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The Month of Spring: A Rosh Chodesh Nisan Reflection
Douglas Aronin

 

"You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread -- eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you -- at the set time in the month of Aviv, for in the month of Aviv you went forth from Egypt." -- (Ex. 34:18, JPS translation; see also 23:15)

More than once the Torah reminds us not merely that the holiday of Passover commemorates our exodus from Egypt but that the celebration of our liberation encompasses the entire month that the Torah calls Aviv, or Spring -- the month that we call Nisan -- "for in the month of Aviv you went forth from Egypt."

As we begin the month of Nisan, it's worth pondering why it is that this entire month, and not merely the Passover holiday itself, is associated with our liberation from Egyptian slavery. And why, for that matter, does the Torah designate the month as Aviv, emphasizing that it is in fact -- as it must be -- the month of spring? So crucial is the association of Nisan with spring that the Jewish calendar adds an additional month of Adar, the month immediately preceding Nisan, if the month of our redemption from Egypt would otherwise fall too early.

A careful reading of the beginning of Parshat HaChodesh, the special maftir that we read this past Shabbat in anticipation of the beginning of Nisan, may provide a hint of the significance of this month: "The Lord said to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. Speak to the entire community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take..." (Ex. 12:1-3)

There is, on the face of it, something peculiar about the command to make Nisan the first month of the year. The Torah tells us that God communicated that command to Moses and Aaron while they were still in Egypt, but they were not instructed to communicate it immediately to the entire people of Israel. God did tell them to communicate to the entire people the detailed instructions that follow: how to select the first Passover offering, how to prepare and eat it, and what to do with the blood.  They are even to tell the people at this point that the Passover offering and the ensuing Feast of Matzah are to be celebrated "throughout the ages" (12:14-20).

Yet the fact that the month in which Passover falls is the "beginning of the months" and "the first of the months of the year for you" (12:2) is apparently withheld from the people at that point. The command to begin our calendar with Nisan is the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a whole, yet it seems that they are not told of it until after the exodus from Egypt has taken place.

Perhaps the answer is that this verse was initially not a commandment but a prediction. At the time God first spoke these words to Moses and Aaron, after all, the Jewish people had yet to take any active role in their own redemption. Up to this point, God had acted solely through Moses and Aaron, and the rest of the people were spectators at best.

But that was about to change. The commands that Moses and Aaron were told to communicate to the people required them for the first time to participate actively in the process of redemption. They were to set aside an animal -- and one sacred to the Egyptians no less! -- and at the right moment not merely to sacrifice it but to display its blood openly on their doorposts. By following God's commands meticulously, they were to demonstrate that they were worthy of redemption.

We might imagine that Moses and Aaron were somewhat apprehensive about whether the people were ready for this responsibility. Earlier in the story, after all, the people would not believe Moses when he conveyed God's promise of redemption (6:9). Is it really possible, they must have wondered, that this people, crushed by the experience of slavery, would be willing to sacrifice openly an animal sacred to their masters?

So before giving them the specific commands that they were to convey to the Israelites, God reassures Moses and Aaron that this time, after seeing God's might in the plagues brought on the Egyptians, the Jewish people were finally ready to take an active role in their own liberation. "This month shall mark for you the beginning of months." This month marks a new beginning, the point in time when God's chosen people are finally to come into their own. This month begins a new way of counting time, the beginning of what will be a fundamentally new and radically different reality.

It's noteworthy that nowhere in the commands God gives to Moses in Egypt is this first month referred to as Aviv, or Spring. Only later on, after the exodus from Egypt has taken place (13:4), does the Torah first refer to the month of liberation as Aviv, a designation repeated (23:15) after Israel heard God's voice at Sinai.

Spring, after all, is the universal symbol of renewal, the time that nature itself is renewed, coming to life after the depths of winter. What makes Nisan the month of spring is not the fact of liberation itself but the fact that the Jewish people took advantage of that liberation to chart a new beginning, as a people committed to God and His Torah.

Perhaps that's why the Torah associates the entire month of Nisan with the redemption from Egyptian bondage. God can bring redemption instantaneously, but if the people of Israel are to play a role in the process of liberation, they need time to prepare themselves. Human achievement, unlike divine achievement, is not instantaneous. Human beings struggle with the challenges that face them, sometimes taking a step back before the next two steps forward.

Just like the people of Israel had a role to play in bringing about their redemption from Egypt, what our tradition calls the first redemption, so too we have a role to play -- a subordinate role, to be sure, but a role nevertheless -- in bringing about the ultimate redemption. As in Egypt, our part in the ultimate drama will not be played perfectly. We will struggle, we will stumble and sometimes we will move in the wrong direction. But if we are truly committed to making this Nisan a month of new beginnings, then perhaps, cold as this winter has been, the spring of redemption is closer than we realize.

Chodesh tov.