Archive for Shabbat HaHodesh

Shabbat Ha-Hodesh: Freedom and Giving

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Tazria and Shabbat Ha-Hodesh 
Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household.  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. (Shemot/ Exodus 12:3-4)
Hard to believe, since it feels like it’s barely started to thaw around here, but this week is Shabbat Ha-Hodesh, which denotes some special readings (linked above) read on or before the beginning of the month of Nissan. Hence, ShabbatHa-Hodesh is about two weeks before Passover, which occurs in the middle of the month. It’s not surprising, then, that the special Torah reading reviews the commandments given towards the end of the Exodus narrative: to establish the Jewish calendar, to offer a special Passover sacrifice, to eat it with matzah and maror (bitter herbs.)  
Note in the passage above that the commandment of offering the Passover sacrifice was directed not so much at individuals but at a household, or even a set of neighbors, if a single household was too small to support the offering of a lamb or kid. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a great leader of modern Orthodoxy, offers a beautiful insight (found here) as to the meaning of this first Pesach sacrifice in Egypt. 
As I understand R. Soloveitchik, the sacrifice itself was meaningless to God, who needs nothing and certainly not an animal offering. Rather, the meaning of the sacrifice was to bring the slave generation into the possibility of sharing with others, both within their household and with neighbors. A slave doesn’t have enough to share and might zealously guard his small portion, but a free person is able to give, to share, to be confident in the future, to find purpose in kindness and generosity. The intent of the Passover sacrifice was to bring the slaves into emotional freedom from being (understandably) self-centered and too anxious to care for others. 
Note, however, that what brings the people into that emotional freedom is the act of giving to others. They don’t share because they are free, they are free because they share. Actions change our perspective; the slaves may have thought they were merely obeying a ritual command, but the mitzvahtransformed them from within. 
So too with us: we always have the opportunity to become more free by giving more away, to become more loving by doing deeds of kindness, to become more moral people by doing things that are right and good. By acting as free people, the slaves became free people. By giving without fear, we ourselves may become people of true compassion. The story of liberation isn’t just then, it’s now. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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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

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 . . . ”

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,


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