By Shlomo Riskin
‘May the renewal of the moon be for you [the Festival of] the first day of each month; this month being for you the first of the months of the year’ (Exodus 12:2)
This interpretation of the verse, cited by Rashi and chosen by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch as the primary translation of the text, renders each phrase of the verse another lesson bound up with the Exodus from Egypt. We must mark the Festival of the New Moon, and Nisan is to be counted as the first of the months of the year.
I understand why Nisan was chosen as the first month; it is the month in which Israel became a free nation; but what has the renewal of the moon to do with the exodus from Egypt? And why is this Festival of the New Moon the very first of God’s commandments to the Israelites? The answer, and the most profound reason that we celebrate the Festival of the New Moon each month, harks back to the special Name of God identified with the book of Exodus, which points toward the realization of redemption. The ineffable Name Y-H-V-H (Exodus 6:1-3) is closely related to the name Ehyeh asher ehyeh, which God revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:13-15). Generally, it is translated “I am that I am” or “I am whatever is, the source for the animation of all life.” It is more correctly translated “I will be what I will be.”
The first translation emanates from Maimonides (at the beginning of his Mishne Torah), and is closely allied to Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” and Tillich’s “ground of all being.” The second emanates from Yehuda Halevi (The Kuzari) and is more closely allied to the plain meaning of the biblical text (“I will be what I will be”).
The first is the God of Aristotelian “being,” the God of Creation; the second is the God of Platonic “becoming,” the God of history and of redemption.
The God of Creation exudes power and establishes limits (El Shaddai); He operates alone, within a specific period of time (the seven primordial days of creation). The God of history exudes patience and only guarantees a successful end-game of redemption and world peace; during usual world-time. He
operates with partners – human beings, especially the heirs to the Abrahamic covenant – for whom He must wait and with whom He must be patient until they truly wish to be redeemed, until they are worthy of being redeemed.
Hence, the God of Creation and “let there be light” evokes certitude and precision, whereas the God of Redemption, “I will be what I will be,” evokes open-endededness.
Such is always the case when one takes on independent partners with freedom of choice to whom one grants empowerment. And God has chosen Israel to teach and ultimately lead the world to adopt ethical monotheism and realize redemption because He believes in us and in humanity. However, unlike the seven specific and successful acts of creation, redemption is fraught with advances and setbacks, successes and failures, progression and retrogression.
That is the major distinction between creation and history; the laws of nature are basically unchanging, whereas history – “his story,” our story, not only God’s story – is dependent on human input and is therefore subject to change.’ This change is positive and salutary. God created a functioning world, but one that is incomplete and therefore imperfect.
Conventional wisdom would have it that just as the laws of physics seem to be unchanging, so the social structures of totalitarian empires are unchanging and so human nature is unchanging.
The sun-god Ra – identified with Aries the ram (lamb) – is the zodiac sign of the spring month of Nisan. Indeed, the sun, from the perspective of people on earth, also seems unchanging. Enter the Hebrews with their celebration of the renewal of the moon each month; sanctifying the changing moon over the static Egyptian sun. The Hebrew nation was formed out of the cataclysmic change that overthrew Egypt’s slave society, the change that forced Egyptian power to bow before biblical concepts of human equality and freedom. Hence the Jewish people fight for change, glory in change and even sanctify change. But change wrought by human faith and action demands human responsibility.
It is with this sense of responsibility that we must approach the miraculous change of our status as a nation state after close to 2,000 years of being dependent on host nations.
Now we must believe in ourselves as God’s full partners; we must resuscitate the vision of the prophets who insisted that our leaders and populace must be righteous and moral. We must promulgate laws that express human equality, especially in terms of women’s rights and minority rights. If we expect to be respected; we must recognize the sea of change that has overtaken much of the leadership of the Christian world and warmly clasp the hand of friendship they are proffering.
National commitments (such as service in the IDF) must be taken into the account alongside of religious commitments for those Israelis wishing to convert.
Clearly, we have a long way to go. But if we change, we will not only survive; we will prevail.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.