Parshat Bo (5774)


Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

Jews Sure Have a Lot of New Years Celebrations!

The New York Ball in 1978

I would like to wish a happy New Year to all my friends and fellow students in Torah learning. I start our lessons off excited after a celebrating our emergence into the new civil year. Which gets me thinking, us religious Jews sure have a lot of New Year days.

If you think about it, we are just a few months off from Rosh haShanah (Hebrew, “the head of the year,” the start of the year) which begins our civil calendar; this the fiscal year in Jewish legal terms. And of course we have TuBiShvat, the new year for the trees which marks the renewal of nature; this comes later this month

However in the Torah, we have one New Year identified for us. Here in this week’s parsha, we are told that the first of the heads of the months (“rosh chadashim”) will begin here (“rishon hu lachem l’chad’shai hashanah / to you it shall be the first of the months of the year”). From the month of Nissan, the month of liberation from Egypt and the celebrating of Passover, we are told to begin counting our months. This is one of the first mitzvot the Torah relays to us, one that is given even before the full revelation of the Torah at Sinai, it is for us to observe the months. Starting here, starting now.

This year I found myself with great revelry celebrating the coming of the civil new year as it passed this week. Generally I’ve been ambivalent about the Gregorian New Year, the reboot point set for the common culture. But this year I found so many legal and civil things coming to fruition with the New Year (the start of the Affordable Care Act, important new environmental ordinances, etc.) I just had to celebrate. Plus I get to leave a lot the financial and emotional stress of the last year behind me, and take a sigh of relief.

I think that is what the observance of the New Year is about. It’s about having a chance to start over. To draw a line, and on the other side leave behind all the burdens of the that we need to leave to the past.

Our Torah does reinforce this view, when the suffering of the children of Israel becomes too much G-d has them start over with a new year and challenges them to demand their freedom. I would hope that as we come into a new year we celebrate a new and better self, and then we work like mad to achieve that freedom.

Though it may seem annoying to many other people that we have so many new years observances in out Jewish culture, and even more so as we observe the new years observed by our own local cultures though out the world. But I think it is beautiful that we have all these points to start again. And the truth is we can start over at any time, if we just choose to recognize it and celebrate it.

Now you might have a lot of problems, you might be finding it hard to let go. You might be asking yourself how people can even ask you to celebrate, even though you still have all these hang ups? The truth is a new start always begins in misery and darkness.

Our Torah tells us that the children of Israel, and both Moses and Aaron, were to observe the start of their new-found freedom while they were still in Egypt, a fact that is revealed at the start of this discussion about the activities of the exodus and Nissan in Exodus chapter 12.

As the moon passes into the New Moon cycle Moses points to the sky and tells them that this is the sign of the start of these new months. But if we think about it, as he reveals the start of the months there is no moon in the sky to signal this new start. The sky and the land below is dark.

New starts generally begin in darkness. This is truth that has been recognized to be so since the most ancient times. Whereas the first spring month of Aires has always been observed as the start of the actual year, and has been so for scientific and previously for legal purposes for as long as humans remember, when the sun is bright and triumphant over winter.

The months conversely have been classically recognized to begin in darkness, at the New Moon. This understanding was often exploited by pagans and magical workers, who would begin the workings in the darkness of the month in hopes their spell would follow the cycle of the moon and grow stronger as the moon waxed bright in the heavens. The hope was that when the full moon came the problem would go away, or something dramatic would happen to change their fate.

While we might frown upon and mock the superstitiousness and occultism of these people, in some ways our culture also has some touches of this type of observance. This earthy, cyclical mindset can be applied even to Judaism as well. And it is even mandated by the Torah, being reclaimed in a different fashion for a holy purpose.

Immediately after we begin counting the months, Moses prescribes for the Hebrews the actions of preparing for Passover. They begin early in the 10th day of the month of Nissan, exactly 180-degrees opposite Yom Kippur – the day of atonement – which falls six months later on the 10th of Tishrei. As the moon has begun to grow to a crescent one is to prepare for their sacrifice, and then clear out all the chametz – the leavening in one’s home and possession. So that on the 14th of Nissan, on the full-moon of the month of Spring, we can observe the Passover Seder in order to celebrate the miracle of our freedom.

We keep an ancient tradition, though with the thought in mind that we are working towards something good. We aren’t just engaging in wishful thinking, hoping that our struggle will be magically resolved for us. The Torah shows us that this process of acquiring freedom and redemption is an active process. There is more to this victory than showing up at the winners circle!

Coming out of so many civil holidays, one might even get a bit annoyed that I bring up Pesach now. Because Passover is a lot of work! More so than any other time of the year. Most all of us are familiar with the difficulty of cleaning for the holiday. Literally everything in our house is inspected for chametz. It is this substance, leavening and its agents, that we seek to get rid of as they are representative of sin and pride in our lives. In that time of renewal and rebirth, we work harder than any other time of the year in order to achieve a new level of freedom and liberation in ourselves. Free from the negative “additives” that will ferment and sour in our lives.

On the first Pesach, they started their process of deep introspection and inspection four days before. When they started the processes of keeping the pascal lamb. For four days they kept the animal for the sacrifice close by. Not just so they could proudly display the animal they chose for the mitzvah, but to also continuously inspect the unblemished nature of their sacrifice.

Though the Torah says in this case we are to take the lamb on the fourth day, it does not necessarily mean that future sacrifices were mandated to be done on that day. Today in the modern age, we don’t have the ability to observe the mitzvah of the sacrifice so we don’t worry about the animal aspect. We instead focus more so on this cleaning away of the chametz, the sin and pride inside of us. And we begin this process much earlier, purely out of necessity as the complications of modern life has caused the fermentations of chametz to creep into the oddest place in our daily lives.

For a new start, we need to commence with inspecting our sacrifice. For us religious Jews, we need to consider our service before G-d. Is our avodah pure, complete and unblemished? Our being and our homes, are they chametz-free, or are there some odd bits of sin and arrogance still riding along with us? Have we shelved some of this away unwittingly? Has some of this fallen into the cracks and is need of being removed from our lives?

Freedom can start today if you want it. The Hebrews weren’t free yet when all this is spoken to them, yet they began to prepare their lives and ready themselves in an pure fashion. They did their part, with the understanding that G-d would reciprocate and do His part to aid their liberation. They corrected their lives, and got ready to walk into a new way of life. But it all really began with the children of Israel following G-d’s command to observe that they were starting over, to put the past behind and start counting from the here and now.

Now even though the break for a new start might not be obvious right away, we need to realize and observe it as our new rosh – our new starting point. Like the new moon which is hidden, it might not be obvious right away and we need to be patient. Though the fact is our fresh start begins at the blackest part of the night, during the moonless nights of new moon. Renewal and redemption most often begin when its darkest in our lives.

We need to prepare ourselves and do this hard work of self-inspection first. If we are committed to this then our passover will surely come, and we will be able to be free and unashamed as we celebrating in the full moonlight!

You can decide to start over any time, my friends. You can start with a new year and new resolutions at any time. And it doesn’t need to be connected to any religion or culture.

In our spiritual lives as Jews, we can also find many places to make a fresh start. Every month, we also have another starting point that we can easily mark; every time Rosh Chodesh comes. The truth is we can start over at any time. You don’t need to wait for another New Years day to come in order to get a chance to restart. Freedom starts today, if you recognize it and do something about it.

Happy New Year, here’s to a fresh start!

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