Haggadah: Prelude to Redemption
by: Rabbi Philip Kaplan
"This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. (Exodus 12:1)"
The reading of these words in the Synagogue on the last Sabbath of the "Four Parshiyyoth" bears evidence to the fact that the approach of the month of Nisan heralds the impending arrival of the Festival of Passover. It is, however, of special significance that of all the months of the Jewish calendar, only to this Sabbath preceding the month of Nisan have our Rabbis applied the unique total of "Parshath Hachodesh" - The Portion of the month.
It is altogether logical to inquire concerning the reason for the extraordinary stress placed on the month of Nisan in comparison with the other months of the year. And the question becomes even more pertinent when we consider the fact that our Rosh Hashanah, our New Year, is observed, not in this month at all, but rather on the opening days of the month of Tishre.
Actually, of course, the Mishnah at the very beginning of the Tractate "Rosh Hashanah" already proclaimed the fact that there are in reality four distinct dates to where are ascribed diverse aspects of a New Year. And among these days are listed both the beginning of the month of Nisan and the opening days of the month of Tishre. The Talmud, in commenting on these two dates, makes an extremely significant distinction by stating that, "Jewish kings would count their New Year from Nisan" whereas "non-Jewish kings calculated their reign from the month of Tishre."
This same thought was expressed by the Rabbis of the Midrash on the very first words of today's reading for the Portion of the Month when they stated as follows:
"When Gd chose to create our universe, He selected to decree New Months and Years but when He chose as His people Jacob and their sons, He set down for them the months of Nisan as a month of Redemption."
Finally, in pursuing this same thought, one cannot omit the very famous controversy found in the Talmud whereby Rabbi Eliezer declares that "the world was created in the month of Tishre" and Rabbi Joshua maintains that it was created in Nissan (Rosh Hashanah 8b).
What is the meaning of such a difference of opinion? What factors underlie all these quotations which have the common characteristic of distinguishing between the month of Tishre and the month of Nisan? Perhaps an answer to these questions will offer an explanation not only of the specific Portion which we read today but will also contain for us a profound thought on the basic doctrines and practices of Judaism.
Man has come to the recognition, understanding and worship of Gd through a variety of paths and methods. Throughout history, philosophers and thinkers of all religious persuasions arrived at a rational conception of the existence of a Supreme Being through a direct channel leading from the orderly functioning of the natural world. Through metaphysical speculation, intellectual man strove time and again to arrive at a proof for Gd through a study and analysis of the often incomprehensible universe of which he was in reality but an infinitesimal part. This method of arriving at man's recognition of the existence of a Supreme Being is a universal weapon of the human intellect - irrespective of specific religious systems and theological doctrines. The history of philosophy proves that countless philosophers - whether Pagan or Christian, Mohammedan or Jewish - employed this speculative approach to an understanding of a First Being and a Creator of the World. In fact, such a mental process is even ascribed by our sages to our own father Abraham at the earliest stage of our religious history.
Such an approach to Gd may have certain limitations. It makes of the Creator a transcendental Being whose infinite nature can be comprehended only by superior intellects and who is far removed from the commonplace life of humanity. Yet, there is no doubt, that it has found a place in the religious structure of Judaism. It is in fact actually symbolized by the New Year which we observe in the month of Tishre, an occasion, while having its roots in Judaism, yet embraces all human creatures in the infinite Fatherhood of Gd and the Brotherhood of all men.
There is, however another concept delineating a more intimate relationship between man and Gd. This is an approach which attempts not so much an understanding of the nature of Gd as an appreciation of the purposes and reasons for which man was created by Gd. It is a system based not on pure philosophy and intellectual activity but on a conscious attempt to concretize, in living experience, the sublime words of the Bible, "After the Lord your Gd shall ye walk, and Him shall ye fear, and His commandments shall ye keep, and unto His voice shall ye harken and Him shall Ye serve and unto Him shall ye cleave (Deuteronomy 13:5)."
It is a manner of recognizing and serving Gd through a complete and all-inclusive system of law and direction based primarily on the Mitzvoth - the commandments taught to man through Divine Revelation. It is that unique way of life ordained for a people chosen to be a "Kingdom of priests and a holy nation."
This peculiarly Jewish mode of life was already foreshadowed even before Mount Sinai at the very moment of Israel's birth as a national and religious entity in the words proclaimed to them as they prepared for the exodus from Egypt. Rashi, in the very opening words of his commentary on the Bible, already pointed out that the commandment inherent in the words, "This month is for you the head of months," was the very first Mitzvah proclaimed to the Jewish people and was really a symbol of that system of precept and commandment underlying the very structure of Judaism.
The New Year of Tishre and the New Year of Nisan - here are symbolically portrayed a dual concept of man's striving for the Divine. The New Year of Tishre - a Rosh Hashanah for the kings of non-Jewish nations - is a universal attempt through philosophy and idealism to arrive at an understanding of the Creator. The New Year of Nisan - a Rosh Hashanah for Jewish Kings- is a recognition of the fact that Judaism has never survived and cannot exist as a mere intellectual system of ethics without the embodiment of its doctrines in acts and deeds, in Mitzvoth.
It is no wonder then that the Bible emphasizes the words "for you" as the expression of the uniquely Jewish experience of Mitzvoth and good deeds as the way to experience Gd.
It is no wonder also that the Portion of the Month of Nisan heralds the approach of the Festival of Freedom. For a true Jewish redemption can only come from the knowledge and understanding of the meaning of Parshath Hachodesh.
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