Acharei Mot 5779 – Dispel the Darkness

This morning’s Torah portion has kind of a dark title.  Acharei Mot means “after the death.”

“The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord.”

Following are detailed instructions of the ritual of atonement that Aaron and future High Priests are to perform on Yom Kippur.  The purpose of these rituals is to purify the Tabernacle, and later the Sanctuary, which becomes stained with ritual pollution during the preceding year.  

As the nexus between heaven and earth, the place where the Shechinah, God’s Presence, comes to dwell amidst the people, this is especially important.  The Shechinah is not able to remain in a polluted shrine.  The rituals we read about this morning serve to cleanse it of its impurities.

Why do these instructions that Aaron receives need to be preceded by a reference to the deaths of his sons, Nadav and Avihu?

Perhaps it is meant as a warning.  Entering the Holy of Holies, the most sacred precinct, is a potentially dangerous endeavor.  Only the High Priest is permitted to do it.  And he has to be extremely careful.  One mistake can result in death.

The mention of Nadav and Avihu is meant to serve as a warning that the risk is real.  The task of the High Priest is so great, that he needed to approach it with the utmost respect and care.

But that was then.  We take this warning figuratively today.  When we enter the synagogue, we bring our whole selves.  We come with respect and care, just like the High Priest.  Prayer in synagogue is a confrontation with our own mortality – symbolically, not literally.

A synagogue, just like a Church, a Mosque, or a Temple, is supposed to be a place of peace.  A place that is open to all, where worshippers are safe to enter.  Because it is only when we feel a sense of safety and security that we can really allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  To pour out our gratitude, our fears, our happiness, and our sadness before our Creator.

Last week, during Shabbat services, right before the Yizkor memorial service on the eighth day of Passover, the prayers of our brothers and sisters at the Chabad of Poway were interrupted with bullets.  

We mourn the death of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, may her memory be a blessing.  She was murdered as she used her body as a shield to protect Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, enabling him to evacuate children to safety.  Rabbi Goldstein was shot in the hand, losing a finger.  Almog Peretz was shot in the leg.  Noya Dahan, an eight year old girl, was injured by shrapnel.

This attack occurred six months to the day after thirteen worshippers were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

It is sickening.  As Jews, an attack in a synagogue hits especially close to home, making us feel unsafe in our own house of worship.  But it is just as sickening as the murder of Muslim worshippers at a mosque in Christchurch and Christian worshippers at churches in Sri Lanka.

I resist the temptation to say “Where were you God?”  The evidence would suggest that it is not in God’s nature to prevent such things.  This hatred and violence is a human disease.

We observed Yom HaShoah this week, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  We know all too well about the evils humans are capable of.  Sadly, there have been other times in our history when our houses of worship were not places of refuge.

The part that is so frustrating is that the vast, vast majority of people are kind, generous, and compassionate (or at the very least: nonviolent).  We were all greeted this morning by friends from our interfaith community who came to express their love and support for us.  How moving it was to be reassured that, although we may have different rituals, we share the same values of peace and freedom.

It is such an exceedingly small number who are prepared to act out their hatred.  The nature of terror is that it seeks to create irrational fear that is disproportionate to the threat.

What do we do now?  Do we allow a few extremists paralyze us, to prevent us from living?  We cannot.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who lived in far more precarious times, famously said: Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.  V’ha’ikar lo lefached k’lal.  The whole world is a very narrow bridge.  And the main principle is not be afraid at all.

Here at Sinai, we take safety seriously.  We have taken many concrete actions over the years, and continue to do more, to make sure that this will continue to be a house of peace.  A place where we can be vulnerable spiritually and emotionally… not physically.

Our response must be to continue to live, to sing and dance, to be together.  We must not be afraid at all.  That is the true act of faith.

Minutes after being shot, Rabbi Goldstein stood up on a chair and addressed his congregation.  “Am Yisrael Chai!” he declared.  “The people of Israel live!”  He continued, “We are going to stand tall, we are going to stand proud of our heritage.  If a little light can dispel a lot of darkness, than many lights can truly illuminate the whole world.”

We have to be those lights, for each other, and for the world.  I am so proud of all of us who are here, overcoming fear, to dispel the darkness.

Cultivating the Ability to Say “I Love You” – Yom Kippur 5778

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, once said:

I came into the world to show another way, to cultivate love of God, of Israel, and of the Torah, and there is no need for fasting and mortification.”

Now don’t get too excited.  I do not think he was saying we should not fast on Yom Kippur.  But he is suggesting that the cultivation of our ability to love is the most important thing we can do.  How do we cultivate love?

Today’s Torah reading does not offer much guidance.  It describes the ritual that Aaron, the High Priest, performed on behalf of the Israelites on Yom Kippur.  It goes into all of the technical details of washing, dressing, offering sacrifices, and even sending a goat off into the wilderness.  All of this so that the Tabernacle could be purified of the sins that had accumulated over the course of the year.

The High Priest had a crucial role to play, and only he could play it.  In describing the ritual, the Torah speaks matter-of-factly.  We gain no insight into the internal emotional state of the High Priest as he performs the rituals.  But it must have been a terrifying and exhilarating experience.  I imagine that many High Priests might have been motivated by their love for the Jewish people.

The single hint of what Aaron could have been feeling appears in the opening words of the reading.  “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of Adonai.”  (Lev. 16:1)  The language is cold and factual, but it draws our memories back to the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, six chapters earlier.

Is this a detail that we need?  After all, it does not add anything to the procedures.  Perhaps, as our Mahzor suggests, it is a warning to remind the High Priest of what is at stake if he is not careful to perform the ritual exactly as prescribed.

Or maybe the Torah is trying to remind us that the individual who performs this ritual on our behalf bears his own burdens and struggles.  “After the death of the two sons of Aaron” brings us back in time to the moment and its aftermath when Nadav and Avihu were inexplicably struck down.

Moses steps forward to take charge.  Explaining the tragedy, he comes off as something of a “know it all.”  His grieving brother’s response?  Vayidom Aharon.  “Aaron was silent.”

Moses instructs a couple of cousins to remove the bodies.  He tells Aaron and his sons that, due to their position, they are not permitted to engage in public mourning.  He instructs them to continue the sacred offerings, as if nothing has happened, reviewing in detail all of the procedures.  Then, when Moses sees Eleazar and Itamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, doing something which he thinks is improper, he scolds them.  That is a step too far.  Aaron ends his silence, pushing back against his brother’s cold, by-the-book attitude.

Moses relents.

Aaron needs something from his brother in that moment, and he does not get it.  Moses shows no compassion, no acknowledgement that Aaron has just experienced the worst loss a parent can suffer.  Surely Moses loves his brother, but he fails to look beyond the garments of the High Priest to the suffering person underneath.  What would have comforted Aaron?  What would have reassured him that his brother, his family, and indeed the Israelite nation, loved him?

We do not know.  The Torah is silent.

As human beings, we are social creatures.  Included in our basic core requirements, in addition to food, clothing, and water, is our need to be loved.  And not only romantic love, but the love between parents and children, siblings, other relatives, friends, and even God.

When a person knows that he or she is loved and accepted unconditionally, that person is better able to return love, feels more settled, and is more willing to take risks with the knowledge that love is not on the line.  And when that person suffers a loss, as Aaron did, he is able to move through the stages of grieving with more resilience.

One of the unconscious mistakes that most of us make is assuming that we know what other people need from us.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not necessarily the best advice, as each of us wants different things.

Centuries after Aaron performed the ritual in the Tabernacle, the High Priest would conduct a similarly intricate series of rituals in the Temple in Jerusalem.  As in earlier times, the purpose was to bring about atonement on behalf of the Jewish people.  Over the course of the year, the people’s sins accumulated, polluting the sanctuary.  God’s Presence could no longer remain in a polluted sanctuary.  The atonement rituals served as a spiritual cleansing, enabling God’s Presence to return.

The Talmudic Tractate, Yoma, goes into great detail about the rituals of Yom Kippur.  In the fifth chapter, it describes the incense offering.  (Yoma 5:1)  The High Priest places the specially formulated incense on hot coals in a metal pan so that the entire chamber of the Holy of Holies fills with smoke.  He then exits the Holy of Holies, walking backwards.  When he reaches the outer chamber, the High Priest pauses to recite a short prayer.  The Mishnah emphasizes that the High Priest would not pray for too long, so as not to alarm the people who are waiting for him outside.

It is known that a priest who alters the recipe for the incense, or who is not himself fit, can be struck dead on the spot while in the Holy of Holies.  If such were to occur, the regular priests waiting outside would have a problem, as none of them are permitted to enter the sacred precincts while the High Priest is in the Holy of Holies.  Maimonides reports that many Second Temple priests perished while conducting the Yom Kippur ritual .

After completing his duties and emerging safely from the Holy of Holies, the High Priest throws a big feast for his loved ones to express his gratitude that no tragedy has befallen him.  (Yoma 7:4)

The Talmud (Yoma 53b) relates a particular incident that occurs one year.  A certain High Priest is inside the Holy of Holies, reciting his prayer after the incense offering, but he is not coming out.  His fellow priests are worried.  Maybe he needs help?  Maybe he fainted?  Maybe he has been struck dead by a bolt of lightning!?

After speculating on the increasingly gruesome possibilities, they finally agree to enter.

Just at that moment, the High Priest emerges, triumphant.

“Why did you take so long to pray?” they ask him.

“What are you so worried about?” he responds.  “After all, I was praying for you and for the Temple to not be destroyed!”

Angry, they respond, “Well, don’t make a habit out if it.  You know what the law says; ‘He would not extend his prayer, so as not to alarm the Jewish people.'”

Clearly, there is a failure of communication.  The High Priest is convinced that he is doing the right thing for the people.  He loves them.  He is praying for their survival, and for the survival of the Holy Temple.  “Everything I did, I did for you,” he seems to be saying.  What could be wrong with that?

He has miscalculated.  In fact, his prayer is somewhat self-serving.  He prays for the people, and for the temple to not be destroyed.  He, of course, has a personal interest in the continued functioning of the Temple.  He assumes that everyone else wants the same.

It turns out, the people want something different.  “But what you did for us is not what we wanted you to do for us.”

What do they want?  He is their beloved High Priest, their religious leader.  They are worried about him.  They want his presence, not his prayers.  They are looking for a more intimate relationship than what he has offered them.  He does not seem to understand their needs – much as Moses fails to understand Aaron’s needs in his moment of loss.

This is one of the major stumbling blocks in relationships.  We do not pay the right kind of attention to what the people we love need.  Different people need to be loved in different ways.

Let’s each think for a moment about someone who loves us, either now or in the past.  It could be or have been a partner, a parent or child, a relative, or a friend.  Let’s ask, “How do I know that this person loves or loved me?”

The marriage and family counselor Gary Chapman wrote a well-known book called The 5 Love Languages which he has subsequently expanded into a small empire.  (I am indebted to Rabbi Laurie Matzkin for making this connection.)  His basic premise is that there are five essential ways of communicating love of all kinds.  Every person has a primary emotional language that determines how they best receive love.

Chapman argues that by knowing which is our own primary love language, and which is the primary love language of our partner, child, parent, or friend, we will be able to both give and receive love in a fuller way, and will have deeper, more fulfilling and compatible relationships.

If we are having difficulties in a relationship, it may very well be the case that the two individuals are not speaking one another’s love language.

The five love languages are, in no particular order:  “Words of Affirmation,” “Quality Time,” “Receiving Gifts,” Acts of Service,” and “Physical Touch.”  I will briefly summarize each of them.

Someone who responds best to “Words of Affirmation” likes to receive unsolicited compliments and kind words.  Saying “I love you,” sincerely of course, leave this person feeling great.  Conversely, this person takes insults very hard.

A person whose primary language is “Quality Time” appreciates nothing more than full, undivided attention.  Put the cell phone on mute, turn off the TV and be present with this person for focused conversations or shared activities.

Some people blossom by “Receiving Gifts” that reflect care and thoughtfulness.  Don’t mistake this for greed.  A meaningful gift could be a flower plucked from the garden.  Marking birthdays and anniversaries with a gift are important for those who speak this language.

Those whose primary love language is “Acts of Service” appreciates it most when things are done for them.  Washing the dishes, performing other household chores, or relieving a burden are received as expressions of love.  On the other hand, laziness and not following through communicate to this person that he or she does not matter.

Finally, some people communicate love through “Physical Touch.”  Hugs, a pat on the back, holding hands, or simply sitting close to another person are received as acts of love.  When a child who is feeling bad comes over to sit in a parent’s lap and nuzzles their neck, it is probably a good indication that “Physical Touch” is that child’s primary love language.  When a person who speaks this language does not experience physical contact, it can be lonely and insecure.

We all speak each of these languages, but for most of us, there is one that is dominant.

So… which do you think is your primary love language?  Think back to how you answered the question about how you knew you were loved.  “Words of Affirmation,” “Quality Time,” “Receiving Gifts,” Acts of Service,” or “Physical Touch.”

Chapman identifies three questions to help us figure it out.

1.  How do I typically express my affection for other people?  Our natural inclination is to express love in the way that we hope to receive it.  That is why the High Priest expresses his love for Israel by praying that they and the Temple will not be destroyed.  In Chapman’s language, we might say that the High Priest’s language is “Acts of Service.”

2.  What do I most complain about to my loved ones?  This could indicate that I am feeling abused in my primary love language.  The people complain to the High Priest that he was not there with them.  Their primary love language is “Quality Time.”

3.  What am I most likely to ask for from my loved ones?  The thing that we most often request from our friend, partner, or family member is likely connected to the thing that would most likely make us feel loved.  A spouse who insists that her partner mark her birthday with some sort of present or special activity speaks the language of “Giving Gifts.”

Knowing this about ourselves, and about each other, can make a tremendous difference in our relationships.  I may hate to do the dishes… with a passion.  But if I know that my spouse’s love language is “Acts of Service,” then by doing the dishes, I am actually saying “I love you” to her.  It even makes me feel differently about doing the dishes.  And my partner feels loved.

When we love another person, we want to make that person happy.  We want that person to feel secure, and to know that our love for them is unconditional.  Knowing which language to speak is key.

Can we apply this paradigm to God?  What is God’s primary love language?

Ahavah, the Hebrew word for love, means something different in the Torah than the word love means to us today.  The concept of ahavah is wrapped up in covenant.  In the Shema, we recite V’ahavta et Adonai Elohekha b’khol levavekha uv’khol nafshekha uv’khol me’odekha.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your might.”

The Torah is not talking about an emotional feeling.  It is talking about actions.  How do we express our love for God?  Through actions.  By teaching our children, reciting words of Torah at home and on the road, at night and by day.  By putting up mezuzot on our doorposts and wrapping tefillin on our arms and our heads.  These are concrete deeds which express our relationship as individuals and as a people to God.

So we might say that God speaks the language of “Acts of Service.”  Through our actions, through performance of mitzvot, we express our love for God.

God has a different way of expressing love for us.  The language is all over our prayers.  How do we know that God loves us?  “Gift Giving.”  In the morning service, we recite Ahavah rabah ahavtanu.  “You loved us with a tremendous love.”  How?  Through the gift of Torah.

In the Torah’s covenantal language, God gives us the Promised Land, along with peace, security, and prosperity.  But is this all we want?  After all, the rabbis insist that we should strive to serve God not for a reward, but for God’s own sake.

In a more spiritual sense, what we long for is “Quality Time.”  In today’s Amidah, we say vatiten lanu Adonai Eloheinu b’ahavah… “You have given us in love, Adonai our God, this Shabbat day for holiness and rest, and this Yom Kippur for pardon, forgiveness and atonement…”  The ability to experience a sense of holiness in time comes through the weekly gift of Shabbat, as well as the annual cycle of holidays, each of which offers a unique opportunity to relate to God.

In Biblical and Temple times, the Yom Kippur ritual is what enabled God’s Presence to remain or return into the people’s midst.  With the knowledge that God was with them, the nation felt safe and protected.

The rituals of the Temple have been replaced by synagogue worship and personal teshuvah.  It is now we, individually, who long to feel the Presence of God in our lives.

As the 20th century theologian Martin Buber describes using the language of I-Thou, it is when we can fully encounter another person with our entire being that we experience God.  I would suggest that this can only happen when we are feeling loved, and are able to express love to someone else in the language that they understand.

In this new year, to experience God more fully, let’s strive to experience each other more fully.

Let’s figure out our own love language.  And them, let’s pay attention to our partners, parents, children, and friends to learn how to better express our feelings to them in the language that they will understand.

May we be sealed in the book of life for a year filled with the cultivation of love, both expressed and received, for God, for Torah, and for each other.

Sharing Passover – Shabbat HaChodesh 5777

As we just announced, Rosh Chodesh Nisan occurs this Tuesday.  In other words, the two week countdown until the first Seder begins in just three days.  (Aaaah!)

I am sure you noticed that we took out two Torah scrolls this morning.  That is because this Shabbat is Shabbat HaChodesh, the Shabbat before the beginning of the month of Nisan.

In the special reading that we chanted from the second Sefer Torah, God makes a similar announcement to Moses and Aaron.  It is the first day of the month of Nisan.

God gives them instructions on how to prepare.  This is the first recorded observance of Passover.  Here are the basics:  On the tenth day of the month, each household must select an unblemished, one-year-old male sheep or goat.  They must then watch over it for three days, making sure that it does not acquire any new blemishes, which would render it unfit for the offering.

On the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, they are to slaughter it.  They take the blood and paint it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes.  This signals to the Angel of Death that this is a Jewish home.  In his wreaking destruction over all the first born of Egypt, he will know to pass over these houses.

Each household then roasts its selected animal over a fire, and eats it that night with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  They are not allowed to have any leftovers the next day.  Whatever is not consumed that night must be burned up.

The Israelites are supposed to eat in their traveling clothes – loins girded, staff in hand, and sandals on feet.

Then, God switches gears, explaining that the people of Israel will continue to observe this holiday as a seven day festival for all time – in remembrance of being rescued from slavery in Egypt.

More than three thousand years later, our seders, and our observance of Passover, still look back to this moment.

A detail in this first Seder stands out.  The instructions are not directed to the priests, or to the tribal leaders, or to just the men, or even to individual Israelites.  The laws of Passover are directed to households.  People have to come together and share.

Remember the details – no leftover are allowed.  Given those restrictions, a lamb or sheep is way too much for one person to eat alone.  So it has got to be eaten by an entire household.  But what if a whole lamb is still too much for an entire household? The Torah takes it into consideration: “But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat…”  (Exodus 12:4)

Imagine the setting in Egypt.  Israelites are rushing around, trying to get ready to leave Egypt.  They are packing their things.  But in the midst of all their preparations, they have to plan for one final meal.  They pick out the lucky animal, and take special care of it for three days, amidst all the hustle and bustle.

Then, the night before departure – one final feast, a barbecue.  Children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, servants – all come together to share.  Those without large families meet up with their neighbors.  Nobody is left out.  Why?  Because there cannot be any leftovers.

Nowadays, there are surely lots of leftovers after the seder.  At our house, by the time we get to the main course, it is so late, and we have already eaten so much, that nobody has any appetite left.

But the legacy of making sure everyone is included in the celebration of Pesach, in the celebration of freedom, is still with us in two significant ways.

The first is through the practice of maot chittin.  Literally, “coins for wheat.”  Since the time of the Talmud, it has been customary to give kosher for Passover flour to the poor prior to the holiday.  This enables them to bake their own unleavened bread.  Keep in mind, this tradition developed in the days before Manischewitz invented factory-baked matzah.

Giving flour, or money for flour, was considered to be ideal, as it is more dignified when a person can bake his or her own matzah.  Alternatively, a person could give matzah.

In some communities, local Jewish authorities would actually compel miserly residents to contribute towards Maot Chittin.  

A story is told of a woman who once went to her Rabbi with a strange question:  “Rabbi, is it permissible to drink four cups of milk at the seder instead of four cups of wine?

Shocked by the question, the Rabbi asked her why she would want to use milk.

“I am very poor.  I cannot afford wine.”

So the Rabbi gave her a large sum of money, and told her to go buy wine for her seder.

The Rabbi’s wife overheard this exchange, and when the women left, she asked her husband why he gave her so much money.

“Anyone who is intending to drink milk at the seder certainly does not have enough money to serve meat.  So I gave her enough money to purchase both.”

Every year at Sinai, members contribute money towards Maot Chittin.  It enables us, as a congregation, to help feed people.  I am privileged, as Sinai’s Rabbi, to send hundreds of dollars each year to our local Jewish Family Service’s No One Abandoned Here project, as well as to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

The other way in which we make sure everyone is included in Pesach is captured in the opening lines of the Maggid section of the Haggadah.  Ha lachma anya…  “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover.”

While reciting these words, it is customary to open our doors to look outside to see if anyone is wandering around, looking for a seder to attend.  Not likely, so this action is largely symbolic.

But many of us try to fulfill this ideal by inviting guests to our seder tables.  Just as the first seder involved entire households, extended families, and neighbors joining together, seders today can be big affairs.  We invite relatives and friends.  For many seders, it is basically the same guest list year after year.  And that is wonderful.  We trace this tradition all the way back to our Israelite ancestors in Egypt.

I wonder, though, if we could do better.  Back in the shtetl, everyone knew everyone else’s business.  If a neighbor did not have a seder to attend, word would get out pretty quickly – and an invitation would follow.  But in our days, when we are dispersed and no longer dwell in tight-knit Jewish neighborhoods, we have no clue about each other’s plans.  We should not make any assumptions.

I assure you that there are plenty of Jews who do not have a seder to attend.

It is one of the reasons that I am proud of Sinai’s Second Night community seder.  It gives us a chance to celebrate together.  It also gives some people a seder who would not otherwise have one to go to.  We are so grateful to Rina Katzen for generously underwriting the seder to help keep the expense down.  Even so, it is still a lot of money for some people.

This year, let us give ourselves a challenge.  For those who are hosting, think about everyone you know.  Is there an individual or a family who might not have a seder to attend?  Invite them.  You do not have to know them well, or even at all.  According to Ha lachma anya we are supposed to literally bring strangers in off the street.

We shouldn’t worry about not having enough space or enough food.  I know from experience that it is always possible to squeeze in one extra person, or even four extra people.  I promise, there will still be plenty of leftovers.

By embracing the spirit of ha lachma anya, we get back to an important part of the first seder in Egypt.  Everyone is included.  Let’s make it happen this year.

The Origin of the Hebrew Calendar – Bo 5775

Parashat Bo continues the story of Moses and Aaron confronting Pharaoh, demanding that the King of Egypt allow the Israelites to go out into the wilderness to worship God.  As he refuses, they announce each calamity that God is about to bring upon the Egyptians.  The devastation wrought by the plagues on Egypt worsens, and Pharaoh’s stubbornness begins to show cracks.  He offers to let just the men go, but then he changes his mind.  Then he agrees that the children and the elderly can go as well, but he backtracks once again.  Finally, Moses announces that the entire nation is simply going to leave with all of their belongings.  Furthermore, Pharaoh himself will supply the cattle that will be used as offerings to God.

Moses declares the upcoming tenth plague, the death of all first born humans and animals in the land of Egypt, and then the Torah takes a break.

God speaks to Moses and Aaron, saying the following:

Hachodesh hazeh lakhem rosh chodashim, rishon hu lakhem l’chodshei hashanah

This chodesh shall be for you the head of the chodashim, it shall be first for you of the chodashim of the year.  (Exodus 12:2)

Our tradition understands this to be the first of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot.  Because of its position as number one, and because it interrupts this dramatic story, we can assume that it is telling us something highly significant.

Indeed, this verse is the origin of the Hebrew calendar.  The Rabbis do some very close reading to explain how the Hebrew calendar, which came into existence long before they came along, is rooted in the Torah.

Moses and Aaron are told that this chodesh will serve as the first chodesh of the year.  But what is a chodesh?

Chodesh is from the same root as chadash, meaning new.  The chodesh is something that is mitchadesh, that experiences renewal.

The appearance of the moon changes from one day to the next, such that it renews itself once per month.  The sun, on the other hand, appears the same each day.  Thus, the Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Megillah 5a) explain that we count the year by months, rather than by days.  The term chodshei hashanah, the months of the year, illustrate this requirement.  This is why our calendar is a lunar calendar, rather than a solar calendar.

But this leads to several problems.

A lunar month is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.976 seconds, approximately.  Twelve months is 354 days and a fraction.  This would make a lunar year about 11 days shorter than a solar year.  If we were to follow just a lunar system, the months, and the Jewish holidays, would float across the seasons, taking about 33 years to return full-circle to the season in which they started.  That is, in fact, how the Muslim calendar works.

Deuteronomy states shamor et chodesh ha-Aviv v’asita Pesach.  “Observe the month of Aviv and offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, for it was in the month of Aviv, at night, that the Lord your God freed you from Egypt.”  (Deuteronomy 16:1).  Aviv is the only named month in the Torah.  It literally means “new ears of grain” because it is the month in which the ears of grain first appear.  If the calendar were to float over the course of the seasons, then we would not be observing Passover during Aviv.

Furthermore, with regard to Succot, the Torah says b’asaf’cha et ma’asecha min hasadeh – “when you bring in your produce from the field.”  This means that Succot must always take place at the time of the fall harvest.  Therefore, the Rabbis of the Talmud explain, we have to occasionally make an adjustment by adding a thirteenth month.  (BT Rosh Hashanah 7a)  In this way, we will be able to celebrate Passover and Succot in the appropriate seasons.

In ancient times, the adjustments would be made based on the observance of spring-like changes.  If the trees had not yet begun to blossom or barley had not yet started ripening, then the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court that met in the Temple, would delay the beginning of the year by adding a thirteenth month.  The additional month, following Adar, we now refer to as Adar Bet.

Now that we have a fixed calendar, the addition of the extra month happens on a predetermined schedule, seven times out of every nineteen years.

But there is another problem.  When is the Jewish new year?

In the Mishnah, we read that there are actually four, or maybe even five new years, each marking something different.  Nisan is the New Year for counting holidays and for kings.  Tishrei is the new year for counting years, sabbatical and jubilee years, and for several other agricultural purposes. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

The Talmud records an argument between two rabbis about when the creation of the world occurred.  One Rabbi says that it happened in Nisan.  The other says it happened in Tishrei.  So we seem to have some ambiguity.

In the Torah, the new year occurs on the first day of the month we know as Nisan.  This is the same month as the month of Aviv I just mentioned.  The Torah, indeed most of the Bible, does not have names for any of the months.  Instead, it references the month number, always referring back to the month in which the Israelites went out of Egypt.

For example, what we refer to as Rosh Hashanah, occurring on the first of Tishrei, is instead name Yom Teruah, a Day of Blasting, and takes place on the first day of the seventh month.  When the Israelites get to Mount Sinai and camp out around the base, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah states:

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.  (Exodus 19:1)

The Book of Numbers begins as follows:

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…  (Number 1:1)

Centuries later, the Bible continues to look back to this moment.

In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites left the land of Egypt, in the month of Ziv―that is, the second month―in the fourth year of his reign over Israel, Solomon began to build the House of the Lord.  (I Kings 6:1)

Throughout the Bible, whenever dates are referenced, it is by a number counting back to the first of Nisan in the year in which the Israelites left Egypt.

What we know as the Hebrew months (Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet…) do not appear until later books of the Bible, such as Esther.  In fact, the “Hebrew months” are in fact Persian names which were assimilated into the Jewish calendar at some point late in the Biblical era.

Why is all of this important?  Couldn’t the Israelites haves simply taken the Egyptian calendar with them, or adopted the Canaanite calendar?  Why did our ancient ancestors need to have a different calendar?  Why is it important for us to continue to keep a different calendar?

How we measure time is extremely important.  Having a Jewish calendar, and marking our years according to it, distinguishes us, especially when we are living in a society that counts time differently.

The twelfth century Torah commentator Rashbam explains that the calendar is oriented in this way so that we always have the Exodus from Egypt in our consciousness.  The Exodus is the formative moment of the Jewish people.  Its memory is supposed to have a profound effect on our lives, both individually and collectively.

As we read in the Haggadah for Passover, we are instructed to recall the Exodus all the days of our lives, and even the nights.  We mention it in our daily prayers.  We connect it to Shabbat by calling it zekher liztziat mitzrayim, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, when we recite Kiddush.  And, our calendar itself also reminds us of that formative event.

Nachmanides points out that when the Torah states “this month shall be for you…” it puts things into a relative context that is particular to the Jewish people.  While Tishrei might be the universal month of creation, and the month from which we count the earth itself, we are also to think of time in its relationship to our particular story.  Our story began when our ancestors first became free.

Being conscious of Jewish time offers great meaning for our lives.  We count our week from Yom Rishon, the first day, up to Yom Shishi, the sixth day, keeping ourselves oriented towards the day of rest throughout the week.  We mark our months by the waxing and waning of the moon, and experience renewal every 29 or 30 days.  We remember our exodus from Egypt, and express our gratitude for freedom by caring for those who are suffering.  And we mark the yearly birthday of the world, marveling at the miracle of Creation and committing ourselves to do better and be more.

That is what it means to live in Jewish time.

The Song of the Well – Chukat 5773

This morning, we read the famous story of Moses hitting the rock. But there is another brief passage in this morning’s Torah portion that also deals with water bubbling up from the rocky desert ground.

Towards the end of the parshah, the Israelites set out again on their journey, marching ever closer to the Promised Land. From Kadesh to Mount Hor, where Aaron the High Priest dies. From Mount Hor, an unsuccessful attempt to enter Canaan form the South. They turn right and head off to the East. Ovot, Iye Abarim, Wadi Zered, the River Arnon. They pass by the borders of Edom, and Moab. They are now East of the Dead Sea, in what is the modern day country of Jordan. Then, to a place called Be’er, where God suddenly instructs Moses to gather the people together.

“Assemble the people that I may give them water,”*1* God declares. Something is a little strange. Twice already in this parshah alone, the Israelites have complained about not having water to drink. The first time led to the disaster with the staff and the rock, and Moses and Aaron getting banned from the land of Israel. The second time resulted in a plague of fiery serpents.

Now, all of a sudden, God is calling the people together for a water break without any whining. Why the sudden change?

According to the Spanish commentator Abarbanel, God said “I don’t want to hear their complaints.” God is tired of the whining, and has just given in.

Perhaps.  In any event, the assembled Israelites suddenly burst into song. Az yashir yisrael et-hashirah hazot. “Then Israel sang this song.” I’m sorry, I don’t know the melody.

Spring up, O well – sing to it –

The well which the chieftains dug

which the nobles of the people started

with maces, with their own staffs.*2*

Then the Torah continues on with its story, describing the next stops in the Israelites’ journey.

This short episode is rather perplexing. According to the song, it does not seem to take a lot of effort to find these wells. The chieftains are digging them with a staff. One gets the impression that all they have to do is scratch the surface of the gravel a little bit, and water will come gushing forth.

But we know that water in the desert is no trifling thing. It is life and death. The book of Genesis contains stories of fighting over the rights to wells. Discovering a new well is momentous enough that the Torah goes out of its way to mention it. The discovery of a well is often considered to be miraculous. We know wells are important to the the Israelites, because they start complaining whenever they run out of water.

An Aramaic translation and commentary of the Torah expands on the obscure references in the song and fills in the gaps:

Then Israel sang this song of praise, when they settled and the well stayed, and when the when they moved on [so did the well] by the merit of Miriam: “Rise up, O well, rise up, O well!” They would sing and it would rise. This is the well of the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the Great of the ancient past dug it; the leaders of the nation, Moses and Aaron, scribes of Israel, drew it out with their staffs.*3*

The song is not just a one time performance. For forty years, whenever Israel travels, the well travels with them. Some people are mentioned. It is on account of the merit of the Prophetess Miriam that the miraculous well stayed with them throughout their journeys. That is why, as soon as she dies in this morning’s parshah, the people are immediately without water.

But it is not only Miriam’s well. The well’s history extends back to the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Then Moses and Aaron are brought in to the story. They, with their staves, are able to draw water out of the ground.

But this is not just about water. Two terms in this song are metaphors that further expand the meaning.

First is the well itself. Water is understood to be a metaphor for Torah.

The second term is m’chokek. The original meaning is staff, or scepter. But already in the Bible, m’chokek takes on an sense . M’chokek also means ruler, or lawgiver. In ancient artistic depictions, rulers often hold a staff in their hands. Think of the symbolism of Moses’ staff.

And so, applying these metaphors to the song of the well, we have the following message: the chieftain who uses his staff to bring water out of the ground to quench the people’s thirst is likened to the teacher who brings out the Torah to quench the people’s spiritual thirst.

It is not only Moses, Aaron, and Miriam who draw out the water of the Patriarchs for the people. It is true of every teacher of Torah. Whoever interprets the ancient teachings of our tradition and shares that knowledge with the world is like that chieftain who can use the staff to find water in the desert.

While we, thankfully, can get water simply by turning on the tap, we do find ourselves in a different kind of wilderness. We live in a world in which it is very easy to lose our direction. We live far apart from each other. Traditional communities have broken down. We spend less time in face to face conversations and more time in front of screens. And we consume, consume, consume. Despite all of that consumption, I fear that many of us today are thirsty, whether we know it or not.

As Jews, it is the living waters of Torah that sustains us, that enables us to draw on the ancient wisdom of our tradition – a tradition that extends all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, that nourished Miriam, Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites in the wilderness, and that continues to nourish us to this day. Maybe, like the Israelites, we should sing about it more.

 

*1*Numbers 21:16

*2*Numbers 21:17-18

*3*Targum Pseudo-Yonatan