Hodesh [Month], Hiddush [New Idea] and Hithadshut [Renewal]
Anyone who has read Rashi’s comment on the first verse of the Torah is acquainted with Rabbi Yitzhak’s question regarding the Torah’s “editorial policy,” and its solution: the Torah begins with Bereishit in accordance with the verse, He revealed to His people His powerful works (Tehillim 111:6). The various views flowing from that verse are well-known, and are largely dependent upon the various “spectacles” through which different Jews read the Torah.
It seems to me that because of this, less attention was paid to the interesting alternative suggested by Rabbi Yitzhak in Rashi’s commentary, that it, the idea that the Torah could have begun with the section, This month shall mark for you… (Shemot 12:2), known as Parashat Ha-Hodesh, which serves as this Shabbat’s additional Torah reading.
Rashi brings Rabbi Yitzhak’s idea in these words:
And Rabbi Yitzhak said, “The Torah should have begun with none other than this month shall mark for you, which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded.
The commandments constitute the Torah’s significance; thus there seems to be no reason that it begin from Genesis. The RaMBaN develops a different approach to Rabbi Yitzhak’s statement, and claims that, in any event, we are unable to understand the Act of Creation from the narrative of Bereishit. However, if we study Parashat Ha-Hodesh, perhaps we will be able to come up with additional reasons why it may be considered to be the Torah’s second beginning. Perhaps we will even be able to understand why this section was chosen as the additional reading for the Shabbat in which we bless the coming month of Nissan, the first of months (Shemot 12:2).
The commandment to sanctify the new month was given to Moses and Aaron while they were still in Egypt. It symbolizes the turning point, the renewal of an enslaved people. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote in his commentary on this passage:
It is only after all this, that the words This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; get their real meaning: This renewal of the moon shall be a beginning of renewals for you. That is, noticing, realizing, 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 does not say this month shall mark the beginning of the months, but shall mark for you, it is not a question of the actual months but of our months. That is also why…we find new moons and festivals referred to as your months and your festivals whereas the definitely fixed seventh day is never caller your Sabbath…
So the Jewish consecration of the New Moon is an institution for the periodical fresh spiritual and moral rejuvenation of Israel by finding itself again in conjunction with its God…and they give the meaning of Rosh Hodesh - which literally finds its expression in the mussaf sacrifice – as being concentrated in what they explain to be the goal that the goat sacrifice of Rosh Hodesh attempts to attain, viz. : “to atone for the pollution of the Sanctuary that remained unknown from beginning to end”: to work against all our estrangement from all holiness and holy ideas into which we have unconsciously drifted, and which we ourselves could not notice. Without this regularly bringing ourselves back into communion 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 our 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 Pharaoh – our hearts would become so hardened and weighed down that even the most startling signs and the most affecting wonders would not achieve this rebirth, the rejuvenation of our inner selves.
But the Jewish idea of atonement comprises not only the spiritual and moral rebirth of our inner selves, but along with it a fresh arrangement of our external, our social and national conditions. The rebirth of our inner selves must come first, the other then results…The heathen knows no new thing, not in the world, not in humanity, not in his gods, nor in the powers he places above men in the world…everything swims down the stream of blind unalterable necessity…
(Isaac Levy translation)
According to Hirsch, the role of the Jewish People is, by means of recognition of the renewing month and the paschal sacrifice, to develop consciousness of change and renewal at the experiential level, in defiance of the deterministic world-view of Egyptian paganism.
Paganism is seen as frozenness, as a closed and deterministic world upon which man can have no influence. The world we are charged to develop is a world of change, a developing world. The RaMBaM’s statement in Hilkhot Hametz u’Matzah (7:3) is apposite:
It is necessary to make a change [from regular behavior] on that night so that the children will see it and ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” until he responds to them and says to them “this and that occurred and this and that happened”…if he is alone, he should ask himself, “Why is this night different?”
Changes invites questions, and questions are necessary in order to develop consciousness of change and faith in the possibility of change.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote these words in the end of the 19th century and relates to the two beginnings (Nisan and Tishrei) metaphorically as figures of light and darkness, completing his comments in poetic style
Everything pertaining to the earth is born bare and without blossom out of the night, and even though it rises to the brightness of midday and riches of blossoms and fruit, sinks bare and blossomless to the night of its grave. Everything holy and Jewish has its origin in Light and Life and even though it has to meet and contend, in running its course, with Night and Death, out of darkness and death it struggles back to Light and Life, and what was born out of morn and spring, ends again at dawn, rejuvenated to a new Spring.
It seems to me that the tension between these two beginnings, the renewed creation of the world on the one hand, which we celebrate in Tishrei, and the birth and liberation of a people in Nissan, on the other, allows these to serve as the twin focal points for religious contemplation.
The moon represents the ability and the need to believe in renewal and change. In a special way, the renewed moon of Nissan constitutes an appropriate opportunity for contemplating the possibility of a change of direction, of escape from bondage to the light of freedom. Pharaoh represents that part of us that consecrates the status quo and does not believe in change. Will we have the strength and wisdom to liberate ourselves from this pagan stasis, to have faith in change, and to renew ourselves?