Shabbat Ha’chodesh Rosh Chodesh Nisan - 5776, Apr 9, 2016
Post date: Apr 7, 2016 4:29:21 AM
Rosh Chodesh Nisan
This week is Shabbat Ha’chodesh, another of the special sabbaths leading to Pesach (Passover). In addition, we celebrate Rosh Chodesh (new month of) Nisan, rosh chodashim, according to the Torah, or, the “head of the months.” It is referred to as the "first month" in the Torah.
There are multiple ‘new years’ according to Jewish tradition* and Pesach falls, appropriately, immediately after this one. The Israelites are about to make their unifying and harrowing journey out of slavery and, together as a people, into the Land of Israel. The parsha (section of Torah) that we read this week is from Sh’mot (Exodus), and weaves together the mitzvot (commandments) of commemorating Pesach with the narrative of the Israelites leaving Egypt and heading for the sea.
The parsha begins with precursor to our modern seder – on the 14th day of the first month, kol kahal adat yisrael – the whole assembly of the community of Israel – shall take a lamb and kill it at dusk. We are commanded to spread the blood on our doorposts, and eat the roasted lamb together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The first 20 p’sukim (verses) of this parsha go through the major mitzvot and observances of Pesach. At passuk 21, the text shifts to present tense – ‘and Moses called for all the elders of Israel’ – indicating that the narrative of the Israelites leaving Egypt has resumed. The parsha continues like this – mitzvot and observances of Pesach for a few p’sukim, and then a shift in tenses to indicate continuation of the narrative.
One particularly interesting element of the narrative of Pesach involves the Egyptians, following their first-born dying at the hands of God. Pharaoh, along with all Egyptians, has awoken to find his first-born son dead, v’tza’akah g’dolah b’mitzrayim – a great cry rose up in Egypt. Pharaoh sends for Moses and Aaron, and tells them to go, with all the Israelites and their flocks and their herds, to serve God. He adds, uvayrachtem gam oti – and also bless me. Why does Pharaoh ask this of Moses and Aaron? He has long since demeaned the Israelites’ desire to pray to God, and now is asking that they bless him when they go to worship?
Perhaps this one of several signs of terror in the Egyptians, brought on by the plagues. Another passuk shortly after this is intriguing - va’te’chezak mitzrayim al ha-am l’macher l’shalacham min ha’aretz. The Egyptians “te’chezak” the people in order to quickly send them from the land. In various places, te’chezak is translated as the Egyptians were urgent, the Egyptians urged the people, and the Egyptians took hold of the people. The root of this word – chet, zayon, koof – is the same as the word ‘chazak’ – strong. Te’chezak, then, is to be made strong or be strengthened. So how does this relate to urging the Israelites to leave the land of Egypt? Perhaps this is an instance of some biblical irony, just as Robert Frost penned ‘good fences make good neighbors.’ Perhaps what the Torah is really trying to convey is that the Egyptians were anything but strengthened – in fact, they were terrified.
Our tradition has several stories of God acting in extreme ways – wiping out the world with a flood, destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, and, here, inducing terror in the Egyptian people. In none of these stories, do things end well. After the flood, God needs a one-sided b’rit, covenant, with Noah to hold God’s self to the promise of never destroying the world again. After Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, B’reshit says, “Lot went up from Zoar and settled in the hill country with his two daughters, for he was afraid to dwell in Zoar” (B’reshit 19:30). Immediately after this, Lot’s daughters engage in incest to become pregnant by their father, also out of fear (that their father is the last man on earth). And, lastly, after God’s terrifying plagues on the Egyptians, Pharaoh decides to run and chase the Israelite people as they are about to leave Egypt for good. In none of these stories do the extreme actions of a reactionary God seem to benefit humanity. Rather, inducing fear into others leads us to a social version of Newton’s third law of physics – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
I just recently listened to a wonderful TED talk by Scilla Elworthy, who told the story of American troops walking through a town in occupied Iraq. The people of the town were angry, and came out, yelling and becoming increasingly aggressive toward the troops. As they began to form an angry mob, the sergeant of the platoon stopped marching and commanded his troops to kneel in the street. They placed their weapons on the ground, and knelt quietly. Soon enough, nothing happened at all. The people calmed, turned away, and went back to their daily lives. Eventually, when the street was clear, the troops stood and continued walking. In the face of extreme behavior, acting with purpose, acting with intention brings about the best results. When emotions such as anger and fear are present, it is easy to see them take hold and bring on extreme behavior. In this respect, God is a poor role model for us. God’s extreme actions only serve to provoke further anger and fear. Rather, we can take our role models as Moshe and Miriam. In the face of fear at the burning bush, Moshe acts with humility, telling God he cannot possibly be worthy of the task set before him. Miriam, in the face of fear at her baby brother’s impending death in the river, acts quietly – hiding in the bulrushes, waiting, and watching. It is these traits – humility, patience, calmness – bring about peaceful ends to situations fraught with high emotion.
I pray that we, this Shabbat Hachodesh, this Shabbat of Renewal, and beyond, during this time of extreme voices, whether they be the high pitched rhetoric of our dynamic political system, the voices of those in need crying out for help, or even the shrill existence of those who torment others, may we be blessed with enough humility, patience, and calmness to achieve the outcomes that best serve us, our families, our people, and the community of humankind.
Yvonne Asher received her Masters of Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Suffolk University in Boston, MA.
* Most "New Year" holidays in ancient Judea had an agricultural and fiscal component to them. T'u Bishvat, for example, was the New Year for the Trees. The age of a fruit tree was determined by how many T'u Bishvat-s it had survived. This, in turn, was used to determine the fourth year, when its fruit would be wholly given to those who serviced the Holy Temple.