"This month shall be to you the head of the months"
The first commandment the children of Israel receive before they depart from Egypt, is to determine the date of the new moon each month. Only then are they given the revolutionary, provocative, no-turning-back commandments concerning the slaughter and eating of the pascal lamb. Why would such a seemingly mundane act of announcing the appearance of the new moon precede so dramatic an act as the Passover offering? Was it simply for technical reasons, or can it be said that, had the children of Israel not first been empowered to declare the new moon they never would have had the spiritual wherewithal to perform the korban pesach - the Passover offering? What was it about the new moon that made it an exile-breaker?
To attempt to answer this question we must first ask what is exile? Exile is being distant, even so distant that we are disconnected from the Creator of the world. On both a personal and a national level, when we find ourselves at such a distance from G-d, we find ourselves in exile. When we reconnect, we experience the geula - redemption. G-d created a vibrant world, a world which is constantly renewed, a world whose life force is being transmitted by G-d each and every moment. When an entire nation grows closed to this reality, when routine replaces renewal, and the numbness and monotony of every day being like the next, replaces the joy of being plugged into G-d's ever changing broadcast of spiritual energy, then that nation is in exile. But there is no vacuum, not even in exile, and when we exclude G-d from our consciousness, we quickly find ourselves in a state of slavery and servitude to the very routine and one dimensional reality that now surrounds us. The Egyptians weren't the cause of the Israelite bondage, they were merely the symptom.
Midrash tells us that the great majority of Bnei Yisrael - the children of Israel - refused to leave Egypt. This strikes us as astonishing. How is it possible that human beings can choose slavery over freedom? The desire for the familiar, the daily grind, the lack of challenge that comes from knowing that yesterday, today and tomorrow are all the same, regardless of my existence on this earth, creates a need, an addiction. We cling to slavery because it's all we know, it's all we dare to acknowledge.
G-d shook up everybody's reality, Hebrew and Egyptian alike, by delivering the first nine plagues. This was His way of making His presence known, even to the most obtuse and thick-skinned somnambulists of the Egyptian reality of idolatry, licentiousness and servitude. But in order to truly liberate Hs people from exile, G-d needed to do more. He needed to transform the children of Israel from idle spectators to fully active participants in the ongoing act of creation that defines our reality. And this He did by assigning to the nation of Israel the responsibility of determining the new moon. To the uninitiated outsider this may be perplexing. After all, the moon will rise regardless of whether we make note of it or not. But this is the very point itself: By taking up the awesome task of bearing witness to the renewal of the new moon, the renewal of G-d's creation, we discover ourselves on the cutting edge of G-d's revelation through the medium of time, and the constant transformation of His message to us. Only when Bnei Yisrael assumed this intimate and active partnership with G-d, did the preparation for the korban Pesach become relevant, let alone possible.
From a nation enslaved to the doldrum of routine, chained to the apathy and stagnation of the same-old same-old, G-d transformed us, blessing us with the exalted role of being His partner in the time, light and space dynamic in which we lead our lives, not merely to mark this reality, but through the fulfillment of His word, to perfect the world and ourselves along with it.
The children of Israel are leaving the spiritually suffocating exile behind, their final destination, and ours, being the ever changing, ever enlightening and ever responsive land of Israel, where the tedium of routine has no purchase, and where the Holy Temple, from which the light of renewal and redemption shines forth for all who seek a part in G-d's world, awaits us.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss the month of Shevat, traditionally a time for renewal, rectifying sins and receiving the wisdom of the Torah. Why is the “bucket” this month’s ruling constellation, and what do Shevat, the Torah portions of Va’era and Bo, the weeks of Shovevim, Moshe’s recitation of the last book of the Torah, and the mysteries of the last of the Ten Plagues all have in common? Rabbi Richman and Yitzchak Reuven also reflect on the scope of the terrible earthquake in Haiti, Israel’s role in the rescue operations and the larger issue of human suffering and G-d’s providence.