Truth is stranger than fiction, people say, but the fuller version of the Twain runs something like “…because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Early on, Hashem taught the Jewish people that His world doesn’t limit itself to what we deem possible. The necessity of Jews’ accepting that we live in Hashem’s world, not the one we insist it is, crops up notably at this time of year.
This past Shabbat, we read Parashat HaChodesh, the section of the Torah that taught the Jews how to prepare and offer the Paschal sacrifice such that Hashem would spare their first-borns’ lives, and how this practice would continue for generations.
It was detailed, but would not have been strange or foreign, because sacrifice and rituals, many more outlandish than what Hashem was prescribing, were how people experienced religion. The surprising part of the section would likely have been Hashem’s telling Moshe and Aharon that that month had to be the start of the year for this new people. Chazal probably thought the non-Jewish start of the year was Rosh haShanah, when the world was created, while I found sources that say Egyptians used the annual flood of the Nile (in mid-July) as their New Year’s.
Either way, the commandment to make this the first month took two surprising stands, that Jews needed a different New Year, and that that was important enough to be the first commandment given the Jews as a people. Why?
The Calendar and Control of History
On Shmot 12;2, Ramban was troubled by the fact that we no longer call Nisan Month One—we do start the calendar there, it is the first month, but we now have names, which Yerushalmi Rosh HaShanah admits were of Babylonian origin, an apparent violation of this first commandment.
We could have claimed the names don’t matter as long as we count from Nisan. Or, we could have seen this as the Jews’ failing to keep the commandment properly (which might mean punctilious Jews would avoid using those names). Ramban instead justifies it.
For him, we were supposed to recognize the return from exile after the destruction of the first Temple in our calendar, as a fulfillment of Yirmiyahu’s twice saying (16;14-15 and 23;7-8) that when Hashem redeemed us, we would no longer swear in the Name of Hashem who took us out of Egypt but Who took us out and raised us up from the northern lands, Bavel.
Since prophets can’t change the Torah, he seems to be saying that the original commandment was that the calendar reflect our redemptions. The calendar isn’t just a way to mark time, it is an everyday reminder of Hashem’s continuing involvement in history. Reminding us that there is a purpose and plan, one we participate in furthering, but that is ultimately run by Hashem.
Neither of those ideas are easy to accept or absorb. And that’s not all.
Being a Jew in the desert would mean more surprises, commandments taking the Jews outside their accustomed frame of reference. One example we also read about this past Shabbat was sacrifices. Today, people struggle with the idea of it, but the generation of the desert would have had the opposite problem, coming to accept that God wanted only a narrow range of sacrifice.
That only certain types of sacrifices could be offered and, eventually, only in one place in the world, was so counterintuitive that throughout the First Temple it didn’t hold. The book of Melachim repeatedly praises kings, with the caveat that in their time the bamot, altars outside of the Temple, continued. It was the rarest king who strove to eradicate them, and the practice returned as soon as he was gone. Because, apparently, it was too tough a sell, this idea that sacrifice was only appropriate and/or acceptable in one place in the world.
The advent of Nisan brings to mind one more way this time of year requires us to reframe ourselves counterintuitively. We close our retelling of the Exodus tale at the Seder with the reminder that we are to see ourselves as if we left Egypt. When, physically, we obviously didn’t.
All that telling isn’t supposed to be telling, it’s supposed to be remembering, recalling what we went through. That’s a charade in that we don’t mean it literally, but it is a goal as well, that by the time we reach Hallel at the Seder, we sing with the joy of newly-freed slaves, celebrating the salvation Hashem had brought.
The Challenge of the Counterintuitive
When ideas are too new, they take root with difficulty, if at all. Moshe was presenting the people with ideas that were terribly new, maybe terrifyingly new. These were people who had become so intertwined with those around them that Chazal could imagine Egyptians and Jews being in each other’s homes on that first Seder night. The demand that they recast their view of history or sacrifice was beyond many of theirs’ capabilities to grasp.
We have to assume we would have failed at some of this ourselves, because the entire nation failed when the spies came back from scouting out Israel. The generation that left Egypt never absorbed the truth that Hashem can ensure victory, regardless of odds or other factors. Only the next generation, who grew up in that reality, could reap the rewards of accepting that truth.
It doesn’t have to be that way; past results need not predict future events. Every year, we have a chance to do it again, better. At our Seders, now officially less than two weeks away.
We Are Obligated To…
It’s not easy being different; it’s not even easy thinking differently. Just the challenge of hearing the date and saying, inside our heads, where no one else can hear, “oh, yes, I remember that Hashem took me out of Egypt, and then brought me up from Bavel, and will one day, soon I hope, bring me up from Yemen or Poland or Russia or France or England, and back to the Land where most Jews live, and that’s why our months have these names” just that, it’s not easy.
Attending a Seder is relatively easy; experiencing it as a reliving of the Exodus, saying Hallel at the Seder with the joy of one who just left centuries of slavery, that’s not easy.
To me, these three examples highlight what Hashem was showing us is the center of religion. It is many things, but it is, fundamentally, taking up the gauntlet Hashem throws down, telling us to think about the world this way instead of how we all decide to think about it. The first step in becoming servants of God is shaping ourselves and our view of the world, as Hashem told us.
Three good examples to start: our calendar, our sense of world history as guided not only by human endeavor but also by God; our forms of worship as being those Hashem commanded, with us doing that which feels a good way to express our desire for connection with Hashem only if it falls within the parameters Hashem legislated; and our Seder story, not only a nice story from history but an annual opportunity to relive what happened to us.
Without minimizing the difficulty, I propose that we’ll find ourselves better off for undertaking these challenges. I hope for all of us that we find the courage to do so, and offer my best wishes that this Pesach season be one where we do all that Hashem told us, coming out the other side renewed, reformed, reshaped, closer to the people Hashem wanted to take out of Egypt.