Monday, April 06, 2015

Omer 5775. Day 3. Nissan: A 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 (Ex 12:1) the first month of the Jewish calendar is Nissan, in the Spring; it is the "first of months". 

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 is the New Year of the individual; Nissan the birth of the nation. But this will not suffice. 

This is not an 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 of what the next year will bring; No wonder that we engage in soul-searching, repentance, and prayers for a good year.

But what of Rabbi Yehoshua? The spring is also a natural point of creation. After the dormancy of winter, nature wakes up. We feel as if we are experiencing a new Eden-like creation as dead branches come alive with new flowers and nature renews itself, the winter rains having cleansed the world. Now creation starts again! It is a time of renewal, joy, rebirth (eg. see Sir Hashirim.) 

And it would seem evident that many of the rituals and traditions of Pesach recall the temperament 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.)

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.

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."

At the Seder, just as at Neilah, we close with "לשנה הבאה בירושלים - Next year in Jerusalem!"

There is a palpable sense that behind Pesach is indeed an alternative "Rosh Hashanna". 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 recalibration as we enter the summer months.

So let us use this opportunity of Pesach to allow 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.

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