Remembering By Counting Time – Bo 5780

Today’s date, according to the Hebrew calendar, is the 6th of Shevat in the year 5780. What do each of the those terms mean?  Let’s go in reverse. 

  • 5780 – According to Jewish tradition, this points back to the creation of the universe.  In other words, to the beginning of time itself.  
  • Shevat – This is the name of the month, based on a calendar of 12 months which begin with Tishrei, which also marks the creation of the world, the beginning of time.
  • 6 – That is the day of the month, which means that the new moon made its first appearance 6 days ago.

Each component of this date refers to absolute time, dating back to creation itself.  While this may be the Jewish way of recording time, this is not the Torah’s way of recording time.

The very first of the 613 commandments in the Torah appears in this morning’s portion, Parashat Bo.  God tells Moses and Aaron, 

 הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה

This month shall be for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. 

Exodus 12:2

Our tradition understands this passage to be commanding Moses and Aaron, and the subsequent leaders of the Jewish people, to establish a calendar.  This commandment occurs in the context of the Israelites’ preparations for leaving Egypt.  The tenth plague is about to strike the Egyptians, after which they will finally leave Egypt.  First, they receive instructions for observing the holiday of Passover, which occurs on the night of the 14th day of the month.

What month is it?  Today, we call this month Nisan.  But the name Nisan occurs nowhere in the Torah or the Prophets.  The majority of the Hebrew Bible has a different way of describing dates.   The Torah will say something like, “And it was in the second year, in the second month…” (Numbers 10:11)  Second year from what?  Second month from what? We are not talking about absolute time.  We are talking about relative time.

Relative to what?  To the Exodus from Egypt.  “And it was in the second year, in the second month…” refers to year number 2 in the wilderness, in the second month after the month when the Israelites left Egypt. The Torah’s calendar has, as its reference point, the Exodus from Egypt.  Both years and months refer back to that event.

The 13th century medieval commentator, Nachmanides, helps us understand what this all means.  “This month shall be for you the beginning of the months,” the Torah tells us.  Lakhem—”For you” only.  This system of counting is meant just for the Jewish people, not for all of humanity.  Its meaning is particular, not universal.  While this may be the first month dating from when you left Egypt, it does not correspond to the first month of creation.

Nachmanides explains that the Torah wants us to always orient ourselves towards the moment of Exodus when God redeemed our ancestors, and us, from slavery in Egypt.  In Deuteronomy we read, “that you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your lives.”  (Deut. 16:3)  The Torah’s calendar ensures that we do exactly that.

So what would today’s date be, according to the Torah’s calendar.  It is the 6th days of the month.  That is the same.  The month has no particular name.  We can just call it the tenth month since the month of leaving Egypt.  As for the year, we have no clue.  Something along the lines of 3,270 years since the Exodus, but scholars disagree with each other, and the Bible itself is inconsistent.  

We do not use the Torah’s calendar.  We do not count our years or our months from the Exodus. We do not even know how. Are we ignoring something that the Torah explicitly tells us to do?

Yes we are.

But don’t worry.  This is not a recent development.  They did not do it in Nachmanides’ day either. Nachmanides notes that the names of the months that we actually use—Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, etc.—have nothing to do with anything in the Torah.  They are not even Hebrew words.  They are Persian.  When the First Temple was destroyed in the year 586 BCE, many people were sent into exile in Babylonia.  A few decades later, the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonian Empire and took over.  The Persian King Cyrus, whom the Bible refers to as mashiach, God’s anointed one, sent these exiles back to the land of Israel to rebuild the Temple.  They brought some traditions with them, including new months.  What we refer to as the Hebrew months are mentioned in the Book of Esther, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and some of the exiled prophets. 

They are the Persian names of the months.  Nachmanides notes that in his own day, the people who live in Persia and Media, modern day Iraq and Iran, continue to use the same names for the months. He explains that we use these foreign month names to serve as a reminder that we were once in exile in Babylonia, but God brought us out and returned us to our land.  Nachmanides concludes:

So we now commemorate the second redemption with our month names as we did up until then with the first redemption.

How we measure time is important.  What reference points do we use?  Biblical Israel used the Exodus from Egypt as its reference point.  Later, we switched reference points.  As for years, we look to Creation.  For months, we look to the return from exile. The Jews of Nachmanides day also hoped and prayed for a return.  The Babylonian exile was a metaphor for their own situation.  The Persian months gave hope to them, and us, that the state of exile can eventually end.  Until it does, we will continue referring to today as the 6th of Shevat.

We use other important reference points to measure time.  January 27, which fell on Monday this past week, marked the 75th anniversary since the liberation of Auschwitz.  It is a day for remembering the horrors that took place there, and drawing lessons for today.  1.3 million people were imprisoned there during the Holocaust, of whom 1.1 million were murdered, making it the most deadly of the death camps.  My grandfather’s family, from Lodz Poland, died there.

Ceremonies were held at Auschwitz itself earlier this week, sponsored by the Polish government.  More that 200 survivors returned to the death camp to mark the occasion, some for the first time. Other ceremonies took place at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where leaders from countries around the world gathered to remember.  

What do we do to commemorate? We hear first person testimonies from the increasingly smaller numbers of survivors who are still with us.  We warn ourselves and the world about the increasing numbers and brazenness of acts of antisemitism around the world.  The horrors of the Holocaust also serve as a call to avoid indifference to violence and discrimination against minorities.

But as time passes, awareness of the Holocaust is fading.  A 2018 survey reported decreasing awareness of the Holocaust, especially among younger Americans.  Two thirds of adults between 18 and 34 were unable to identify what Auschwitz was. Large numbers indicated that they thought it was important to learn about the Holocaust.  93% overall agreed that the Holocaust should be taught in schools, and 80% said that it was important to teach so that it would not happen again.  So there is a lot of work to be done.

A week from Sunday, we will be hosting a concert here at Sinai as part of the Violins of Hope project. The Violins of Hope are a collection of more than 70 string instruments originally owned and played by European Jews in ghettos and Nazi death camps during WWII, which have been lovingly restored over the past two decades by renowned Israeli violin-makers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein.

Some concentration camp musicians owe their lives to these instruments. The music they played lifted them above their cruel, day-to-day reality. It gave the musicians hope. And did the same for their fellow Jewish inmates.

“Hope is a stubborn thing,” says Weinstein. The legacy of Jewish hope drives Weinstein to restore every Holocaust violin he can get his hands on to make them speak again. These instruments are the focal point of an impactful initiative designed to promote the power of hope through music, reaffirming that the voiceless can indeed have a voice as we reiterate our responsibility to “never forget.”

If you have not already done so, I urge you to buy tickets to the concert, which will be performed on some of these special instruments, as soon as Shabbat is over.  We will have a special opportunity to hear Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope, which was commissioned specifically for the Bay Area performance.  It was composed by the renowned composer-librettist team of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer.  We are one of only two locations at which this piece is being performed, and Jake Heggie will be speaking, so it is a special opportunity for us. This is one of many ways that we can preserve the memory of the Holocaust so as to remind ourselves how much work we have to do to ensure that it never happens again.

3 thoughts on “Remembering By Counting Time – Bo 5780

  1. Nice drash Josh. I like the reference to time and remembrance. The Holocaust remembrance and a time of rising hate and anti-semitism is so poignant right now.

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