Tradition Today: The month of freedom

By stressing the God’s role in our freedom we are reminded that all freedom is a Divine gift and a Divine command.

Torah reading 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
Torah reading 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
‘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 12:1-2). These words, which will be read in synagogues this Shabbat, introduce the month called “Aviv” in the Torah – now known as Nisan – and elevate it to the prime place in the year. It is the first and, by implication, the most important month of the year. In the Torah there is no Rosh Hashana – “beginning of the year,” but there is a “beginning of the months,” i.e. the first of the months, and that is Nisan. It may be said, then, that in the Torah, at least, Nisan is more important than Tishrei, the seventh month, which later became the New Year.
The Sages themselves were undecided about in which of these two months the world was actually created. Eventually Tishrei won out, but not until much later in Jewish history. The two months also have something else in common: They are the only two months in which the 10th of the month is singled out in any way, to be followed five days later by a major pilgrimage holiday. The 10th was the day when the Israelites were to take a lamb and watch over it until it would be slaughtered on the eve of the 15th – Passover. The 10th of Tishrei is, of course, Yom Kippur, the day of ritual purification of the Sanctuary so that it would be ready for Succot, which falls on the 15th. It is not incidental that Tishrei is the seventh month – seven being a sacred number in Judaism as well as the beginning of the second half of the 12-month cycle.
The reason Nisan is considered the first month is obvious: it is the month in which the Israelites attained their freedom. “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand” (Exodus 13:3).
Passover is a celebration of our freedom. It introduced the concept of freedom into the human vocabulary in a way that would never be forgotten and would influence humanity well into the future.
It is not a coincidence that colonial America saw the British monarch as a new Pharaoh and inscribed the biblical phrase “Proclaim liberty throughout the land” on the Liberty Bell. It is not a coincidence that Negro slaves in America chanted the words “Go down Moses” in one of their most beautiful and powerful spirituals. It is not a coincidence that Martin Luther King used the phrase “free at last, free at last” as his mantra. The movement to free Soviet Jewry did not hesitate to use the biblical words “Let my people go” as the symbol of that struggle for freedom. The concept of freedom is one of the most important gifts that Judaism has bestowed upon civilization.
The desire to be free is one of the most powerful of all human emotions and it is enshrined forever as a Divine command by the Book of Exodus. The last part of the verse quoted above, “ the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand,” interprets the story of the Israelites’ freedom from Egyptian bondage as the work of the Almighty. In fact, the story of the Exodus is unusual in that nothing is actually done by the Israelites to attain their freedom. Unlike other holidays that celebrate freedom – Hanukka and Israeli Independence Day – the Israelites did not have to fight to attain freedom. It was bestowed upon them as a Divine gift through the actions of God. Unfortunately, that is not how it usually works. Freedom is seldom achieved passively.
However, by stressing the God’s role in our freedom we are reminded that all freedom is a Divine gift and a Divine command.
Even today, freedom remains a dream for many people. Not only are there still places that are under foreign rule, but there are all too many countries in which citizens are ruled by people they have not freely chosen to lead them and in which freedom of speech and of political action is forbidden.
Nisan is indeed the first month, the most important month, for it is the month of freedom, the time when we celebrate our freedom, the gift of God, and keep the hope of freedom alive for all humanity.
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).