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Bo | New Moons and the Renewal of the Soul

Rav Alex Israel


The images of our parasha are immensely dramatic: the red blood on the doorposts, the terrifying crushing darkness of that night when the firstborn of Egypt were killed, and then, the sweeping triumph of a slave nation tasting its first moments of freedom.  These are the scenes of the Exodus - immense, powerful, historic moments.  It is somewhat enigmatic, then, to find a rather modest and unassuming Godly instruction to Moses placed as an introduction to this dramatic and imposing story:


The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you (12:1-2).


What do these verses tell us?  They inform the incipient nation of Israel as to the concept of Rosh Chodesh - the New Moon.  To be more exact, these two lines contain two separate commands:


1.  The notion that the beginning of a month shall commence with the visual sighting of the "new moon," just visible.

2.  That the order of months in the Jewish calendar will start with Nissan, the month of Redemption.




On the surface, this law defines a calendar.  It establishes a uniquely Jewish system of time-keeping - a Godly rhythm of time.  This we will discuss in due course.  But there is an additional dimension here.  From a halakhic-legal point of view, these verses are significant far beyond their actual content.  These two unobtrusive lines have monumental import, for they describe the very first command, or mitzva, that the Children of Israel receive as a nation.  Rashi, in his opening comment to the Pentateuch, raises the hypothetical suggestion that these verses should have been the opening lines of the Torah.  After all, proposes Rashi, the primary function of the Torah is to present the unique Jewish system of living embodied in its laws, its prohibitions and directives.  This is the first verse to issue a command to the Children of Israel as a nation.  Rashi rejects the suggestion for other reasons, but the point is well taken.  It is with these verses that Jewish Law - Halakha - and the system of the mitzvot, take their first steps.  So, this technical law might seem a little dwarfed by the drama and cataclysmic events of the night of the killing of the firstborn, but in truth, it inaugurates the entire world of Jewish Law and the notion of mitzva. 


Let us now turn to investigate the content of the mitzva itself and the concepts which underlie it.




Looking at the text itself, we have many questions to ask.  The language here is begging for further investigation.  First, the introductory verse.  Why does it tell us that God commanded Moses and Aharon "in the land of Egypt?"  Why is the Egyptian location given emphasis?  This phraseology is found nowhere else in the Egypt story. 


But there is also the command itself - it is a double-barreled sentence.  First "This month shall mark for you the beginning of months ..." and then "... it shall be the first of the months of the year for you."  What does one phrase tell us that the other does not?


And is Nissan - the month of Redemption - really the "first of the months?"  Rosh Hashana, the Jewish "New Year," is in Tishrei! (the seventh month).




The great commentator, Rashi, was fully aware of all the problems that we have raised.  Rashi's comment on verse 2 is interesting:


God showed him the moon at its moment of renewal and told him: 'When the moon renews itself, it will be Rosh Chodesh - the advent of a new month.  However, the verse should not be understood other than in accordance with the words themselves (ki-peshuto).  As regards the month of Nissan God told him "This will be the first of the system of months, Iyar will be called the second month, Sivan the third etc." 

THIS MONTH: Moses found it difficult to grasp the exact point and size at which one can sanctify the moon.  God pointed to the moon with His finger and showed him saying; "Look at this!  When you see this, call it holy."  And how could He show him by night?  Does God not restrict His communication to Moses to the day? ...  He spoke to him at sundown and the visual demonstration was at night.


                This is an intricate Rashi.  In essence, Rashi offers two interpretations.  The first explanation translates the words in the most appropriate reading contingent with standard rules of grammar, the context and flow of the verse.  This is called the explanation of "peshat."  According to this reading, the text reads: "This month (of Nissan) will be the head month, it is the first of the year."  The word "Chodesh" refers to the month of Nissan.


                This reading, however, has its problems.  First is a problem of repetition.  The second section of the verse would seem to repeat the first, and thus, half of our statement becomes somewhat superfluous.  For if this is the head month, then it is obvious that it is the first month in the year.  The second problem is the use of the word ZEH - "THIS" - which indicates something that one can point to, a concrete object.  In the biblical text, when the Torah talks about a specific object using the term "ZEH," Rashi frequently notes that we are dealing with a visual display of a concrete form.  In each place, he talks about being able to point to the object and say "This is it, look at it."  (See Rashi on Shemot 15:2, Bamidbar 8:4.)  But here, if we translate "chodesh" as "month," we have a problem.  You cannot point to a month!  What was God pointing at?


                Rashi is forced to introduce a second explanation.  He tells us that God was pointing to the moon.  He had to show Moses what he meant by the "renewing" moon.  When exactly does the moon become the signal for the commencement of the new month?  God gave Moses a practical demonstration and showed him how it was all to work.  Textually, this reading solves our earlier problem.  We can now read the verse as: "This moon is the signal for you for a Rosh Chodesh.  This (month) will now be for you the first of all the months."  Here we have two statements saying very different things!


                This is not the "pshat" explanation because it pushes the words too much.  Chodesh cannot really translate as "moon" in Hebrew.  Both explanations of Rashi are flawed.  The preferable translation of the word "chodesh" leads to a duplicity in the verse.  But the clearer reading of the verse has certain linguistic shortcomings.  Rashi chooses to quote both readings.




What is quite fascinating in Rashi's reading here is Moses' response to this first mitzva.  Rashi tells us that he did not understand it - "Nitkasheh Moshe" - Moses found a particular point difficult to grasp.  He could not see what God was trying to tell him.  What does Moses do?  Does he give up?  Does he just let it go?  No!  He asks God, he questions Him.  We might possibly be able to imagine God telling him again and still Moses doesn't understand. 


It is now God's response that is remarkable.  Moses is not understanding the concept.  He isn't grasping the concept when it is described to him in words.  God chooses to teach Moses "out of the classroom."  They go on a "field trip."  They leave the walls of the Beit Midrash and choose to look up at the moon. 


Moses has an educational need and - "lo ha-bayshan lamed - a bashful demeanor inhibits successful study" (Avot 2:6) - he is not afraid to challenge God when he fails to understand a particular detail.  God,  in turn, is prepared to invent new modes of learning, new pedagogic frameworks, in order to teach his student Moses.  Rashi informs us that God did not usually appear to Moses at night.  This time He did.  Why?  Because Moses is His student and Moses needs to learn.  Rashi teaches us here a profound message.  That in the teaching of Torah, we must be creative.  We must use new methods.  God could have told Moses that he can't get nevu'a at night - it is against the rules.  But He doesn't.  He invents a new framework in which Moses can understand.  A teacher must always try to find new, more successful methods to teach Torah and a student must always be determined and unashamed when learning.  (I heard this idea many years back from Rav Shimon Felix - now at the Chief Rabbi's Office in London.)




Nachmanides - the Ramban - understands the rationale of this law in the following way:


The Children of Israel should mark this month as the first, and should count months in relation to this one - the second, the third, to the twelfth month.  This is to ensure that we remember the great miracle; for whenever we mention the month, we will (effectively) be mentioning the miracle.  That is why there are no names of months in the Torah, but the Torah will say (for example): "And it came to pass in the third month" (19:1) or "In the second month of the second year" (Numbers 10:11).  This is the same as our counting the days of the week from Shabbat.  And this is why it says in the verse "it shall be the first of the months of the year FOR YOU."  In truth, it is not the first month of the year (as the world was created in Tishrei), but it is the first month for you as it is a remembrance of our redemption.


                The Ramban sees this mitzva as marking the centrality of the Exodus experience in the Jewish mindset.  In the same way as the days of the week have no names in Judaism (and in modern Hebrew) - just "yom rishon, yom sheni" - to emphasise the prominence of Shabbat, similarly the months are simply a pointer to the month of miracles and redemption.  (See also the Ramban at the end of our parasha where he sees the entire Exodus experience as an important factor in building a framework of faith in God.)


                Indeed, the establishment of a calendar should be seen as a significant step in our march to freedom.  A slave is not master of his own time.  When I create a calendar, I am implicitly stating that I DO control my time, my rest days and holidays, my work days and solemn times.  I am in control of my life.  In this sense, the establishment of a Jewish month system at the verge of national freedom is most significant in all senses and the Ramban's comment that our calendar begins at, and points to, our month of release and redemption is most appropriate.


                It is interesting to read the Ramban's explanation as to the development of the month names from the numerical (chodesh ha-rishon, chodesh ha-shevi'i) to the names that we have today.  (Our month names - Nissan, Iyar etc. are of Persian extraction.)  He doesn't view this as a product of assimilation or Persian influence.  Instead, he has a rather fascinating theory which is totally consistent with his explanation until now.  This is his approach:


... The Talmud Yerushalmi states that "They brought new (month) names back from Babylon."  This is because originally we had no names for the months because the months were a memorial to yetziat Mitzrayim.  But when we returned from Bavel (Babylon) and the prophetic verse was fulfilled "It shall no longer be said 'As the Lord lives who brought the Israelites out of Egypt' but rather 'As the Lord lives who brought the Israelites out of the Northland and out of all the lands to which he had banished them'" (Jeremiah 16:14-15) then we began to use the names as they are called in Bavel so that we would remind ourselves of our stay there and that God brought us out.  For these names Nissan, Iyar, Sivan etc. are all Persian names.


The Persian names remind us of our redemption from Babylon in the same way that the numerical identification was a pointer to the exodus from Egypt.




Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch has a fascinating image of the spiritual power latent in this mitzva.  He raises a popular critique of this mitzva.  There are those who see the practice of following the renewal of the moon as a primitive rite.  Ancient tribes would be scared when the moon "disappeared" fearing that it was lost, gone, and they rejoiced when the moon became visible once more.  Rabbi Hirsch rejects the critique and he proposes a positive spiritual foundation for this mitzva. 


Hirsch points to the halakhic side of this law: To proclaim the new month, there must be two witnesses as to the renewed sighting of the moon.  The two witnesses must be received in Beit Din - a Jewish court of law - by a full panel of the Judiciary.  Even with this evidence, the month is not started nor the day sanctified as Rosh Chodesh unless it is formally proclaimed by the Beit Din.  Sometimes the Beit Din can proclaim the New Moon without even a sighting (if the month is already 30 days).  Rabbi Hirsch gives this intricate description to impress upon the reader the detailed legalistic ceremony of the New Moon proclamation.  It is a formal legal process, not a spontaneous primitive rite.  But what as to its significance?  Rav Hirsch begins by explaining an etymological connection.  The word festival in Hebrew is "mo'ed."  But this word does not only tell us of religious festivals.  In its original Hebrew, it can also indicate special moments of any sort, or even a meeting between two parties.  He explains:


Were the beginning of our months and consequently the dates of our festivals (mo'adim) to be fixed exactly by the astronomical phases of the planets so that the ... moon automatically made Rosh Chodesh and the festivals (mo'adim), then we and our God too, would appear to be bound by the blind and unalterable laws of nature and our mo'ed (time) of a new moon ... would give impetus to the idolatry of the cult of Nature ...


It is not the conjunction of the moon with the sun, not the moon receiving the rays of illumination afresh ... but each time the moon finds the sun again, each time it receives its rays of light ...  God wants His people to find Him again and to be illuminated with fresh rays of His light wherever and however, in running their course, they have had to pass through periods of darkness and obscurity.  ... The moon finding itself again in conjunction with the sun is only to be a model for our finding ourselves again with God.  The rejuvenation of the moon, is a picture of, and incentive to, our own rejuvenation.  Mo'ed is literally a conjunction (meeting) ... we have to MAKE our Chodesh and to FIX the day of our mo'ed.


"...Ha-chodesh hazeh LAKHEM Rosh Chodashim" - "This renewal of the moon shall be a beginning of renewals to YOU."  I.e., noticing the fresh birth of the moon shall induce you to achieve a similar rejuvenation.  You are to fix your moons, your periods of time by taking note of this ever fresh recurring rejuvenation ...  It is not a question of actual months but of OUR months - LAKHEM...


Without this regularly bringing ourselves back to a commitment with our God, ... we should always slide farther and farther from Him, always be getting more and more estranged from Him; quite unconsciously and without noticing it, our natures would become less and less responsive to the light of His spirit, our natures would become darker and darker until - like Pharao- our hearts would be hard and heavy and even the most startling signs and the most affecting wonders would not achieve rebirth.


                In our prayers, Rosh Chodesh is described as a time of atonement - kappara.  It is a time of periodical atonement because it is a time ripe for return to God.  It is a monthly time of teshuva because the rebirth of the moon beckons us to become born again, to renew our ways.  The moon invites us to become different and were it not for this constant message, we might find ourselves on a constant downward slope.  The new moon tells us that even if we have become eclipsed from God, we can and must find Him again and become connected to the rays of His light.


In life, we too wax and wane.  Our spirituality and halakhic observance intensify and fade periodically.  The moon is a constant message.  We celebrate rebirth and renewal on a monthly basis.  We hope that we too can re-experience the excitement of finding the rays of God touching our lives.  But in the end WE fix Rosh Chodesh.  It cannot happen without the human court proclaiming that it will be.  God affects the light of the moon, but we humans fix Rosh Chodesh and in the same way, we can control the spirituality in our lives.


This is the message that precedes yetziat Mitzrayim.  It is a message which precedes the birth of Israel as a nation.  It is a magnificent message of hope and growth, a message of ongoing connection with our God.  For a people in the making, there is nothing more important than knowing that we can transform and renew ourselves, as individuals and as a nation.


Shabbat Shalom.

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