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Thoughts on Parashat HaChodesh

This week is one of the few occasions when we take three Torah scrolls out of the ark to read. We begin with the regular portion of the week from the book of Vayikra, Leviticus, the portion of Tazria. Because it is Rosh Chodesh, the new moon for the month of Nisan, we also read the passage from Bemidbar, Numbers, that speaks of the additional offerings brought in the tabernacle and the ancient Temple on Shabbat and on the New Moon. This section is read every month for Rosh Chodesh. However, this week also is the fourth of the special portions read at this season in preparation for the holidays of Purim and Pesach. It is Shabbat HaChodesh, a portion read either on the Sabbath prior to the new moon of Nisan or, when that new moon falls on Shabbat, as it does this year, it becomes a third reading from a third Torah scroll. This special reading comes from Sh’mot, the book of Exodus, and is the passage in which Moses is instructed about the establishment of a calendar and the preparations to be made for the Exodus from Egypt. Because Moses is told “Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim, this month for you shall be the first of the months,” the portion is known as “HaChodesh.” The rabbis established a general principle of “tadir v’eino tadir, tadir kodem,” “when you have something that is frequent and something that is less frequent, the more frequent one comes first.” Thus we read the weekly portion, then the monthly supplement, and then the annual special reading in that order. Similarly, since each of these readings comes with an associated prophetic portion, a haftarah, the rule is that the final Torah reading dictates which haftarah we read. Thus we will read from the book of Ezekiel, chapters 45 and 46, the haftarah assigned to Parashat HaChodesh, rather than the haftarah for Tazria from Kings or the haftarah for Rosh Chodesh from the end of Isaiah.

Last week we read the third of the special readings, Parashat Parah, in which we learned the laws of purification from contact with the dead. We suggested that these laws were relevant for people coming up to Jerusalem on pilgrimage to offer the Paschal Lamb in Temple times. To enter the Temple precincts and to offer any sacrifice, one needed to be ritually pure and thus the sages wanted to remind people who might not frequently engage in such activities, of the proper rules necessary in order to participate in this ritual. Of course, all of this became academic once the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, yet we continue to read this passage as a reminder that this indeed is a season for purification, not only the physical removal of chametz (leaven) from our homes, but the deeper purification of our lives from the spiritual chametz within. The haftarah last week recognized that distinction when it used the metaphor of the removal of our “hearts of stone” and their replacement with “hearts of flesh.” More than any ritual cleansing, the spiritual purification is an important component of our preparations for Pesach.

This week, we turn in this additional reading to the days just prior to the Exodus in which Moses receives what is the first of all the mitzvot given to the Jewish people, the establishment of a calendar. “This month shall be for you the first of your months.” The Jewish calendar after the Babylonian exile acquires the names of the months used by their former captors and the seventh month is taken from then on as the beginning of each new year, Rosh HaShanah. However, throughout the Torah and most of the biblical books, the months are numbered from the spring, the month in which the Israelites left Egypt and became a nation. It is most appropriate that the first commandment given to us was the commandment to sanctify time, to create a calendar. Up till then, the Israelite slaves’ time was not their own; the Israelites, as enslaved people, were subject to Egyptian time. But now, as a first step toward freedom, they are given a bit of control over time; it is theirs to utilize for good or for evil. While Shabbat is created by God and sanctified by Him from the days of Creation, the holidays are established by the rabbinic courts and their dates are set by human authority. God clearly tells Moses, “this month shall be for you the first of the months.” “For you” - you get to set the rules, to determine when the new moon has appeared and to proclaim the beginning of each month and the dates for the holidays. The Midrash pictures God Himself as subject to those decisions. Even the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah, when all people are to pass before God, is set by the rabbinic court and God is pictured in the Midrash as directing His angels to comply with the directives of the earthly court even when it differed from His calculations.

In this passage from Exodus, God instructs Moses on the procedure the people should follow in preparation for the departure from Egypt. At the same time, Moses is given instructions on how this day shall be commemorated in the future as the festival of Pesach (Passover) or Chag HaMatzot, the holiday of unleavened bread. On the tenth of the month the people are to set aside a lamb for each household and watch over it until the fourteenth of the month. On that day, it shall be slaughtered at twilight. Some of its blood is to be placed on the doorposts and the lintel of their homes and they are to roast this lamb in its entirety and consume it that night with matzah, and bitter herbs, maror. Very specific instructions are given as to its preparation and the burning of any leftovers. The people are to eat it hurriedly, dressed for travel and ready to depart. This offering is known as the Pesach, the Passover offering, sometimes referred to as the Paschal lamb.

God tells Moses that on that night He will strike down the firstborn of Egypt, man and beast, and mete out punishments to the gods of Egypt. The blood on the doorposts will be a sign for the people and, when God sees it, He will pass over their homes and spare their firstborn. Beyond this observance on the actual night of the Exodus, this day is established as a festival for all time to be observed for seven days. In particular, the Israelites are to eat Matzah on this holiday and remove all traces of leaven from their homes. It shall not be seen or found among them. The first day and the seventh day are to be holy convocations when no work may be done and throughout the seven days the prohibition of chametz, of leaven, remains in effect.

As I mentioned earlier, the haftarah is taken from the book of Ezekiel. As with the haftarah for Parashat Parah last week, we turn to the last chapters of this book in which the prophet describes a vision in which he is transported back to Jerusalem and given a tour of a future rebuilt Temple and details about the practices to be followed in it. These details were particularly troubling to our rabbis since they are not mentioned in the Torah and, in many instances, those practices that do appear in the Torah are at variance with the instructions given in the book of Ezekiel. The Talmud informs us that the entire book of Ezekiel was almost excluded from the biblical canon because of these discrepancies. We're told that it was only thanks to the diligent study of these problems by Chananiah ben Chizkiah that solutions were found to the discrepancies and the book of Ezekiel admitted to our scripture.

When we read our haftarah portion this week, we are told of a purification process that takes place on the first and seventh days of the month of Nisan, this month, in the rebuilt Temple. Such a purification rite is nowhere mentioned in the Torah. Rabbi Yosi suggests that what we have here is the description of a ceremony inaugurating the new Temple in the time of Ezra, similar to the special offerings (miluim) we read about last week for the inauguration of the Tabernacle in the desert in Moses's time. In this case, it is supposed to be an annual purification rite of the Temple each year at Nisan in preparation for the forthcoming holiday of Passover. Rabbi Nadav Berger writing about this phenomenon, suggests that we view this holiday as an annual season of purification. He points to the law in Numbers regarding a second Pesach observance for those who are not ritually pure on the 15th of Nisan. Such individuals are allowed to observe Pesach Sheni, a second Passover, in the middle of the next month of Iyar. He further notes that in the days of King Hezekiah, we read in Second Chronicles, of an unusual occasion after a major purification of the Temple, when so many people, including many kohanim, were in a state of impurity that they were forced to postpone Passover that year for everyone to the month of Iyar. The point is that purification is a major element of the holiday.

Another unusual aspect of the Ezekiel passage is the instruction to take some of the blood of the sacrificial offerings and place it not only on the altar, as is usual, but also on the doorposts of the Temple, both on the first and on the seventh days of the month. Berger notes that it is actually a bit unclear when Moses transmits the commandments to the Israelites later in the same chapter of Exodus, whether the placing of blood on the doorposts is to be done only for the Passover in Egypt or to be observed as well throughout the generations. The ruling of our sages, of course, is that that was only for the time of the Exodus and was not done after that time. The placing of blood in Ezekiel is designated as a means of atonement while the blood in Exodus was to be a sign for the “angel of death” to pass over their homes and spare the firstborn Israelites. Berger suggests that rituals can have more than one meaning and that even the placing of blood on the doorposts of the houses in Egypt can serve as a means of atonement for those eating the Pesach offering within.

Thus our haftarah is creating a new ritual of purification in preparation for Passover. It is in keeping with this notion that Jews throughout the ages have done much more than that which is required to remove the chametz from their homes. It is customary, even though we no longer have a Temple and we no longer observe the laws of tumah and taharah, impurity and purity, which fill volumes in rabbinic literature, nonetheless for people to replace the blood of purification used in the Temple with soap and other cleansing agents in our homes and have used Pesach as a good reason for a thorough spring cleaning. I recall a lecture some years ago about a group of Jews in India, who used to begin cleaning for Passover after Chanukah and even repainted their homes each year in preparation for the holiday. One can certainly take this to an extreme. So we each find a level of preparation and cleansing that works for us.

Translating Rabbi Berger’s article on the subject, he concludes, “This concept invites us to see our family Seder meal like a sacrifice in the Temple. This view has very important implications for understanding our Seder night: the Seder is not only a meeting point of people who long to be together and love one another; the human gathering of the Seder night is a holy gathering which invites a third party to it - God. We are reminded of the religious importance of the atmosphere of the home and the family, when we gather together in the holy presence of God.”

Pesach preparations can be quite onerous depending on the degree of effort expended, yet this annual preparation prior to the Seder meals adds a special level of purification to the holiday and once we have cleaned our kitchens and our homes, there is a sense of readiness to greet the holiday. Our special readings this Shabbat are a reminder that it is now time to begin our preparations for the holiday and to the degree that works for us we are to purify our homes for Pesach, removing the chametz, and in so doing to begin the process of sanctification spiritually as well.

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