Friday, January 30, 2009

Parshat Bo – פרשת בא

It’s been a month or so since my last D’var Torah, but now that my SAT exam is out of the way, my weekly Parsha thoughts have made a triumphant return!

This week I read something very interesting written by Rav Hirsch. Parshat Bo deals primarily with the last three of the ten plagues, but is also noted for the Parsha in which the Jewish nation receives their first mitzvah – that of Rosh Chodesh as it says, “החודש הזה לכם ראש חדשים ראשון הוא לכם חדשי השנה – This renewal of the moon shall be for you a beginning of new moons; it shall be for you the first among the months of the year.”

Many have wondered why this was chosen as the first mitzvah to be commanded to Am Yisrael. Surely there were other, more significant, (or at least more symbolic,) Mitzvot that could have been chosen instead of this seemingly trivial commandment? What is so important about Rosh Chodesh?

There is a famous Pasuk that refers to the Chagim, “אלה מועדי ה' מקראי קודש אשר תקראו אתם במועדם – These are God’s appointed times for meeting, convocations to the sanctuary which you must proclaim at the time appointed for them.” To understand the concept of Mo’ed, normally translated as a time or meeting, one must refer to our Pasuk here.

Rav Hirsch says that it seems that all the Chagim are based on a concept of מועד, of coming together. But wheat is the connection between Rosh Chodesh and the מועדים? Rosh Chodesh isn't a מועד, it has no specific historic or seasonal associations. Indeed what is מועד? Is it a simple reference to time, to meeting, is it to both?

מועד denotes a place or a time designated for meeting, that much is true. In our Pasuk, the word has the latter connotation. מועדים are times or seasons designated for our meeting with Hashem. (Note that during Chagim we confirm our religion; Shabbat is considered a testimony, as are the Chagim. The root of the word for testimony is עד. It should therefore be unsurprising that these two letters appear in the word מועד.) Explained in human terms, this meeting is to be a voluntary act for both parties. It is not to be a matter of a master summoning his servants into his presence.

For this reason only general terms are specified regarding the time of Am Yisrael’s coming to Hashem; He allows us a certain leeway in setting the conditions, as it were, for meeting up with him, so that the meeting may be of mutual choice. If it were that Rosh Chodesh were fixed, then all the chagim would be fixed too, and then it would be that we would have no input in arranging the time of our meeting with Hashem, and that we would be effectively tied down to a fixed schedule. In fact, it could be somewhat perversely argued that if the beginnings of months and hence also the festivals with them were to be tied inextricably to the astronomical phases of the planets so that the lunar calendar automatically determined the מועד and the מועדים, then we and Hashem would (l’havdil) appear bound to the blind, unchanging cycle of nature. That is absolutely not the case.

Now we can understand the importance of this mitzvah. In a way, we can say that this mitzvah is parallel in function to the first letter of the Torah. Whereas the Torah could easily have started with the letter Aleph, it commences with a Bet to signify our entering into a holy partnership with Hashem. In a similar manner, the Mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh is exactly the same.

Post Shabbat Addendum: I forgot to mention that I heard a lovely D'var Torah in a shiur this week by the current Rav of the Old City of Jerusalem, Rav Chizkiyahu Neventzahl, in the name of his father, ex-Rav of the Old City, Rav Avigdor Neventzhal.

Rav Neventzhal said that in Parshat Bo we read the pasuk, "היום אתם יוצאים בחודש האביב - Today you leave in the month of spring" in reference to the Jews leaving Egypt in the springtime. It is for this reason that Pesach is also called Chag Ha'Aviv - The Spring Festival.

That seems reasonable enough, but when we consider that the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years, the fact that they left in the spring seems irrelevant. If they had left Egypt in the spring and arrived in the spring, then the title would be fitting, but if Am Yisrael were in the desert for all that time, they traveled through many yearly cycles of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. What's the big deal about the fact that "Today... the month of spring?"

The Jews traveled in the Ananei HaKavod, the Clouds of Glory, and ate man, the divine food that descended from heaven. Spiritually speaking, they traveled first class. In fact, their physical needs were taken care of, too. The man was exactly enough for each person's need and taste; all that the Jews had to do was indulge their Neshamot and study Torah. Rav Neventzhal senior's chiddush (insight) is that our Pasuk means that for the duration of the forty years in the desert the Jews traveled, in the Ananei HaKavod, in just the right conditions - those of spring. It is said that before the sin of Adam HaRishon that the world had only one season - spring. Spring is the most pleasant of all season; neither too hot nor too cold, just right. The pasuk is teaching us not only that Am Yisrael left Egypt while it was spring, but that it stayed that way for the length of their desert wanderings.

When I said this D'var Torah on Shabbat, my Aunt made commented, backing up the argument, that while the Jews may have complained of many things while wandering in the desert, the food for example, not once did they grumble of the most obvious of complaints. The first complaint should have been that it was too hot at day in the summer, or too cold with the freezing desert nights, but not once did they so much as mention the weather - testament to Rav Neventzhal's chiddush.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom U'Mevorach!

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