"We are closer to G-d when we are asking the questions, than when we think we have the answers" Heschel

Thursday, January 21, 2010

FNQ Parshat Hashavua – 5 questions and a thought

Parshat Bo – Time and the Power of Starting Over

1. Why is establishing a calender the first commandment we were given? (see below for more on this)
2. Why did G-d give us power over time when in reality time rules over us?
3. Do you view time as an impediment or an opportunity?
4. If you were given a chance to travel forward in time so that you would be finished with.. high school, college, being single, working or being unemployed would you accept the offer?
5. Do you spend more time doings things you define as meaningful or as trivial?

Why begin the system of Mitzvos for the Jewish Nation with the Mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon and the establishment of the Jewish calendrical system?

Before beginning to attempt to tackle this question, a caveat is in order. An endeavor to explain why the giving of one mitzvah over another would require an in depth understanding of the entirety of the all Mitzvot and all of the sources that address them. Due to the fact that this amount of knowledge is beyond this author answering the question of why Kiddush HaChodesh is the first mitzvah unequivocally, proves to be very difficult. We can, however, offer our best effort, besiyata deShemaya.

The fist step in answering this question leads us to another question (in the true spirit of Torah dialogue!) that has been a hot topic since the Torah was given. That is, what is the purpose of Mitzvos in general? Without a solid working answer to this question we can in no way attempt to answer why one should be first.

Two Midrashim give similar answers:

What difference does it make to God whether one slaughters from the front of the neck or the back of the neck? Rather the mitzvot were given in order to refine the creatures. (Bereishis Rabbah, 44:1)
Once the evil Tinneius Rufus asked R. Akiva, "Whose deeds are finer? Those of the Holy One, blessed be He, or those of flesh and blood?" He answered, "Of flesh and blood are finer." Tinneius Rufus said … "Why do you circumcise yourselves?" R. Akiva answered, "I knew you would ask me about this particular thing, therefore I prefaced my words by telling you that the deeds of flesh and blood are finer than those of the Holy One, blessed be He." Tinneius Rufus said to him, "If He wished males to be circumcised, why do they not come from the womb that way?" R. Akiva responded, "As for your argument, why males are not born circumcised, the answer is that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave commandments to the Jews for no other reason than to refine them by means of their observance." (Midrash Tanchuma, Tazria, 5)
The understanding of this concept alone, the Mitzvos as system for character refinement or letzaref bahem es habriyos, is itself a debate (see: http://vbm-torah.org/archive/ramban/09ramban.htm for more on the machlokes between the Rambam and the Ramban). However an explanation found in Sifrei Chassidus says as follows:

The essence of Mitzvos is to purify, cleanse and reveal “The True Jew”. To what is this likened? To a gardener who must do the following in his rose garden: he must plow, plant, weed out unwanted growth and water the saplings. The end goal of this entire process is to cause the rose to sprout. And if he does all of this and the rose has not sprouted, than he has achieved nothing. So too, the purpose [of the Mitzvos] is to reveal “The True Jew”. (Sefer Derech HaMelech, Parshas Toldos, pg. 24)

It follows from this approach that Mitzvos are meant to guide a Jew in his process of revealing his true essence. The system of Mitzvos is our path towards perfect refinement of character and uncovering of the essential pure identity.
Why is such a system necessary? The reality of existence since the sin of Adam Harishon and the ensuing expulsion from a perfect world is that we are often tricked and confused regarding who we are. Challenges, inclinations, negative internal and external influences and falsity all team up to cause us to forget that we are attempting to sprout forth the roses from within us. Laziness causes us to not plow, hopelessness causes us to not plant and deception causes us to not weed. Time and time again we are knocked off the course or even pushed backwards in our journey towards complete refinement and revelation of the perfect rose that is within us.
What then would be the perfect beginning of a systematic process to achieve this goal? Perhaps there is no better place to begin from than the simple push of inspiration, “you can and must begin again!!!” For the gardener who has watched a season of failed crops what will push him to plant the next season? And perhaps much more difficult, for the Jew who has covered up his pure essence and has become more distanced from it what will push him to try to reveal it? All hope seems lost. No commandment seems more fitting that the inspirational words of, “YOU MUST BEGIN ANEW”.
The first Gerer Rebbe, in his sefer Chiddushei Harim (pg. 91) , quotes e a teaching of the Chozeh of Lublin based on the following gemara:

…R' Elazar ben Arach came to that region, he became attracted to their worldly delights and his Torah knowledge became erased, when he returned he got up to read from the Torah scroll, he had wanted to read 'hachodesh hazeh lachem - this month shall be for you', instead he said 'hacheresh haya libam - was their heart silent?', the sages beseeched Hashem to have mercy upon him and his Torah knowledge returned" (Shabbos 147b).

The Chozeh said, “even though on the surface it seems that their hearts were silent, nevertheless this renewal is for you, meaning that one can experience a renewal enter into his heart and completely push away all spiritual silence and dullness”.

The Ibn Ezra teaches on this pasuk:

…The year is totally based only on the cycle of the sun. It is the body which produces cold, hot, summer and winter, the four seasons…it is, in essence, the year. It seems that the moon has nothing whatsoever to do with the cycle of the year but at the same time the sun has nothing to do with the months. For through the sun nothing has renewal, chodesh, renewal only comes through the moon. This is why the moon is referred to as chodesh, for the renewal of the months…

The moon represents the capacity for renewal. It represents Klal Yisrael and inspires us to start anew even in the midst of the never ending cycle of the year. It takes great courage and inspiration to begin anew as the inertia of life's frivolities pushes us forward whether we like it or not.
If Mitzvos are the outline of how we are meant to achieve character refinement and to reveal our perfect essences, than the best place to begin from is the command that you must start the process, no matter how far you have fallen from this sublime goal.
Again, I cannot claim to have a perfect answer as to why HaChodesh haze lachem should be first without a doubt. However in a world which pushes us in every direction except for that of towards purity and refinement, the most fitting beginning is the push to go in that direction. Shenizkeh.

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