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Believing In Brighter Days Ahead

This week’s d’var Torah on parshat Bo. With gratitude to my chevruta Rabbi Rebecca Reice who drew my attention to these texts.

Our life as a free people begins in the middle of the night.

In parashat Bo, Moses receives instructions on how to observe the first Pesach, just as the Israelites are poised to leave Egypt. On the fourteenth of the month, each household will slaughter a lamb at twilight and smear the blood on their doorposts and lintel to protect themselves from the deadly tenth plague. Then they must eat the lamb, roasted, with matzah and maror, with “loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand…hurriedly” (Exodus 12:1-11). In other words, ready to go. (In my family, this would include the commandment, “make sure you have your shoes on!”)

It is likely that our deliverance took place in the middle of the month so that our path out of Egypt could be lit by the bright light of the full moon. But when Moses first receives these instructions, the month is only beginning. The moon is “new,” which means that this night is completely dark.

It is on this dark, moonless night that God says to Moses, “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).

Often, when we read this passage, we get confused. Doesn’t the year begin on Rosh Hashana?

While we celebrate the “new year” in Tishrei, Tishrei is actually the seventh month in the Jewish calendar. The first month is Nisan, the month in which Pesach takes place, the month in which the Israelites walked free out of Egypt.

This makes sense: the story of the Israelites as a free people begins in this month. Whereas we previously had no control over our own time—one day of slavery was just like any other—now we have the freedom to mark time with Sabbaths, festivals, and days of remembrance. Time begins for us only when we have the privilege of choosing how we spend our days. (One of my students once encapsulated this by imagining God saying to Moses, “Happy Freedom! I got you this calendar!”).

The Hebrew word for month used here is chodesh, which is similar to the word chadash or “new,” referring to the newness of the moon. The Sefat Emet, a 19th century Polish rabbi, links this to the word chidush, or “renewal.”

“The midrash [on the verse], “This month (chodesh) shall mark for you the beginning of the months…” (Exodus 12:2) states: [“There is no month (chodesh) greater than this,” but Sefat Emet reads it this way] “There is no renewal (chiddush) greater than this” (Shemot Rabbah 15:1). For through the Exodus from Egypt the children of Israel were made into truly new creations. When they were chosen to be devotees of the Holy One, their souls were renewed, as our sages of blessed memory said regarding one who joins the people of Israel through religious conversion “is like a child just born” (Yevamot 48b)…. In truth, this is the divine will: that the children of Israel will privilege this creation [the re-creation post-Egypt] more than the creation [of the world] because it is the ultimate purpose.”

Contemporary Rabbi Dr. Erin Leib Smokler adds: “This capacity to be re-born –to change and grow, to be liberated and elevated–ought to be a grounding principle of our very being, says the Rebbe. To be alive (as a Jew) is to recognize, celebrate, and cultivate our ever-evolving natures. Like the shape-shifting moon, we can expand, contract, share light, or grow dim. Like the moon, we can build toward fullness over and over again, no matter how many times we shrink in between. ….God met the Jewish people with the mitzvah of “ha-chodesh ha-zeh lachem” because the power of chidush was to be their gift and their legacy. Month after month, they and we are to bear witness to a cycle of growth and decay, and to invest over and over again in the possibility of starting over. There is no renewal greater than belief in renewal itself” (“Noticing the Nekudah [Inner Point]: Pathways to Discernment with Sefat Emet,” Institute for Jewish Spirituality, Bo, 2021).

It is important to note here that the renewal associated with this new month, and this new year, does not begin on the night the Israelites leave Egypt and walk to freedom, by the light of the full moon. It begins 14 days earlier, when the night is still completely dark, and freedom for the Israelites is still just out of reach. This teaches us that a change is already happening, even when it is still dark, even when we are still enslaved. The transformation begins when we start preparing for it. When we start believing that it will come to pass, even when it still feels impossible.

It may seem counterintuitive to mark time by the moon, something that by nature fluctuates in its intensity. I’m thinking of a line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

“O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2).

But the Sefat Emet teaches that this too is intentional: “Why does Israel count by the moon, with each month starting when the new moon emerges? Because the moon, unlike the sun, waxes and wanes, nearly disappears and then grows bright again. So the Jewish people go through cycles of prosperity and suffering, knowing that even in darkness there are brighter days ahead” (Etz Chayim Torah Commentary, p. 380).

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz