November 15, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Tazria – Maftir Reading for Shabbat HaChodesh

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

“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

Rabbi and Cantor Eva Robbins

On this special Shabbat, Shabbat HaChodesh, the new month, we read from two Torahs. The additional special reading reminds us that we are entering the “first of months” and is apropos because it is the month of Nisan, which heralds one of the three special chagim (festivals), Pesach (Passover). 

We read these sentences once before on Jan. 12 in Parashat Bo, when our forebears confronted the horrific darkness, chaos and “killing” of the Egyptian first-born sons. As the terrifying night approached and pervaded the entire country, a new time was “birthed”; a measure of a month entered the newly created calendar. As death approaches and the Egyptian gods are extinguished, symbolized by the slaughtering of the paschal lamb, a new people emerges, with the light of a uniquely formed cycle, a year. 

This parallels the beginning of Torah, when darkness and chaos, “tohu vavohu v’choshech,” pervaded the universe and God said, “Let there be light … and God separated between the light and the darkness. God called the light Day and the darkness Night…on the seventh day God rested from His work.” Creation introduces the measure of a day and a week; Pesach introduces the measure of a month. As the world comes into being, order and light guides the newly created human being; as Pesach comes into being, a calendar of structured times, both holy and ordinary, will bless a new nation. 

Let us hold in our consciousness, to celebrate and honor what Torah teaches, that this moment is truly the beginning of the year.

Rabbi Michael Barclay
Temple Ner Simcha

The issue of months, the calendar and astrology have always been significant in Judaism. Our sages and texts going back to Talmudic times discuss the influence of each month on the individual’s entire life (as well as the location and even hour and minute of birth being influencers). Sefer Yetzirah (second-century text) delves deeply into the correlation between months, astrological signs, parts of the body, and letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Authentic “Jewish astrology” understandings are powerful and worth studying in depth with a knowledgeable guide; and have been practiced and understood throughout our history all the way back to Father Avraham (B. Talmud, Bava Batra 16b). 

But although the new moon, month or constellations are accepted to have influence, as Jews, we are not ultimately controlled by them. Ours is a higher destiny. Through practice of the mitzvot and study of Torah, we have the ability to transcend the astrological destiny and the inherent power of each new month. “From the time that the Torah was given to Israel, the Israelites were withdrawn from the rule of the stars and constellations; however, if one does not follow the ways of the Torah, he returns to be under the domain of these natural influences.” (Zohar, Vol 3, 216)

As we enter this new month of Nisan, may we all be blessed to experience the qualities of the month, and the special relationship every Jew has with God that allows each of us to go beyond the power of the stars.

Rabbi Avraham Greenstein
Professor of Hebrew, Academy for Jewish Religion

This verse contains the commandment for the nation of Israel to keep track of time, to mark the beginning of the year and the beginning of each month. The commentaries note that it is the first commandment that the people of Israel were commanded as a nascent nation, and Seforno sees in this particular significance: Israel’s new autonomy as a nation is most noticeable in that they are now masters of their own time. As slaves, their time belonged to Egypt. As a free people, their time is now their own. They can now determine their identity as a nation by what they do with their time. 

This theme of being a master of your own time is central to Jewish tradition, and it lies at the center of the notion of free choice and personal agency within Judaism. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), a series of fundamental statements about Jewish values, attitudes and practice, contains numerous exhortations for us to be conscious of what we do with our time. We are reminded to make full use of the time we have for Torah study (Avot 1:13, 2:5, 3:3, et passim), and to make full use of our days (2:2, 2:15, 4:16-17, et passim). 

Since time is in limited supply, it is not enough for us to passively mark the passage of time. Rather, Jewish tradition demands that we actively fill our time with meaningful activity, generosity, and growth. In doing so, we define ourselves as a people and justify our freedom from Egypt.

Salvador Litvak

On the Shabbat before the first day of Nisan, the Hebrew month in which we left Egypt, we add a special passage to the weekly Torah reading. We call it Shabbat HaChodesh, the Sabbath of the New Moon, and we read this law, the first commandment given to the Jewish people as a nation. Some debate exists as to whether the passage comes to teach the moon phase in which all Hebrew months begin, or that Nisan is the first month. In fact, the name Nisan doesn’t appear in the Torah, nor do any other names of months. They are called only first, second, third month, etc.

Ramban said the months are numbered not just for the sake of scheduling but rather to keep us mindful of the exodus from Egypt. He notes that the days of the week, which also lack proper names in Hebrew, are called the first day from Shabbat, second day from Shabbat, etc. The days of the week thus remind us constantly that God created the world.

The months remind us that God interceded in history. One might have thought that God set the universe in motion and then let it proceed according to natural laws. The months spring from the Jewish redemption from Egypt to teach that God remains involved. This is why we sing Hallel, songs of thanksgiving and praise, at the beginning of every month. When Passover approaches, we face a massive to-do list. These items are not chores but rather opportunities to thank and connect with our Eternal Redeemer.

Miriam Yerushalmi

Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus) is the book of laws. Why remind us that this mitzvah about the moon is “the first … the beginning”?

The moon, in its waxing and waning, embodies growth. Every month, it begins as a thin sliver; after slowly achieving wholesome perfection, it gradually diminishes to near-nothingness, then re-emerges and regrowth begins. The cycle of “humility” to “greatness” repeats.

The Talmud states: “In every place you find God’s greatness, there you will find His humility.” Tanya teaches that “God abides only where there is no sense of self or separation from Him.” Any arrogance or self-conceit is a barrier to spiritual growth and closeness to HaShem. A verse early in the Rosh Chodesh haftarah reminds us of this, while the above verse underscores the moon’s centrality to Judaism: “The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool, (so) what house can you build (worth) for Me?” 

God is not talking arrogantly here. He is teaching a profound lesson.

HaShem doesn’t need our Torah learning, represented by the heavens; He doesn’t need our mitzvots, represented by the Earth; HaShem doesn’t need a house, represented by the Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple) for his Shechinah (divine presence) — just as the highest essence of our soul doesn’t even enter the house of our bodies. 

This teaches us that on one level, this service is not essential for Him, but for us. To enable us to reach the greatness of humility, like the moon. As the moon becomes small, it becomes great. This is our goal.