Table for Five: Bo
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.
– Ex. 12:1-2
Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, Congregation Bnai Torah
The Hebrew word for “Month” in this verse is “Chodesh” which actually means “Renewal”. This refers to the institution of the Jewish calendar which uses the New Moon to begin each month. All dates in Judaism are lunar dates.
Another word used in Biblical Hebrew for the lunar month is “Yareach” meaning Moon – e.g. the entire cycle of the moon which is the span of a month. Why is the emphasis here, as the Jewish people is being created with the Exodus -specifically on the “New Moon” rather than the month as a whole?
The Torah is teaching us that just as the month always begins with the renewal of the moon’s light after a period of its disappearance, so too Judaism always allows for a new beginning unencumbered by the burdens of the past. The Jewish people leave hundreds of years of degradation and slavery behind to reach Sinai and receive the Torah – the loftiest statement of human potential, in a mere 50 days!
This is possible through the power G-d gives us to be “New” – to find the light and power within to attain our ultimate potential notwithstanding how many attempts to do so have failed. The verse may be read as follows “This Renewal is yours” – the capacity to attain all you can in your Judaism belongs to you, right now, no matter your past. The Torah is eternal and this potential is there for all time, for all of us, at every stage of our lives.
Judy Gruen, Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith.”
We’ve all seen at least 100 variations of the call, “30 Days to a New You!” It is a truth universally acknowledged through self-help books, articles, and training programs that if you want to develop a new habit, retrain your brain to think differently, or make any other lasting change, doing it for thirty days usually hits the sweet spot.
Hebrew is psychologically insightful. The word “chodesh” means both “month” and “new,” suggesting that a new month (which not coincidentally is 30 days) is more than a calendar event. By emphasizing–twice–that “this month shall be *for you* the beginning of months,” God tells us that each time we see that sliver of a new moon, we have the opportunity for personal renewal.
As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes, “Each time the new moon appears, it shall remind you to affect your own free-willed renewal. And as I renew you, and you renew yourselves, you shall move, like the moon, through the darkened skies of the nations and, wherever you go, proclaim the message of “chidush” (renewal), the teaching of God, the free-willed Creator of all things, Who makes us free. Through Him alone can we become truly free in both body and soul.”
So, the next time you look up at the night sky and see that slim crescent of the new moon, ask yourself, what will you do with this new beginning?
Rabbi Eva Robbins, Co-rabbi Nvay Shalom, Faculty AJRCA
The Me’Or Eynaim, Chassidic commentator, points out that in the land of Egypt the Israelites had lost all awareness and connections to the Gd of their forefathers and therefore were incapable of making a choice of any kind. In the midst of this land, filled with idols and controlled by one man, Pharaoh, was where they needed to confront the beginning of change, the understanding that this would be the first of many moments in their life when they would have the opportunity to renew and restore themselves and their relationship with the Divine.
Our pasuk has three powerful words, Chodesh which means to make new, renewal, to restore, and the ‘moon;’ Rosh meaning head, a chief, and beginning, and Shanah, which means to change or be altered, be different, to shine brightly, as well as ‘year.’
Most simply we read, “This will be the first of months, the first month of the year.” Alternatively, let’s read it as “This renewal, for you, is a beginning of renewals; it will be to you the first (of many) restorations that will repeat (in your life).” It is a metaphor for a deeper meaning that in the most restricted and painful times of our life there will be opportunities for renewal and restoration. That in that moment of oppressive darkness that often surrounds us and fills our lives, we can expand our awareness and choose to bring in a bright light and connection with HaShem. That is the most liberating of moments.
Lt. (res) Yoni Troy, Counselor, Beit-Hatzayar School for at-risk youth
Although this verse seems disconnected from the general story’s sequence, it serves an important role.
Wars are particularly difficult psychologically, because they make so many feel so helpless. This extreme situation highlights how temporary life is: people die, buildings are destroyed, systems collapse. One particularly effective tool is to assert control wherever possible. In the army, the most routine discipline helps, from keeping your shirt tucked in to shining your shoes, as ridiculous as that sounds in the field. These simple tasks give soldiers a feeling of familiarity — and control.
In addition, we officers learned that one way to help soldiers overwhelmed by shellshock is to give them simple tasks – guard that area, go pass a message here.
In Bo, God does not give the people of Israel a temporary goal, like the Passover sacrifice, but a monthly goal to watch over the moon. This, ultimately, daily ritual, which never changes, would help the Jews reassert control – in Egypt, in the desert, and throughout so many other trying periods.
Even more important, this verse begins the process wherein G-d relinquishes his direct involvement and begins to give us responsibility. We start going from a world of total dependence on divine intervention into the more proactive world we live in today.
We no longer experience open miracles. Instead, we hold the responsibility for ourselves and our world. We have the choice to build the world and make it a better place or — G-d forbid – allow the opposite to happen.
Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Multi-faith Chaplain, Kaiser Medical Center, Panorama City
In the Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 2a, Nissan 1 is named as the new year for kings. Our verses herald not only a new month, they also portend a complete reset of history. Not just trading one king for another but a new beginning. Heretofore, the earthly king had been a Pharaoh in an Egyptian society and economy wrought by Joseph, where all wealth is extracted from the serfdom and all power concentrated in the palace. God lays the groundwork for a new order, new rules, new sacrifices, new leadership, and a path toward the birth of a new just and holy nation; Israel.
God consigns these tasks to his most loyal servants, Moshe and Aharon, and this is a substantial and profound point in our parsha. To sharpen that point, an 18th century Hasidic sage, the Maggid of Kozhnitz quotes Midrash Shemot Rabbah, offering a parable of a King who says to his son, “Until this point, I have been the keeper of all the wealth of my kingdom. From this point forward it is under your purview….” to do good. Contemplating our verses through this lens, God is entrusting “the keys” to his kingdom on earth to the people Israel, led by Moshe and Aharon. Visualize Hashem saying, “Not only am I ending the reign of this despot, I’m also not choosing a new earthly dictator. Instead, I am restarting history by giving them a communal task and furnishing them with two guiding counselors: a shepherd and a priest.”
With thanks to Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, Judy Gruen, Rabbi Eva Robbins, Lt. (res) Yoni Troy, and Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes
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