual work, that date, the first of Nissan, is a clear line of demarcation for worrying purposes. That's the day God told the Jews to prepare for Pesach in Egypt, and who am I to disagree with God? It's definitely time to get going. This day is also recorded as the date upon which we could actually start to tell the story of the exodus in the Haggadah. So, in lieu of actually doing any Pesach cleaning and cooking, let's think about the concepts which this reading expects us to contemplate. Let's intellectually prepare for the upcoming festival.
On a technical note, this reading contains the source of the mitzvah to make a calendar based upon lunar months. However, from another verse we are required to make sure that the month containing the holiday of Pesach occurs in the spring (Aviv, Deuteronomy 16:1). Therefore our calendar is complex, with lunar months but a solar, season based, year. Which, again, means that we must think of this month and the holiday of Pesach in the context of spring with its message of rebirth and rejuvenation, that's why we have a green vegetable on the Seder Plate, Karpas. This idea of renaissance is also expressed in a famous word play. Many commentaries tell us not to read the word chodesh meaning month but read it chadash meaning new. So, newness is a critical component of this passage. We'll return to that idea.
I believe, though, that the central point of this reading is the word lachem, for you. The Talmud explains that this term has a crucial legal impact. Originally the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem declared the new month based upon witnesses coming to report that they have seen the first sliver of the new moon. When this system broke down due to Roman persecution, the great rabbinic court established our set calendar. But the rabbis purposely arranged the calendar to fit our needs, not astronomic reality. Therefore the day upon which we celebrate the new month is often a day or two away from the actual appearance of the new moon over Jerusalem. That's why we announce the molad or birth time for the new moon in synagogues throughout the world. We know when the new moon occurs but commemorate Rosh Chodesh when it works best for the Jewish nation. We can do that because the verse says that the month is for you, lachem, and we're stubborn Jews.
However, we can approach the 'for you' aspect in conceptual rather than legal ways. The B'nai Yissaschar, by Reb Zvi Elimelech Shapiro of Dinov (1783-1841) suggested that the rosh or head in the verse isn't the beginning of the month, but the leadership of the Jewish nation. Each generation gets the leadership which is for you, specifically suited to the needs of the generation. We tailor our months to our needs; God fit's the people in charge to the requirements of history.
The Sfat Emet (Reb Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1905) offers the idea that 'for you' means that the moon itself is for us. It serves our purposes, and gives us a mission. The moon ("hachodesh") lights the darkness. So, too, it is our assignment to shine light, and thus to find God's Presence in the hiddeness behind which the Deity often chooses to hide. When we find the moon; we find God for all mankind.
One last approach. Rav Kook (1865-1935) wrote an essay in which he asks a related question. He wants to know the difference between the similar Hebrew words rosh (head) and rishon (first). Both terms appear in our verse. He quotes a Midrash on the verse, in which a king has great store houses of wealth, and one son. The king held everything back until the prince grew to adulthood. Then he gave all the wealth to the beloved child. So, God withheld the great spiritual treasures, Torah and mitzvoth, from Israel until they were ready to leave Egypt as young adults. Then the Midrash tells another story. A king gets married and only gives his new wife minimal gifts at the betrothal. However, when she actually moves in with him, the king gives her vast wealth. Similarly, the Jewish nation has only received the limited light of the moon in our present condition, but will receive greater light in a future time.
Rav Kook explains that now the month of Nissan is the rosh or chief month. The other months have no comparable status. However, in the future the other months will have a greater status, and Nissan will be first among equals, or rishon. That comparison works similarly with the Jews as they relate to other nations. In our present situation the rest of the nations don't yet recognize the true relationship between the Jewish nation and God. But in the future there will be recognition both of God's supremacy and supervision of the world and the special relationship of the Jews and God. Rosh Chodesh Nissan is not only a wakeup call to prepare for the Pesach rituals, it's also to get ready for the Pesach message. We Jews have a crucial role in our planet's destiny.
Therefore, it's time to freshen up our commitment to God. Over the centuries our relationship with God evolves, grows and deepens, but sometimes loses the passion of a new found love. In the Spring a young man's fancy turns to love is still true, and must be applied to our devotion for our Maker. What good are the frenzied preparations if they are merely technical? Plan for the Seder like for a first date. Make it more than a lavish banquet; make it a passionate rendezvous. Well, get to work!
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