Tradition Today: Celebrating our birth

The month of Nisan is approaching and so is Passover.

Revelers line the streets of Herzliya to celebrate Purim. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Revelers line the streets of Herzliya to celebrate Purim.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The month of Adar Bet is almost over, and we are quickly approaching the month of Nisan. Both of these months enjoy a special place in the Jewish calendar.
Of Adar it is said, “When Adar commences, we increase our joy.” Of Nisan, the Torah proclaims, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Exodus 12:2). As Jewish tradition developed, Nisan became the first month in the cycle of holy days and the beginning of the year for the reign of kings (Rosh Hashana 1:1).
At one point, however, it was considered the true beginning of the year. The rabbis debated as to whether the world was created in Nisan or in Tishrei. Tishrei eventually won out, as we say in our liturgy at Rosh Hashana, “This day the world was created,” but Nisan retained its special status.
Nisan is so special that during the entire month, not only during the Passover holiday, the Tahanun prayer is not recited. That is because these prayers for mercy are too somber and therefore inappropriate for such a time. One wonders why that is not true of Adar, when we are supposed to be so joyful.
One possible reason may be that Purim commemorates the salvation of one specific community, not the entire people. Had they not been saved, it would have been a tragedy, but it would not have meant the end of the Jewish people. Passover, on the other hand, signifies the true birth of the nation of Israel, the freeing from bondage of the entire people. It affected all Jews for all time. Without the events of Nisan we would not be here today.
Both months contain times of happiness, but the joy of Purim is a kind of carnival-like time of fun, while that of Passover is a joyous exaltation, a celebration of liberty. Furthermore, the events of Passover are depicted as coming directly from the hand of God, under Divine direction and interference, while God is never mentioned in the story of Purim. The observance of Purim is decreed by human beings in a book found in the Writings, while Passover is proclaimed by God in the Torah itself. I think it is safe to say that going from Adar to Nisan is an act of ma’alin b’kodesh, going up in holiness.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the Exodus in the history of Judaism. Without it we would simply not exist. That is why the Sages taught that even in the days of the Messiah, it would be necessary to continue to recount the story of the Exodus. Not even that miraculous event could overshadow the importance of Passover.
In recent times, some Israeli archeologists and biblical historians have taken the position that the Exodus never happened. Lacking any archeological evidence and in the absence of any literary mention outside the Bible, they contend that it is all a myth. Israel was never in Egypt, never enslaved and never liberated.
Fortunately, most scholars have rejected this extreme view. They point out that the story as told in the Torah definitely reflects knowledge of Egyptian life, language and history.
It is also important to ask why Israelites would have made up such a tale. Why would any people want to contend that its origins were of such a low status as slavery? Granted, the story as told in the Torah has mythic elements and it contains details and exact descriptions that are exaggerated, so that it is historiography rather than history.
There is, however, no reason to doubt that, whatever their numbers may have been, the tribes of Israel were slaves in Egypt and escaped from that slavery, making their way back to the land of Canaan where their ancestors had lived.
How one interprets that event is a matter of belief. It was that belief that created Judaism and that sustained it through the centuries, and it is that belief that stands at the center of our existence today as well.
No wonder that this month is the first, the beginning, of all the months and a time of true celebration, the celebration of the birth of our nation.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).