Rabbi David Walk
We like new things. I recently went to buy an air freshener for my car and the most popular fragrance was 'New Car.' I got pine. However, the point is that most people really like 'new'. 'New' isn't only bright and shiny. It's also hopeful, exciting and optimistic. C. S. Lewis said that one is never too old to dream a new dream. And that's an important sentiment for this time of year. As I'm writing this, I'm looking out the window, and, besides causing many typos, I am seeing buds bursting out on the trees all around. This rebirth inspires new and innovative approaches to life. It stimulates creative juices to see ourselves and our world in different ways. As a preparation for our Festival of Freedom, it's important to remember that it's also the Festival of Spring and, therefore, rebirth.
Nu, so what is new? Clearly, we see a new season with new reproduction and growth, but what do our spiritual giants see? The Sfat Emet (Reb Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter M'Gur, 1847-1905) noted that the mitzvah of sanctifying the months of the Hebrew year through observing the new moon teaches us to seek out something else in this monthly search for newness. He quotes the Talmud: Rebbi Yehuda Hanasi told Rebbe Chiya to go to Ein Tav and sanctify Rosh Chodesh there, and to send the message David Melech Yisrael chai v'kayom (David, King of Israel lives and thrives, Rosh Hashanah 25a. That's the source of that often sung phrase and the reason we recite that refrain during our monthly sanctification of the moon ceremony.). The great Jewish geographer, Zev Vilna'i (1900-1988), identified Ein Tav as a village not far from Lod (and Ben Gurion Airport), but the Sfat Emet wasn't interested in geography. The Rebbe explains that we should find and feel the goodness (tav) in the newness. That 'new' is a chance to find the goodness that God placed within Creation. That's why we say every morning in the blessing before the recitation of Shema, 'Who renews in goodness, every day, the act of Creation.' The Rebbe sees in the possibility of newness, the possibility of goodness. The Rebbe adds that this is a gift from God, that every year we are given the opportunity for new choices, because God chooses us anew every year as we relive the exodus from Egypt. That's how teshuva (repentance) works, and that's how optimism works.
All of that is very cool, but I think that there's a simple answer to 'what's new'. When we look at the verses from the Torah which are read from the second Torah we will take out for Parshat Hachodesh this week we (hopefully) notice something of interest. The verses mostly discuss the extraordinary preparations the Jews must perform to get ready for the departure from Egypt. They emphasize the arrangements to be made for the korban pesach (Paschal lamb). However, the second verse we read discusses the mitzvah of organizing the Jewish calendar around the appearance of the new moon beginning with the spring month of Nissan. Here is the standard translation of that remarkable verse: This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you (Exodus 12:2). Even though that's a fine rendition, it necessarily lacks the power of the Hebrew. In the original Hebrew five of the ten words in the verse mean either new or first. So, if we were to translate the verse based upon the roots of the words rather than their meanings which developed over time, we'd get this: This newness for you shall be the first of newnesses. It will be the first of newnesses of the year. The 3 words for 'new' are from chadash, which came to mean 'month', and the 2 words for 'first' are rosh, which really means 'head'. We Jews find great solace in comparing ourselves to the moon, because our fortunes wax and wane just like the moon. So, our word for month derives from 'new' because of the hope it gives us. But why this emphasis on 'head' for the beginning of new time periods, like months and years?
It's interesting to note that the world at large celebrates New Year, while we commemorate Rosh Hashanah or 'head of the year'. The same is true for the first of every month. We have Rosh Chodesh. What's the message of being the 'head of the year' rather than the New Year? I believe that the difference is both subtle and significant. The beginning which is a head hints at continuity. The head is a beginning which extends through the rest of the body or the time period. We love the idea of renewal. Through teshuva we can reconstitute ourselves. But we are not totally removed from this past. Even new beginnings must be within an historical context. It's so ironic, at first impression, that the month in which we emphasize newness also contains the holiday when we spend so much time recreating our past. No holiday looks backward in time more than Pesach. It's all about reliving the past in such a way that we actually see ourselves as having been there. But it all makes sense because we demand that our newness be a continuation of that glorious past. We carry our bygone days with us into an even brighter future.
We love this idea so much, according to the Sfat Emet, that we base our calendar on the cycles of the moon so that we can experience this renewal monthly, rather than annually, as the rest of the world does. This allows us to constantly renew ourselves. Our continuity and our longevity are based on this ability to prolong our existence through regeneration, both as individuals and as a nation. Paradoxically, Israel is both the freshest and most venerable of ethnicities and civilizations. So, when we ask 'What's new?' the answer must be 'us'.