Friday, January 27, 2012

Parshat Bo - פרשת בא

“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.”
(Exodus 12:1)

Aside from detailing the last three of the ten plagues, this week's Parsha, Bo, is noted as it contains the first mitzvah commanded of the Jewish nation – that of Rosh Chodesh.

Harmless as this mitzvah is, many have wondered why it was selected to be the first mitzvah given 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 S. R. Hirsch proposes that all the Chagim are based on a concept of מועד, of coming together. But what is the connection between Rosh Chodesh and these מועדים? Rosh Chodesh isn't a מועד; it has no specific historic or seasonal associations. What indeed what is מועד? Does this word constitute a simple reference to time, to meeting, or is it rather to both?

Explaining his answer, Rav Hirsch continues by noting that מועד refers to a place or a time designated for meeting. In the pasuk above, the word has the latter connotation. מועדים are times or seasons designated for our meeting with Hashem. (Note that during these 'times' we confirm our religion. Shabbat is considered a testimony, as are the festivals. Indeed, 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.

There is another aspect to this mitzvah that we may learn from. The moon itself has special value for the Jewish people. Unlike the sun which blazes intensely all day long, the moon is seen as somewhat inferior. But a better understanding of the nature of the moon is revealing. The Medrash explains that just as the moon waxes and wanes, so too does the Jewish people. Just at the moment when the Jewish people seem to be on the verge of extinction, they experience a turnaround in their fortunes. At the time of the giving of this mitzvah, the Jews were at the lowest level they had ever been at. Deeply affected by their experience in Egypt, the Jews were in a bad state. But just around the corner was one of the greatest events in the history of the Jewish people; the giving of the Torah at Sinai. (Similarly, we might note how the Holocaust was followed by the rebirth of the Jewish state.)

The Sfat Emet makes a similar point, claiming that while other nations are more linked to the sun, and can only stand 'during the day, when the sun is shining over them', only to fade away later on, the Jews do not need such external aid. On the contrary; in hard times, the Jewish nation emerges stronger instead of disappearing from view.

With the above in mind, we may now answer the question posed regarding 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 two roles and our entering into a holy partnership with Hashem. In a similar manner, the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh demonstrates the qualities that set the Jewish people apart.

Shavua tov and chodesh tov!

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