The Month of Nissan. Happy New Year!
When is the start of the Jewish year? Judaism has two days which constitute the New Year. On the one hand, we commemorate Rosh Hashanna in Tishrei, at the end of the summer. But as we read in Parashat Hachodesh (Ex 12:1) החודש הזה לכם ראש חדשים ראשון הוא לכם מחודשי השנה - the first month of the Jewish calendar is Nissan, in the Spring; it is the "first of months".
This year, I have been overwhelmed by the power of Nissan as the advent of a New Year. Let me simply list the numerous ways in which this is manifest:
1. The Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashana (10b) records a disagreement:
Rabbi Eliezer suggests that the world was created in the month of Tishrei (September) whereas Rabbi Yehoshua proposes that creation happened in the month of Nissan (April).
At first glance, we may propose that Rosh Hashanna (Tishrei) is the New Year of the individual; Nissan the birth of the nation. But this will not suffice.
This is not a mere arbitrary debate; both Spring and Autumn are nature's nexus-points, spaced six months apart.
In Tishrei, the agricultural year comes to an end; the grain and fruit have all been harvested, and the farmer awaits the rains to plant the next year's crop. It is a natural period of assessment and making account of the past year. It is a time of anxiety as to what the next year will bring - rain or drought, blight or bounty? No wonder that it lends itself to an atmosphere of soul-searching, repentance, and prayers for a good year.
But what of Rabbi Yehoshua? The spring is also a natural intersection in the natural order. There is a feeling of re-creation. After the dormancy of winter, nature wakes up. We sense a Eden-like renewal as dead branches come alive with new flowers, and nature rejuvenates itself after the winter rains having cleansed the world. Now creation starts again! It is a time of flowering, joy, rebirth (eg. see Shir Hashirim.)
In fact, one halakhic practice reflects the view that Nissan is the month of creation; that is Birkhat Hachama – the blessing for the Sun – recited every 28 years. It is always recited in Nissan reflecting the view that Nissan is not merely the month of the start of Jewish history, but also the month of Creation.
2. It would seem evident that many of the rituals and traditions of Pesach recall the atmosphere and mindset of the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe):
The purging of Hametz is akin to the purging of evil from our lives. Hametz has been compared to idolatry, the evil inclination, pride, and much else. As we search, dispose of and burn the Hametz, we are clearing out the extraneous from our homes, the areas of life in which the metaphoric dough has risen beyond our control. (see for instance, the kabbalistic prayer to be recited after the burning of the Hametz, printed in many haggadot.)
3. The eve of Pesach is a fast-day - "the Fast of the Firstborn"! This strange tradition, with obscure origin, views the night of Passover as an auspicious time of "who will live and who will die" assuming that even today, years after the Exodus, the firstborn are in some manner "saved" annually from the destruction of the plague of the Firstborn, and need to recognize their salvation.
4. On the first day of Pesach, a festive rather than a sombre day, the Hazzan dons a kittel (white robe) and prays for dew, invoking the Rosh Hashanna-Yom Kippur liturgy, as the community turn to God: לחיים ולא למוות - "For Life and not for Death."
5. Just as Yom Kippur is a moment of revelation, similarly, the night of the Seder is replete with the sense that God’s presence was manifest in ancient Egypt, and that “In Nissan we were redeemed, in Nissan Israel will be redeemed in the future” – the potential for revelation is still present. This is reflected in the proclamation at the Seder, just as at Neilah, of "לשנה הבאה בירושלים - Next year in Jerusalem!"
6. We traditionally see Yom Kippur as a day of purity. But in ancient Temple times, the only annual obligatory sacrifice was the Paschal Lamb. In order to eat it, Israel had to purify themselves. Hence, Pesach and not Yom Kippur became the day upon which all Israel united in ritual purity. (Or should we say that on Yom Kippur God purifies us, but in Pesach we purify ourselves?)
7. If Elul and Tishrei are moments of communion with God, Nissan also bears this imprint. The Tabernacle's dedication in the wilderness was on the 1st day Nissan (Ex 40:1,17) and continued for 12 days. Indeed the first of Nissan saw a spectacle of divine revelation as fire descended from heaven (see Ex 40 34-35; Lev 9:4, 24). Due to this ancient Mishkan inauguration, we skip Tachanun throughout Nissan. Because the majority of the month was a time of joy.
So where does this leave us?
There is a palpable sense that behind Pesach is an alternative "Rosh Hashanna", a period in which the potential for an encounter with God is in the air.
As the seasons turn we get a new lease on life, a new chance to burn our "Hametz”, to get back to the basics - flour and water, the simplicity of matza - an opportunity for reassessment and re-calibration as we enter the summer months. The freshness of Nissan, in the spirit of Shir Hashirim, allows us to be aroused with love of God.
Tishrei are Days of Awe. They signify the close of the agricultural season, a period of reflection, assessment, stock-taking a New Year of יראה.
But possibly Nissan, that “other” Rosh Hashannah represents the start of a new season, new beginnings, new flowerings, a New Year of love – אהבת ה', of potential and opportunities that lie ahead.
Pesach then, allows ourselves to renew our lives, to eradicate our unwanted behaviour, to cleanse our lifestyles of extraneous and extravagant " hametz". This is a moment with potency for rebirth. Let us live up to the moment!
Chag Kasher VeSameach!