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The "True" Jewish New Year" #668

03/12/2021 05:55:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Vayakhel/Pekude
"This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months." (Exodus 12:2)
The "True" Jewish new Year

This Shabbat marks a historic moment in the journey of the Jewish people. It celebrates the first time God ever commanded the Jewish people to perform a mitzvah.

God calls it, “The first of the months of the year for you.” But it is not Rosh Hashanah.

Let’s set the stage: Pharaoh and the Egyptians are reeling after enduring nine horrendous plagues, with a 10th about to descend. God informs Moses that following that final plague, Pharaoh will allow the Israelites to leave Egypt. At last, it is time for the Israelites to pack their bags.

Before they arrived in Egypt, the Jewish people existed as a collection of 12 tribes. But now they are a collective — a nation ready to move into the future.

God notes this and lays down the first commandment ever to be given to the “Children of Israel.” God tells Moses, to set the Jewish calendar in motion — not according to the sun but according to the moon.

This occurred during a month known then as the Abib, later to become Nissan the month that would host Passover. That new moon would forever mark the moment that the Jewish people tasted freedom.

Only a free nation can set its own course, its own values, its own traditions, its own destiny. It succeeds or fails without leaning on, or faulting, others. For blame is a form of slavery.

So, God tells the Israelites at the dawn of their freedom that “this month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.” (Exodus 12:2)

To clarify, Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the first day of the seventh month — Tishrei — commemorating the creation of humankind.

This year, the “Passover month” — the month of Nissan — begins tomorrow night and carries through to sundown on Sunday. It is a special Shabbat forever reminding us of the importance and responsibility accompanying freedom and free will. 

There is question usually asked around July or August, “Is Rosh Hashanah early or late this year?” Many pose another question during the year: “Why does the anniversary of my mother or father’s passing change year to year?”

In truth, the date never changes, according to the Jewish calendar. And while the Jewish calendar can cause confusion when compared to the Gregorian calendar, it does reflect a uniquely Jewish belief system. 

Jewish months move in cycles of 29 or 30 days. Why is this important? Because it affords the Jewish people an opportunity for personal change within the fullness of every new moon.

The official Hebrew term for “new month” is Rosh Chodesh, which is closely linked to the word “Chadash,” meaning "new." 

In ancient times, sentries would be posted on mountain tops extending hundreds of miles. When the new moon was sighted over Jerusalem, torches were lit and telegraphed mountain to mountain until the entire nation was notified.

Judaism believes that every month provides a new start. In many Jewish communities, women have taken the lead in this process. In ancient times, once a month, women would retreat and celebrate a mandated “day off.”

This has been revived in many contemporary Jewish communities, where women now gather to study, to explore spirituality, share a meal, discuss topics of interest to Jewish women and work for social change.

When you think of it, following the natural cycle of the moon uniquely aligns itself with the Jewish narrative.

Noted the great rabbi, Sefat Emet (1847-1905), “The moon, unlike the sun, waxes and wanes, nearly disappears and then grows light again. So do the Jewish people go through cycles of suffering and prosperity, knowing that even in darkness there are brighter times ahead.”

When you think of it, has there ever been a better time to think about newness?

Millions of Americans have now received their first or second vaccines. Fully vaccinated grandparents I have recently spoken with will be traveling to western states this Passover to hug their grandchildren for the first time in a year.

This year more than ever, we are about to appreciate true freedom.

Of course, North American Jews cannot live according to the Jewish calendar. But its intent is worth considering.

It is why this Shabbat carries a special name — Shabbat HaChodesh — Shabbat of “The” month. And that month is the host of Passover.

As we approach these treasured days of family, friendship and gratitude, let us consider how life can be different.

As God noted thousands of years ago, this time of year provides us with an opportunity to reshape, reflect and relaunch.

During the pandemic, have we really realized the importance of freedom, or have we become further enslaved?

These are healthy questions to consider each year as we exit months of isolation and coldness. Perhaps this year more than ever.

The moon, nature and the potential decline of Covid are beckoning us. As we exit this time of affliction, let us ask, “What have we learned and what will we change?”

Yes, as God commanded us more than 3,000 years ago, we can only celebrate our lives and our nationhood if we are truly free.

As it was then, so it is now. For so many who have weathered this painful storm, perhaps Pesach — this year more than any other time in our lifetime — provides an opportunity to renew.

In one way of another, we are survivors. 

Indeed, in spite of the tragedy and pain, I believe we have grown into something better. it is why this Passover will be different and perhaps more meaningful than others we may have experienced.

The Kabbalistic tradition teaches that before we ascend, we must descend. May we use this time of renewal to grow ourselves into something better.

Let us truly embrace all that we’ve learned. 

As God instructed the Israelites thousands of years ago, let this time of year represent a new beginning.

For all of us — Jews, and all of humanity — let this truly be a good year — one of health, freedom and renewal.

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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