This week, in addition to the double parasha of Vayakhel and Pekudei (which will complete our reading of the entire Book of Shemot/Exodus), we read the supplemental portion known as Parashat HaChodesh (Portion of "The Month") in which Moshe and Aharon are instructed to tell the Jewish people about the significance of the month of Nisan (which begins next Tuesday).
And the L-rd spoke to Moshe and Aharon in the land of Egypt, saying: 'This month shall be for you the beginning (Rosh) of months; it shall be the first (Rishon) month of the year to you.
This is, in fact, the first mitzvah/commandment given to the Jewish people (as a collective) in the entire Chumash/Bible. It is so significant that Rashi, in his commentary to the first verse in Bereisheet/Genesis, suggests, tongue in cheek, that the Torah might have begun with this verse just because it is the first mitzvah. Rashi goes on to explain that the Torah is more than just a list of commandments and provides a historical/theological argument for beginning with the creation story.
But why are we told to begin the year in Nisan? Don't we celebrate our new year with Rosh HaShanah in Tishrei, half a year later?
Note that there are two phrases in the verse above. The month is described as Rosh Chadashim (Rosh means head, as in Rosh HaShanah, head of the year), and then later in the same verse as Rishon...L'chadshei ha-shanah (Rishon means first). Both words in Hebrew share the same root letters (resh-aleph-shin), but they have two different connotations.
A person who serves as the "head" does so at the pleasure of his or her constituents. One who is considered "first" can have that description based on specific talents or accomplishments, even without popular approval.
The Jewish year is a cyclical/circular system. There really is no beginning or end of a circle. Nevertheless, the Jewish calendar recognizes that as we work through the various months of the year, we eventually come to the month of Nisan, Chodesh HaAviv (the springtime month), the primary characteristic of which is rebirth, regrowth and renewal. Because of the new growth cycle that begins in Nisan, we accept it as the "head" of the year. This is a designation that is relevant and acceptable for people of all faiths and philosophies (even though the secular world celebrates its "new year" in January for other historical reasons, some of which are associated with pagan traditions).
For the Jewish people, Nisan symbolizes the time of wonders and miracles leading up to our deliverance from 210 years of servitude in Egypt. Therefore, Nisan is, for us, particularly significant. It represents the birth of our people, our graduation from being an extended nomadic family of slaves and becoming the nation of Israel, with a destiny that includes the acquisition of our own law, our own land and a unique relationship with our G-d. This is why we refer to Nisan as the "first" month of our year. Uniquely, we Jews count our months from Nisan and our years from Tishrei (which means, ironically, that we celebrate Rosh HaShanah, our new year of teshuva/repentance, in the seventh month of our year).
With this perspective, we can see how the verse above could be interpreted: This month (of Nisan), which up until now was considered (only) the
head or beginning of the year, shall from this time forward be
for you also the
month of the year, (for the purpose of counting time and marking transitions).
Tishrei continues to serve as the month that symbolizes nature, associated with the creation of the world and everything that we consider to be natural. Nisan symbolizes that which transcends nature (Nisan is related to the word nissim, which means miracles). The fact that we consider Nisan our first month means that we associate ourselves with transcendence, with possibilities that go beyond the natural. Some might say that this explains our persistence and survival despite so much historical adversity and persecution.
Years are associated with the sun, which is unchanging and appears whole all of the time. Months are associated with the moon, which waxes and wanes, seeming to disappear, only to reappear and grow to its fullness month after month. The fact that our Jewish year is based upon a hybrid of lunar and solar calculations demonstrates that we combine both aspects of the celestial perspective. We can be constant and we can change. We are ever-present AND just when it looks like we might be in danger of disappearing, we bounce back to celebrate rebirth and renewal.
This should give us much cause for optimism and faith, even in the face of episodic adversity and difficulties. It has ever been so, and may it constantly provide us with hope!
Sources: Torat Moshe (Chatam Sofer); Sefer HaMaamarim 5677
Shabbat Shalom to all!
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