This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaHodesh because on it we announce Rosh Hodesh Nisan and, according to the special Torah reading for this Shabbat, the month of Nisan is the first month of the Hebrew year. (Exodus 12:2) The implication of the verse is that Rosh Hodesh Nisan is the Jewish New Year; and, in fact, the Torah elsewhere (Lev. 23:24) implies that the Jewish New Year is this week, and not 7 months later in the fall.
Although today we celebrate the Creation of the World on Rosh Hashanah, this view has not always gone unchallenged. The Talmud records a debate over when we should consider the Creation to have taken place. According to Rabbi Eliezer, Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the Creation. However, according to Rabbi Yehoshua, the anniversary of the Creation occurs this week, on Rosh Hodesh Nisan. The Talmud distinguishes these two views by suggesting that R. Eliezer reads Genesis as describing a world created in mature form (Trees already laden with fruit), whereas R. Yehoshua believes the Garden of Eden was created with plants just beginning to bloom. The Maharsha (1555-1632) explains that R. Eliezer links the Creation to the season of repentance, while R. Yehoshua links it to the time of redemption. For R. Eliezer, Adam and Eve were cast out of a completed garden into a world about to go cold and barren – a time for repentance. For R. Yehoshua, Adam and Eve left the garden in early spring, a season of possibility and hope, a time of redemption. The “redemption” of Adam and Eve foreshadows the redemption of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt for a new life of freedom – a Jewish spring!
Although the tradition went with R. Eliezer, and we celebrate the Jewish New Year in the fall, there is an undeniable “new year” freshness in the month of Nisan air. Shanah tova!
Rabbi Mitch Levine
At the end of the Book of Shemot/Exodus we find, “Moses was unable to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud was upon it.” The Talmudic Rabbi Zerika noted a contradiction: Elsewhere it is written, “Moses entered into the midst of the cloud.” (Exodus 24:18) Rabbi Zerika surmised, “This teaches that the Holy One seized Moses and brought him into the cloud!”
Wow! Even an individual as spiritually inclined as Moses was only able to join the Divine Presence in the Tent of Meeting because the irresistible power of the Holy One dragged him in there. Alas, rabbis are not God and our congregants aren’t all Moses’s (yet). Given this bilateral proficiency gap, how will the Jews be dragged into shul?
Overcoming resistance to change and growth is no easy feat. There is the fear of the unknown (the service is in Hebrew) and the fear of being exposed as incompetent (they might try to give me an “honor”). How can we enter a service when we have the strong premonition that we will despair of making any sense of it all (it’s a cloud)? Religious people are supposed to be “God fearing,” yet it seems fearful paralysis shuts us out of even the possibility of a robust Jewish experience.
The Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859) taught regarding the verse, “Let fear of God be upon your faces, so that you shall be without sin.’ What ‘fear’ is intended here? God desires that we fear his remoteness, and it is sin which creates that gap.” We are afraid, so we would have to be dragged kicking and screaming, but our rabbis can do little more than gentle pushing. Too bad we tend to fear the wrong thing.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
While Moses was off to receive the tablets, the people fell into worshipping a Golden Calf. Angry and disappointed, God threatens the people and makes Moses an incredible offer. God is prepared to annihilate the people and start fresh by making Moses the founder of a great nation (Exodus 32:10). Moses, however, responds only to God’s threat. He completely ignores the offer to become the progenitor of a new people for God. What’s this about?
God begins his outburst by declaring, “Leave me be!” (ibid.) Who is staying God’s hand? The Midrash explains the situation may be compared to a king who has grown terribly angry with his badly misbehaving child. Infuriated, the king cries out, “Leave me be; I’m gonna smite him but good!” Standing just outside the door, the child’s tutor reasons, “By saying ‘Leave me be!’ the king must expect me to overhear, intervene and prevent him from doing something drastic he may later regret.” Immediately, the tutor barges in and calls for the king to exercise compassion and restraint, just as Moses does in pleading with God on behalf of his people.
From the perspective of the Bible, there is perhaps no person more important than Moses and no sin more destructive than idolatry. Maybe Moses could have opted for greater glory while allowing the people to get wacked. We may imagine similar circumstances, where a leader is sufficiently righteous to be tempted to go it alone without feeling dragged down by others who may seem aggravating and irredeemable. Moses’s behavior demonstrates that true leadership involves resisting, even ignoring, such an easy way out. Being part of a community means hanging in together and participating in a shared destiny, even in the face of profound disappointment. Walking away shouldn’t be an option unless we are sure we are better than Moses and that those letting us down are worse than idolaters.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
The Megilah opens by depicting the Persian king, Achashverosh, as having hosted a lavish party for all the notables of the outlying Persian provinces (which lasted for an incredible 180 days), followed by a party for the residents of his capitol, Shushan. That’s a lot of partying. What’s going on?
The two giants of the Babylonian Talmud, Rav and Shmuel, surmised that Achashverosh was acting strategically, but they differed over whether or not his tactics were smart. One held the view that the king was wise to first reach out to those far away since he could quite easily demonstrate his appreciation for those in his own city whenever he liked. The other disagreed, holding that the king was foolish for ignoring his base while zealously campaigning in the provinces, since this tactic risks a rebellion at home.
The Jewish world, at present, faces a dilemma similar to that of King Achashverosh. Some Jewish leaders believe that our priorities as a community ought to be reaching out to those on the margins of Jewish life, creating as many attractive opportunities to become engaged in Jewish community as possible. Others, with equal passion, believe that all available resources must be dedicated to strengthening the Jewish core of the already committed.
When faced with a question of two essential options, the answer is to seek to do them both. When we pursue outreach, we are creating portals of engagement for those on our periphery. Such as the king throwing a party that everyone would actually want to come to. When we focus on in reach, we cultivate that engagement so that it will deepen and endure. This is like the king throwing a party where the participants appreciate why it’s being thrown, and feel transformed by having joined in the celebration. In either case, the successful party, when it’s our party, the Jewish party, will make the connections face to face and personal, we will know who you are, and your participation will be valued. Happy Purim!
Rabbi Mitch Levine
Friday, March 2 – OPEN TO THE CONGREGATION!