Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
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PARSHAT SHEMINIVayikra (Leviticus) 9:1 - 11:47
SHABBAT HACHODESHShemot (Exodus) 12:1-20
Haftorah - Ezekiel 45:16-46:18
The Shabbat before the new month of Nisan is called Shabbat Hachodesh (the Shabbat [of the Mitzvah] of the New Month), therefore again this Shabbat, we remove two Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) from the Ark. From the first we read seven Aliyot from Parshat Shemini, and the final Aliyah (Maftir), we read from the second scroll, from the book of Shemot (Exodus) 12:1-20. The reading of this particular Maftir and Haftorah were instituted for this time of the year so that Jews would remember that with the approach of the first of the months, preparations for the Passover pilgrimage to the Temple had to be made.
Shabbat Hachodesh was instituted by our sages to remind Jews throughout the ages that the first Mitzvah given to the Jewish people was the Mitzvah: "Hachodesh Hazeh Lachem Rosh Chodashim (this month shall be for you the first of the months)." Shemot 12:2 The new month could only be declared by a Beit Din (rabbinical court) after hearing the testimony of two witnesses.
By virtue of this commandment and this process, Hashem gave Jews mastery over time; the calendar and all of its cycles could only exist when the Sages of Israel "declared" the new moon. Not only does this signify "time control," but it also signifies the potential for renewal. Just as the moon waxes and wanes, so too does Israel go through stages of light and darkness with the constant knowledge that there IS light at the end of the tunnel.
There is a wonderful story in the Talmud (tractate) of Gittin (47a): Resh Lakish, one of the great rabbis of his generation was somehow enslaved and forced to become a gladiator. He was informed that on the last day before combat they grant any request the gladiator may make, to sweeten his blood. Resh Lakish devised a scheme whereby he was able to kill his captors and escape. Interestingly, Rashi's commentary on the story deals with the phrase "...on the last day before combat they grant any request the gladiator may make, to sweeten his blood...", Rashi comments: "to sweeten his blood - in order to remove the guilt of death from the executioners".
Why is it that in every culture, prior to an execution, the prisoner is granted one last wish? Whether it is a favorite food, or a last cigarette, whatever the wish, it is granted. Rashi tells us that even executioners and gladiators feel guilt, and in order to remove the "stain" of taking a person's life, they "sweeten the blood," the executioners give that person satisfaction by granting his final request.
When I learned this passage while studying in Israel, my teacher pulled a plate with a peeled orange together with an Uzi sub-machine gun from his desk and asked each one of us to eat an orange wedge as if we were to be killed in the next few moments. Playing along with my Rebbi's game, we made the blessing, with great Kavanah (intention); "...Blessed are You Hashem, our G-d, Master of the universe, who has created the fruit of the tree..." (I only wish that half the Brachot (blessings) that I regularly say, would have that same intensity of Kavanah). Before I even put the fruit in my mouth I smelled its strong citrus aroma. The orange tasted very sweet as it trickled down my throat.
These wonderful sensations are always there, but it took the simulation of a mock execution to stimulate the delight of a plain orange. As Jews, we are required to enjoy the pleasures of this world. If we truly enjoyed even one single pleasure to its fullest, we could experience a taste of Gan (the garden of) Eden.
The same is true with time. We work 48 weeks of the year in order to have four uninterrupted weeks of quiet and relaxation. Yet our vacations are so full of the frustrating pursuit of amusement that we often need a vacation after our vacation!
The Mitzvah of Hachodesh reminds us that when the Sanhedrin sat, the new month could not be declared solely on astrological calculations, but needed human observance. Pesach (Passover), Shavu'ot (Pentecost), Sukkot (Tabernacles), and the High Holidays, were declared only after witnesses came to the Sanhedrin. Today, with the Temple destroyed and the Sanhedrin no longer functioning, all of our months, years and holidays are declared by virtue of astrological calculations set forth by Hillel II, 2,000 years ago.
It is interesting to note that following the Greek conquest of Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), three observances of the Jewish people were forbidden:
2. Sabbath observance, and
3. The sanctification of the New Moon. Our enemies always understood that these three observances, all time related (circumcision on the 8th day, Sabbath observance on the 7th day), were fundamental to the existence of Israel as an nation. Forbidding these three Mitzvot led to the revolt of the Chashmona'im and the victory of Chanukah.
The Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan zt"l (of blessed memory) was once raising funds for the publication of his monumental work the Mishna Brurah, and had an appointment with a wealthy industrialist. The Chafetz Chaim greeted him and began to speak of the need for his updated code. The industrialist interrupted him and said, "get to the point, time is money." The Chafetz Chaim responded, "you're wrong, money is time."
So often, the pursuit of "making a living" becomes the purpose of our lives. We forget that making a living is the MEANS to the end. Shabbat Hachodesh reminds us that the mastery over time that Hashem has given us can be accentuated by bringing into our lives the sanctity and intent of all time related events. We must experience Pesach, the holiday of redemption in such a way that we, too, are redeemed. The Haggadah says; "B'chol Dor Vador, Chayiv Adam Liroht Et Atzmo K'eelu Hu Yatzah Mimitzrayim (in every generation it is one's duty to regard himself as though he PERSONALLY had gone out from Egypt)." The same is true of the holiday of Shavu'ot, when WE too must receive the Torah, and also the holiday of Sukkot, when WE must experience and acknowledge Hashem's many blessings.
In marking Shabbat Hachodesh in our calendars, we are not only reminded of the coming Passover season, we are reminded that it is within our power to sanctify and become sanctified by becoming closer to Hashem.
We have the power, through our blessings, to connect to Hashem. The RAMBAM (Maimonides), in the Laws of Blessings (1:1) writes: "It is a positive Torah commandment to recite a blessing after eating a meal (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 8:10)...The sages decreed that one should recite a blessing over every food and only then partake of it...They also decreed that one must recite a blessing after all eating and drinking... Thus, all blessings can be divided into three categories: blessings of pleasure; blessings of Mitzvot; and blessings of... praise, thanksgiving, and supplication, so that one be ever cognizant of his Creator and be in awe of Him."
Our divine gift of speech gives us the ability to sanctify and bring into reality both objective and subjective principles. Time, holidays and historical events can be observed in both word and deed. By blessing the New Moon and establishing a calendar we are connecting the past to the present.
Just as the new moon starts off small and gets visibly stronger each night, then slowly wanes only to renew itself again, so, too, does Israel have its cycles. It is one of the manifestations of our longevity and vitality.
May we all experience the mastery of time through the consecrations of the Passover season. May we all observe the historical aspects of our calendar and celebrate the renewal that it brings us individually and collectively. And may we all bless Hashem for the great bounty He provides for us and in the process, may we become blessed.
Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
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