Rosh Chodesh Nissan-5778
Rabbi David Walk
There have been many milestones in Jewish history. We have a long and event filled past. But the question I want to pose this week is (Ta Dum!): What event or date should we use to mark the birth of our nation? I know this isn't necessarily an earth-shaking issue, but nations do tend to have a date which is used for marking the beginning of their patrimony, like July Fourth for the US or July 14 for the French. There really are many candidates for this distinction in our long past. Like when the children of Ya'akov go down to Egypt, beginning the fulfillment of our destiny as outlined in the Brit Bein Habetarim, perhaps when the Jews actually march out of Egypt, maybe when we stood at the foot of Mt Sinai accepting the Torah, or when we all committed to the covenant in Shechem after the conquest of Eretz Yisrael. I just want to know when I can blow out the candles.
My candidate is Rosh Chodesh Nissan. The Torah calls it the beginning of beginnings (rosh chodoshim, perhaps 'head of all newness', Shmot 12:2). The first Rashi in the Torah tells us that the Torah itself should have begun at that point. And when we get to the first anniversary of that date, the Torah records, 'In the first month, in the second year, on the first day of the month, that the Mishkan was set up (40:17),' again special events are in the offing specifically on this date. The Talmud tells us that there were 10 special milestones that day: It was the first day of creation [Sunday], the first day the heads of the tribes offered their gifts for the Mishkan, the first day of the Cohanim serving, the first day of the Divine Temple service, the first day fire descended from heaven to consume the offerings, the first day sanctified offerings were eaten, the first day of Shechinah (Divine Presence) within the nation, the first day of the Priestly Benediction, the first day that private altars were forbidden, and Nisan is the first month for Israel (Shabbat 87b). That last one meant that during the Biblical period Jewish years were counted from Nissan, not Tishre, which was a much later development.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that this week is our Birthday. So, get those candles, balloons and frosting ready. But why Rosh Chodeh Nissan? Is it the symbolism of rebirth in the spring (chodesh aviv)? Is it because that was the day God taught us that we can make time holy? Or, maybe, because this was the first time a mitzvah was given to the Jews as a people? All worthy answers, but I think the answer is embedded in the Psalm for Rosh Chodesh, Borchi Nafshi, number 104.
On Shabbat we recite Psalm 92, which demands that we appreciate the wonderful universe God has created and presented us for our use, key statement: How amazing are Your works; Your designs are so profound (92:6)! A superficial reading of Psalm 104, might lead one to conclude that the same agenda is being announced, because many believe the critical statement of Borchi Nafshi is: O Lord, You created so many things! You produced all of them in wisdom; all creation is filled with Your creations (verse 24)! If we thought that, we'd be missing the point. On Shabbat the job is cessation of all creative activity. Stop, breathe deeply (va'yinafash, Shmot 31:17), and appreciate all God has produced. It's really quire passive. However, Psalm 104 and Rosh Chodesh give us a very different picture. Let's take a look.
This new understanding of Creation begins in verse 14: God makes hay sprout for cattle, for humanity those grasses are for our labor to bring forth bread; wine to gladden the heart of mankind, olive oil to brighten human faces. Remember the psalm for Shabbat, what's the great fruit we mention? Dates, which you just pick off the tree, and it's perfect. We can do nothing to improve a fresh date. But here we talk of bread, wine and olive oil. All of which require a tremendous input of human effort to produce. God, give us the raw material. We'll take it from here. The poem continues the theme: Lions...seeking from God their food (verse 21), but humans go out to work and labor until evening (verse 23).
This is the famous debate between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman proconsul, Turnus Rufus. Even though their basic issue was circumcision, to make his point Rabbi Akiva brought raw wheat and cakes. In this famous Midrash (Tanchuma Tazria), Rabbi Akiva concludes that God gave us mitzvot to improve ourselves. Psalm 104 is teaching us the same idea about the world God gave us. We're not passive recipients of this world's bounty; we're partners in the enterprise. That's what happened on Rosh Chodesh in Egypt all those years ago. God said to us: We share in the Holy Business. You tell Me when Rosh Chodesh is, and I'll follow your lead. We're a team to bring holiness to this world. We're celebrating that day when God told us that we're partners. God gave us the keys to the vehicle which produces kedusha.
The sidur teaches us that on Shabbat we say in tefila and kiddush: Blessed are You, Lord, Who sanctified Shabbat. We're passive recipients of Shabbat. On Rosh Chodesh and holidays, we say: Blessed are You, Lord, Who sanctified Israel and this occasion. God shared with us that power to sanctify.
But again, it's all in Psalm 104: God made the moon for setting the holidays; the sun is steadfast (verse 19). The days and weeks are established through the sun; we have no input. But the holidays? God told us that we can look heavenward and use the moon's phases to set the calendar. Our Doting Parent in heaven confirms our efforts. This remarkable power was entrusted to us on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. Happy B'day!