shlomo riskin 88 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A new nation, Israel, is being born, and it celebrates its birth
with a new festival and a new calendar. Our calendar has a strong lunar
factor, the monthly festival which marks the renewed moon which appears
- almost miraculously, but also consistently - from a lightless,
frightening sky. The Jewish calendar also has a strong solar element,
its first month being Nisan, the time of longer days and agricultural
renewal after a cold and lifeless winter.
The key word here is hodesh
, month, which also connotes hidush
, change, and hadash
new. It is a calendar born of hope, an optimism which arose from the
experience of cataclysmic, miraculous social changes which enabled
powerless Hebrew slaves to overwhelm mighty Egypt and emerge a free
The optimism which has characterized the Jewish people for its
4,000-year existence, the stubborn, irrational optimism which never
says die - even in the worst periods of exile, persecution, torture and
pogrom - "I shall not die, but I shall live, and declare the deeds of
the Lord" (Psalm 118:17), was born on this first Rosh Hodesh, emerged
out of the miraculous renewal of a family/nation reborn. Hence we are
enjoined to remember the exodus from Egypt every day (Deuteronomy 16:3)
to celebrate and re-experience it during our Pessah Seder celebration
each year (Ex. 13:3), and to study history with an inner vision which
sees the marvelous changes wrought by the majestic partnership between
God and Israel: "Remember the days of yore, understand the changes
[Hebrew shnot, shana, shinui
] from generation to generation; ask your father and he will tell you, your sages and they will say it to you" (Deut. 32:7).
Egypt, Greece and Rome all had the seemingly consistent sun as
their god and guide, a beacon which breeds the pessimism of "whatever
has been is what will be, and whatever has been done is what will be
done; there is nothing new [hadash] under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
and "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from
day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time" (Macbeth 5:5).
It was the Bible, with its account of the Egyptian change and
renewal, which gave the world the symbolism of the moon, the
possibility of light emerging from darkness, freedom from slavery,
which enabled us to dare hope for a perfected world and a time of peace
Moses was a product of this faith in change and redemption in
the midst of slavery and oppression. When we are first introduced to
him, we don't even know if he will survive the homicide decreed against
Hebrew male infants. He is anonymous, as a slave is devoid of a name.
Likewise, he lacks a clear pedigree: "A man went from the house of Levi
and took a daughter of Levi" (Ex. 2:1). It is only four chapters later,
when his mission as "redeemer" is defined, that we are given the names
of his parents and grandparents.
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The family names are extremely significant. I know little about
Moses's parents, but I know a world about his grandparents, who
undoubtedly influenced his parents. These grandparents, in the midst of
bleak Egyptian servitude, named their son Amram, exalted nation - and
their daughter Jochebed, glory to God.
"Exalted nation," in the midst of slavery? "Glory to God" in
the midst of persecution? Apparently they had the tradition of a
"covenant between the pieces," of an emergence from poverty and
affliction, and infused their grandson with that faith. Only one who
believes in the possibility of change will struggle to bring it about.
One of the strangest rituals of our people is the "Sanctification of the Moon" (kiddush halevana
), which takes place on the Saturday evening following rosh hodesh
(the New Month festival). The congregation leaves the synagogue and
assembles beneath the renewed moon. There, they bless the God who
"renews the months," wish each other peace, and sing and dance to words
which promise ultimate Redemption - a moon which will never wane but
will shine forever with God's light of love.
Peculiar? Ridiculous? Not at all. A people that believes in a
God who is invisible, that has experienced a promised return to its
ancient homeland, must continue to dream of a world at peace though
most skeptics think it's impossible!
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.
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