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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Hachodesh

Parashat Hachodesh

The First Month and Renewal

We are responsible for providing new, novel understandings of the Torah every day in accordance with the changing times. “Each day they shall be as new in your eyes,” and by virtue of this innovation “God renews the act of creation on a daily basis.”
Dedicated to the memory of
Asher Ben Haim
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"This month shall be to you the beginning of months" (Exodus 12:2). This is the first Torah commandment which Israel was commanded, as Rashi writes at the beginning of his Torah commentary: "[Instead of opening with 'In the beginning'] the Torah should have begun with [the verse] 'This month shall be to you, etc.' because it is the first precept which the nation of Israel was commanded. And why did He begin with an account of Creation? Because of [the thought expressed in the text (Psalms 111:6)] 'He declared to His people the strength of His works in order that He might give them the heritage of the nations.'"

Of all the commandments in the Torah, why did God choose to mention this commandment first? Sforno (Rabbi Ovadya Sforno) explains that "it embodies the first appearance of the capacity of free choice." In other words, a slave has no time of his own, for he is enslaved to his master, and by telling the children of Israel that "This month shall be to you, etc.," (i.e., the time is theirs) God was in effect announcing that they are free and that they possess the capacity of freedom.

This explanation contains a profound idea: in order for the children of Israel to obtain the power of freedom, it was not enough that they leave the bondage of Egypt. More than this, they had to make themselves slaves to God, and only then would they be truly free, for time would become theirs. As Rabbi Judah HaLevi so wonderfully put it: slaves to time are slaves; only slaves of God are free. In light of this, it is possible to find a connection between the beginning of the Torah and the verse, "This month shall be to you, etc." The Torah begins with the creation of the world, which begins with the creation of time. "In the beginning God created" - the Vilna Gaon explains that God created the dimension of time which is alluded to in "In the beginning." It is therefore written "And there was evening and there was morning, one day" (Genesis 1:5) and not "the first day" for it would have been incorrect to use the ordinal form. And when the Torah was given to Israel, the first commandment they received was "This month shall be to you, etc." They were given time in order that they sanctify it.

And so the Sages of the Midrash teach (Tanchuma [Buber], Bo 12): "'This month shall be to you, etc.' Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: To what may this be likened? To a king who possessed a clock, and would look at it and know the time of day . . . When his son grew up and reached manhood, he said, 'My son, until now this clock was in my possession. From this time forward it is yours.' Similarly, the Almighty would sanctify months and intercalate years. When Israel rose, He said to them, until now the calculations of months and years was in my hands. >From here onward they are given over to you, as it says, 'This month shall be to you, etc.'"

The clock in the above analogy symbolizes the authority of the king who establishes the order of His kingdom according to the changing of time. At the beginning of creation it was God that governed the world, but after He redeemed Israel, He transferred the power to them, and they, through their actions, would be the ones to determine the changing of times and to sanctify them with commandments. Another Midrashic source (Piska DeRav Kehana [Mendelbaum] 5) tells us that "throughout those two thousand four hundred and forty eight years, until Israel left Egypt, the Almighty would sit and make calculations and intercalate and sanctify the years and renew the months. When Israel left Egypt, He handed these [responsibilities] over to them, as it is written, 'And God spoke to Moses and Aaron saying' (Exodus 12:1) - What is the meaning of the word 'saying'? He said to them: From now onward they are given over to you: 'This month shall be to you, etc.'"

In other words, all of the Almighty's thoughts from the time of the creation of the world were focused upon Israel, and He was calculating the time when He would finally redeem them. After they were redeemed, He gave them the responsibility of calculating the time of their redemption. And clearly the intention is not that they were merely meant to calculate its arival, but that they should take real action to bring it about. "This month shall be to you, etc." - the word "month" (chodesh) in this verse can be read "renewal," i.e., "This renewal shall be to you." When a person is immersed in the natural world he does not understand its renewal, for "there is nothing new under the sun" (the solar year does not contain renewal; the word for year in Hebrew is "Shanah" which means repetition), but when a person considers "who has created these things" (Isaiah 40:26), when one considers what is beyond the sun, he discerns the fact that "God renews the act of creation on a daily basis," and is renewed each day together with the creation.

Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib of Gur), cites the Midrash (Bereshit Rabba [Vilna] 1) in order to explain how God renews creation: "The Torah declares: ‘I was the working tool of the Holy One, blessed be He.’ In human practice, when a mortal king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world."

The Midrash further teaches: "Rabbi Oshaya commenced [his exposition thus]: 'Then I was by Him, as a nursling (amon); and I was daily all delight' (Proverbs 8:30). 'Amon' means tutor." In other words, the Almighty delights in the Torah, He delights daily in the novel understandings of the Torah. It is these novel understanding that He consults when creating the universe anew each day.

Now these novel interpretations of the Torah are clearly not the doings of the Almighty. They are the doings of human beings who bear the responsibility of providing new, novel understandings of the Torah every day in accordance with the changing times. "Man's evil inclination grows stronger within him from day to day" (Sukkah 52a), and in response to this he must provide a new approach to Torah, and "each day they shall be as new in your eyes" (Rashi on Deuteronomy 26:16). By virtue of such innovation, "God renews the act of creation on a daily basis." However, the need to constantly create new ideas is also liable to be dangerous, for one might produce unworthy interpretations of the Torah. Just look at what happened to the greatest of the Torah innovators, Rabbi Eliezer ben Arakh, who was likened to "a spring that ever gathers force":

The Talmud (Shabbat 147b) tells us that he once went to visit a place with springs. He was attracted to them and in consequence his learning vanished. When he returned, he arose to read from the Torah scroll. He wished to read, "Hahodesh hazeh lakhem" [This month shall be to you], but instead he read "haharesh hayah libbam" [their hearts were silent] (each Hebrew word differs from the original by only one letter, but the meaning is changed completely), that is, his heart became like that of a deaf-mute, unable to perceive renewal. Why did this happen? And why to him, Rabbi Eliezer ben Arakh, of all people? We have noted that Rabbi Eliezer ben Arakh was like a spring that ever gathers force, producing countless novel Torah ideas. Just as a spring's waters are always new, so Rabbi Eliezer produced new understandings of the Torah each day. However, the more profound the innovation, the greater the risk that it depart from its sacred source. Thus, when he reached this place with springs (which symbolizes his own character), he merged with them and began innovating independently, detached from the pure source. The result was that his waters became turbid and his learning vanished.

We must learn from here just how greatly the power of innovation and renewal depends upon an attachment to the pure sources of the Torah. When a person gets caught up in the natural world of human endeavor, he is liable to reach a state of "haresh hayah libbam." By linking up with the pure source of the Torah, one merits continuous daily rejuvenation, one merits hearing the ticking of the clock, "my beloved is knocking" (Song of Songs 5:2), saying, "The time of the redemption of Israel has arrived!" (Zohar, Shemot 2, 46a).

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