Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Bo (Rashi)

“Like This shall you See and Sanctify”

Rashi begins his Commentary to the Torah at Gen 1:1 with the remark that the Torah really should have begun with “This month shall be the first of your months,” which is the first actual mitzvah. Now that Bo and the passage in question have in fact rolled around, it’s seems fitting to begin by focusing on that verse:

12:2. “This month shall be for you the head of the months; it is the first of the months of the year for you.” Rashi: He showed him the moon as it was renewed, and said to him: “When the moon is renewed, you shall have the New Moon.” And Scripture does not depart from its literal meaning; regarding the month of Nissan He said to him: “This shall be the starting point [lit., “head”] for the order of counting the months, such that the month of Iyyar is called the second [month], Sivan the third, [and so on]

This seemingly simple verse in fact yields four separate ideas or units in Rashi’s discussion. The first two deal with the meaning of the verse as a whole, from which Rashi in fact derives two distinct concepts: that of the lunar-based calendar, with the New Moon as a special day with a distinct character, if only as the point on which the month starts and from which its days are counted; and, thereafter, the order of the months within the lunar year.

One of the important things that I find Rashi does in his commentary is to force the reader to look at the text more closely, helping him to see things that he would be unlikely to notice on a casual reading. In this case, his comments emphasize that this verse is in fact saying two quite separate things: that the time when the new moon first becomes visible is the beginning of the month, and that Nissan is the first among the months per se. By referring davka to the second of these two meanings as the “literal meaning” (peshuto shel mikra), he makes one ask: how does one derive the idea of the new moon as the start of the month from this verse? Moreover, the halakhic tradition infers from this verse the commandment of kiddush ha-hodesh, of formally proclaiming or “sanctifying” the new month (even learning the necessity for witnesses and for a Court from the fact that it is addressed to Moses and Aaron together).

How does one infer all these things from less than a dozen words? (The following is my own speculation.) Firstly, it seems to me that, without some double meaning, this verse really would be redundant, the second half simply repeating or rephrasing what is already said in the first half, in different words; hence, following the accepted exegetical axiom that the Torah does not repeat itself unnecessarily, the two phrases must imply different things. Secondly, there is a certain ambiguity in the word חודש (hodesh) itself: it can mean “month,” as a unit of time, or it can refer to “New Moon,” as a single day. Indeed, the latter is sometimes referred to in the Bible as ראש חודש, as in Num 28:11, and in later usage by the Sages, in the Siddur, etc.; but in other places, as in the story of David absenting himself from Saul’s Rosh Hodesh table, or the Shunemite woman going to Elisha even though it was “neither Sabbath nor New Moon,” or in the prophetic declaration that “your new moons and festivals are hateful to Me”: or “every month and every Sabbath all flesh shall come to bow down before Me” (I Sam 20:18, 25, etc.; 2 Kgs 4:23; Isa 1:14; 66:23), the word חודש is used without any further elaboration. And indeed, the root meaning of this word, “new,” is suggestive of the new moon, of the point of renewal, more so than it is of an entire period of time.

As for the second point—namely, that the month of Nissan, specifically, is the first of the months of the year—this is theologically significant. It is announcing a new scheme of time: heretofore (assuming the universe was created in Tishrei—itself a point subject to some dispute; see Rosh Hashana 10b-11a, and see our discussion in HY VII: Nissan) the year had presumably begun in the fall, on the date we know as Rosh Hashanah; now, with the Redemption from Egypt, that date is to be perpetually marked as the starting point for everything. We have here a reordering of priorities: from natural, cosmic time centered around God the Creator, we have instead historical, redemptive time, centered about God’s intervention in human history, with the Exodus as the archetypal event (but compare Jer 16:14-15, where the future redemption from captivity in “the lands of the north” will replace that). These concepts are close to those propounded by Rabbi Soloveitchik in his essay Uvikashtem mesham, in which he draws a typology of two basic kinds of religious experience: the “natural” experience, i.e., the universal human experience of God as present in nature or in natural law; and the “revelational” experience, the unique, intimate, Jewish covenantal experience.

Today, many people seem to be attracted to a third model: a kind of personalist religion, with an emphasis on the individual and his subjective experience. This, among other things, is part of the attraction of Hasidic texts for some New Age Jews: it always asks, “How is this applicable to every person and in every place and time?” (the perennial question of the rabbi of Polonnoye), and has a strong focus on the individual consciousness (see, e.g. Sefat Emet on Vaera, 5634, s.v. vehotzeti, where he states that the ultimate purpose of the Exodus was that each person “know that I am the Lord”).

“This.” Moses had difficulty comprehending what was meant by the “birth” [molad] of the moon: what size must it be so as to be fit to be sanctified? So God pointed with His finger at the moon in the sky and said, “Like this shall you see and sanctify.”

And how could He show it to him? For He did not speak with him except during the daytime, as is said, “And it was, on the day that God spoke…” (Exod 7:28), “on the day that I commanded the children of Israel” (Lev 7:38), “from the day that God commanded and thereafter” (Num 15:23). Rather, close to sundown this passage was told to him, and He showed it to him after it was dark.

The word “this,” which is the focus of these two sections, suggests pointing something out in a concrete way, as with one’s finger. The basic idea is that “One picture is worth a thousand words”—which God, as the Master Pedagogue, surely understood. (Tradition mentions several other cases where God showed Moses what He meant: e.g., the shape of the menorah; the shekel coin.)

But then Rashi raises a strange problem: that God only spoke with Moses during the daylight hours (How does he know this? Is it only because of the verses that he cites?) He then finds a truly elegant solution to this difficult: since the new moon is only visible at night (because it is so slender, and so close to the position of the sun at that time, and is thus only visible during a very brief period after sundown, before it also sets), God must have spoken during the daytime, and pointed out the moon to him a few minutes later, during the twilight period. What interests me is: Why was it important for Rashi to emphasize that Moses only spoke with God during day? For this, I suggest turning to a concept articulated by Rambam, based upon abundant statements of Hazal, and on the Torah’s own statement in Num 12:6-8, that Moses’ prophecy was qualitatively different from that of all other prophets (I wrote about this in HY I: Shavuot; see Yad, Yesodei ha-Torah 8; Hakdamah le-Perek Helek, §7; and Guide II.35). One of the central points is that all other prophets saw their visions in a dream or dream-like state, at night. As if to enhance the intensity and clarity of Moses’ prophecy, Rashi emphasizes here that Moses spoke with God during the daytime, specifically (even on Mount Sinai, during the forty days and nights he received the law from God by day and reviewed it at night)—to such an extent that, on the one occasion when God needed to show him something that was part of the nocturnal sky, the speech itself took place by day!


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