Shabbat HaChodesh: A Sustaining Hope

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat HaChodesh

Shabbat HaChodesh, like the other special Shabbatot before Pesach, has its own
maftir (concluding) Torah reading and its own haftarah, in addition to the
regular weekly portion of Vayekhel-Pekudei. The Torah reading, from Exodus,
describes the preparations for the first Pesach, in Egpyt, while the haftarah is
from Yechezkel [Ezekiel], the prophet who went into exile in Babylon with his
people and preached a message of hope, restoration and renewal to the deportees
there.

The haftarah opens up (if you’re reading the Sefardi version- Ashkenazim begin a
bit earlier) with an echo of the theme of the Torah reading: the importance of
the month of Nisan. Nisan is the month of Pesach and Exodus, the central
narrative of our people and the foundation of future hopes:

“Thus said the Lord God: On the first day of the first month, you shall take a
bull of the herd without blemish, and you shall cleanse the Sanctuary.”
(Yechezkel / Ezekiel 45:18)

As an aside: the “first month” above is Nisan, in the spring; Rosh Hashana, the
“New Year,” is in the seventh month, but that’s not a big problem. The former
marks the first month of yearly festival cycle and the latter refers to the
counting of years for the cycles of the sabbatical year and for accounting
certain agricultural practices. (Not unlike having a calendar year and a fiscal
year- see link below.)

So far, so good, but things are rarely simple when comparing texts written
hundreds of years and hundreds of kilometers apart. The ancient rabbis could not
help but confront the fact that Yechezkel, in describing to the people what the
future, rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, seems to add details to the rituals which
are not found in the Biblical texts:

“On the fourteenth day of the first month you shall have the passover sacrifice;
and during a festival of seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten. On that
day, the prince shall provide a bull of sin offering on behalf of himself and of
the entire population . . . ”
(45:21-22)

Without going into all the particulars, for today it’s sufficient to note that
the Biblical account of Pesach preparations has no mention of the bull for a sin
offering, as above, and that’s just one example where the prophet’s account of
the future, rebuilt Temple seems to deviate from earlier texts.

Yet rather than discard Yechezkel as mistaken or delusional, some commentators
proposed that the additional offerings were not about Pesach at all, but were
meant to describe the dedication or inauguration ceremonies of the new and
rebuilt Temple, which would be purified and dedicated before the first festival
celebrated in it. In other words, the prophet was so sure that the people would
be returned from exile that he’s not just reminding them of the holidays they’ll
someday celebrate at home, but also helps them envision the act of rededicating
their spiritual center.

With this interpretation, Shabbat HaChodesh takes on a whole new meaning: no
longer is it about recalling the past exile and the previous redemption, but
rather it’s about strengthening our faith and hope for the future. If the
prophet Yechezkel was describing a future, rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, then we
are powerfully reminded as we go about our own preparations for Pesach that our
ultimate goal is neither nostalgia nor remembrance – rather, our goal is faith,
hope, and joy.

This is the true meaning of Pesach: that Egypt- or Mitzrayim, the “narrow
place”- could not contain us forever, and neither could the exile to Babylon nor
the much longer exile which followed. There is hope, and there will be (soon and
speedily!) peace in Jerusalem, and there will be a renewal for our people and
all peoples. That is the meaning of redemption, and just as that hope sustained
our ancestors, so too must it sustain us, for without hope, cynicism sets in,
and compassion seems irrelevant. Yechezkel told the people: there will be a
rebuilt Jerusalem. For us, there is no more powerful symbol of a healed world,
which may not be l’shana haba, next year, but is surely within our capacity to
bring forth.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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