During the months of Adar and Nisan we have four special Shabbatot. The shabbat that precedes the month of Nisan – this shabbat – is known as Shabbat Hahodesh (the head of the months). The significance of Shabbat Hahodesh might be somewhat lost on us today as we tend to see Rosh Hashanah as the beginning of the New Year. However, our tradition teaches us that our calendar has four New Years: Rosh Hashanah – the first of Tishrei – celebrates the birthday of the world. Tu b’shvat – the 15th of Shevat – celebrates the birthday of trees. The first of Elul corresponds to the tithing of cattle and the first of Nisan celebrates the season of the redemption from Egypt and the birth of the nation of Israel.
On Shabbat Hahodesh we read a special Torah portion that deals with the Exodus from Egypt: “God spoke to Moses saying: This month is the first of your months, it is the first month of your year” (Exodus 12:1). The reading itself unfolds over 20 verses and is considered to be one of the most important portions in the Torah. So much so that Rashi, a well-known mediaeval Jewish commentator, wrote that that Torah could have actually commenced from this reading! Why would he make such an audacious claim? That would omit the whole book of Genesis and the opening chapters of Exodus!
The reason why Rashi and many other Torah commentators place so much emphasis on these verses is because it marks the formation of our national identity. Before this moment our patriarchs and matriarchs were central to the Torah narrative as were the tribes descending from the sons of Jacob. From this point on, the narrative focuses on the development of the nation of Israel, forged through the trials and tribulations of the desert wanderings to the death of Moses and the moments before the conquest of Canaan.
The month of Nisan is really seen as the birth of our collective peoplehood. At the point where these verses are situated in the Torah, the children of Israel are walking a tightrope between slavery in Egypt and the freedom to return to Canaan, the land of their ancestors, as a free people.
It is interesting to me that at this very moment of freedom the Israelites were told to eat only unleavened bread and to clear their houses of any leaven. In our rabbinic and mystical tradition leaven is equated with arrogance and entitlement. At the point where the children of Israel were to be freed from slavery God had instructed them through the eating of unleavened bread to watch their egos and to keep their arrogance in check. Freedom for the Israelites was never intended to be a vehicle for them to build empires of power and oppression. As Moses said to Pharaoh on behalf of God, “set my people free so that they may serve me.” (Exodus 5:1).
With freedom comes responsibility. We are commanded to use our freedom and power to build a better world, to care for those less fortunate than ourselves and to care for our planet. The message contained in these verses that will be chanted this Shabbat Hahodesh are more important for us today than at any other time in human history.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom
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Shabbat, October 31, 2020
13th of Cheshvan, 5781
Friday, October 9 6:57PM
Motzei Shabbat 7:03PM
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