I'd like to wish us all a happy new year. This is Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the first day of the first month of the Hebrew year.
Yes, I know we have other new years. There's Rosh Hashanah, which we associate with the birth of the world or the creation of humankind in the Book of Genesis. There is a new year all about counting cattle (don't ask) and a new year for the trees. But this day, today, the first of Nisan, is where our calendar starts, where our cycle of mo'adim, of festivals and observances, launches.
The special added bit of Torah that we read today, this bit from Chapter 12 of Exodus, explicitly commands that we make this day - today! - the first day of our ritual reckoning.
And that commandment, fittingly enough, is the first commandment we find in Torah. Before the famous Ten. Before anything about food or business or farming or sex. Yup, to start things off, we have a commandment about how to start things off. The wording goes like this:
הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָה
This month shall be for you the beginning of months;
it shall be the first month of the year for you. (Exod. 12:2)
The word chodesh, meaning "month", appears three times in this very short verse. Chodesh comes from the Hebrew root chadash meaning "new." How it came to mean a month is clear: it initially referred not to the month as a whole, but to the new moon that marked the month's arrival. And even though the word came to mean something about a phase of the moon or a cycle of so many days, it did not stop connoting something about newness.
This verse is saturated with the idea of newness. It conveys a new mitzvah, about noticing the new moon in a new year. For a people who had been enslaved, serving Pharaoh without hope, the very idea that there could be something new was new. The desire for something new was new.
This little verse marvelously announces in words — and implies by the very virtue of it being the first commandment — that something new is coming. Could it be? Yes it could. Something's coming, something good.
The verse in question is an even ten words long. Three of those words are some form of chodesh. Two of them are something related to rosh, meaning "head" or "beginning". There is one appearance of shanah, meaning "year," but coming from the root that means "change." There are two instances of lakhem, meaning "for you," (i.e. "for you, Children of Israel") and then there are two words that are more or less grammar. So all told, this pithy commandment is 30% about newness, 20% about beginnings, 10% about change and 20% about us.
Something new is coming and Torah goes on to give a very specific recipe for how to prepare for it.
On the 10th day every household is to take a lamb and do what? Not kill it. Just take it. Take it into the household, into their lives. This symbol of innocence. And then on the 14th of the month they are to slaughter it and paint its blood on the doorposts and the lintel. Because on that night blood will be drawn from every house in Egypt. The blood of the firstborn in the Egyptian households; of a lamb in ours.
But first we live with the lamb for four days. We get to know it as more than a commodity. We live with it long enough to know how alive it is. To sense its character. Its loneliness away from its mother. Its cuteness, in the way that all baby mammals are cute. On the eve of our departure we at last slaughter and consume this being with which we now have a relationship. And we let nothing of it remain - by morning it must be entirely gone - its flesh eaten by us, its bones burned to ash.
Torah specifies that on that 14th night, on that full moon night, we are to eat the lamb with bitter herbs and unleavened bread - sound familiar? And even while Torah later tells us we rushed out of Egypt so fast we couldn't let our bread rise, what we read in today's portion contradicts that. We had two weeks to prepare, at any point of which we could have made some good puffy pita. But despite that preparation time, it is matzah that we are commanded to eat that night, on that first Pesach. Not because there wasn't time, but because it communicated something different from just bread.
One more detail about that dinner, on the eve of our departure from slavery. At Pesach now, we eat reclining at the table to embody our freedom. But on that first Pesach we were instructed to eat the lamb while suited up, with our traveling shoes on and our walking sticks in hand. Perched in a posture of hurry. Enacting anticipation.
So maybe there's a spiritual lesson here, about newness and change. A lesson about how we prepare ourselves for freedom.
The ways in which we are enslaved, each of us, are often invisible to us. Our narrow-mindedness about who knows what, our blindspots - whether they are political, personal, religious, familial - these are so commonplace to us that we sometimes don't see them.
The Netivot Shalom, the Slonimer Rebbe, teaches that the nature of enslavement is such that we become so steeped in it that we stop having independent thought. We become unable to grasp our own enslavement. Limits on our movements and limits on our thoughts become unexceptional.
But breaking free, waking up, receiving the new, involves becoming aware of our enslavement and then, Torah suggests today, letting something go. Liberation means that some beloved idea, no matter how innocently arrived at, must be sacrificed. We each have ten days to identify it, and four days to pay close attention to it. Whatever it is. Something that we haven't examined yet, something that makes us afraid of change, unable to change. Something that we've realized doesn't serve us or others. Something that has kept us in slavery.
Over time each of us has had to do this again and again. The doorposts of our spirit are stained with the blood of all we've had to leave behind.
So what will we let go of this year to be free? What narrowness? What pain? What disappointment? What grudge? What habit? What thing that we do again and again hoping for a different outcome. What idea that deep down we knew was wrong but that still felt so comfortable? Take a moment now and think of what it could be. So soft and cuddly. But still. It needs to go.
We each have ten days to find it and choose it. And four days to appreciate it - its familiarity, its appeal. And then, this Erev Pesach we can let it go. We will let its release nourish us like a lamb on the spit; and let the matzah and maror remind us of the brittleness and bitterness that went along with it.
And once whatever it is is utterly gone, there we will be, boots on, staff in hand, poised to leave Egypt, heading toward freedom, and ready for the new.