Friday, March 16, 2007

Nissan (Months)

“This shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Exodus 12:2)

So much has been written about the month of the Nissan and the festival of Pesah that stands at its center that one wonders what is left to say. An old Kabbalistic tradition states that each month has its own special permutation of the four letters of the Divine Name—twelve in all. (Ordinarily, a four-letter word such as the Holy Name would have 24 permutations, but the repetition of the letter Heh divides that number in half.) The permutation of Nissan is that in which the Divine Name is read in its normal order: Yismehu Ha-shamayim Ve-tagel Ha-aretz. “Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad.” It is the month when everything is straight, in order, when all things fall into place—when the world is as it should be.

A Rabbinic midrash debates whether the world was created in Nissan or in Tishrei.

Tanya (a teaching of our Rabbis). Rabbi Eliezer said: In Tishrei the world was created; in Tishrei the patriarchs were born; in Tishrei the patriarchs died; on Passover Yitzhak was born; on Rosh Hashanah Sarah, Rahel and Hannah were visited [i.e., told that they would bear child]; on Rosh Hashanah Yosef was freed from prison; on Rosh Hashanah our forefather’s servitude in Egypt was nullified; in Nissan they were redeemed, in Tishrei they shall be redeemed in the future. Rabbi Yehoshua said: In Nissan the world was created; in Nissan the patriarchs were born; in Nissan the patriarchs died… [the middle section repeats the approach of R. Eliezer] … in Nissan they were redeemed, in Nissan they shall be redeemed in the future. (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a)

To the ordinary Jew, raised on the idea that Rosh Hashanah, in the early fall, commemorates the Creation (its liturgy even says so), this discussion is surprising. While Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua concur regarding the four events listed in the middle, they disagree on the most crucial events in human (sacred) history: the Creation; the birth and death of the founding fathers of the covenantal family/ people/ community who came into the world to disseminate knowledge of God throughout the world; and messianic redemption at the end of history. What are they really debating? Perhaps: does everything begin at the turning point from summer into winter, with the new cycle that begins start after the harvest, with the hidden germination of seed in the soil, with the nearly inert, invisible processes of winter; or does it begin with the budding and flowering of the field in springtime, in the visible manifestations of creative force? Or, to borrow an analogy from human life: does life begin with conception, the moment of impregnation in which the germ of life is planted, followed by the hidden process of pregnancy; or is it the moment of childbirth? The moment of union of the opposites of male and female, or the moment of separation of the infant from its mother, the moment of individuation, of distinctive identity? (The fourth section of Tanya, Iggeret ha-Kodesh, compares these two events to Simhat Torah and to the Seventh Day of Pesah).

(Note: The statement above that life begins at conception is meant on the symbolic, paradigmatic level, and as no bearing on such halakhic-ethical issues as abortion, stem-cell research, and the like. Unlike certain Christian views, halakhah sees the fetus as an autonomous human being only from forty days after conception, and in some views at the end of the first trimester; moreover, even after that, abortions may be permitted under certain extenuating circumstances far later.)

Alternatively, R. Yehoshua may be expressing the view that the Exodus from Egypt is so central, so crucial, not only to Jewish history, but to our whole conception of the world, of the nature of human life, of society, that it is somehow paradigmatic for Creation itself. Or perhaps, the two are one: Nissan, the time of visible rebirth, is at once the time of rebirth of nature, and the birth of the Jewish people. David Moss, in his magnificent Haggadah, has an opening page devoted entirely to the sense of the seed, the kernel, as that which is celebrated at the Seder: he attempts to capture the sense of beginning, of newness, of the people emerging from the darkness of slavery, which resembles the darkness of incubation in the womb, or of the seed silently growing deep within the soil.)

The Zodaicial sign for Nissan is Aries, the lamb—traditionally a symbol of innocence. The activity most emblematic of Nissan is siah, conversation—that activity which is characteristic of the Seder night which, unlike, say, the synagogue service, is not at root a liturgy, a text to be recited, but a time of discourse, of talking of many things, of questions and answers, both ritualized and spontaneous. And, if we say that Pesah is the time of formation, of the creation and birth of our people, then one might add: a people is ultimately constituted from families and clans and other units of people who stand in relationship to one another; and that the beginning of such relationship is through speech. Ergo, simple conversation, a family sitting down around the dinner table and talking, is the start of nationhood. (Sadly, how little real speech, face-to-face addressing of others, even if on mass media, there was in our recently completed election campaign.)

Turning to the Torah portions of Nissan: depending precisely how the calendar and the festival falls on a given year, and whether or not it is a leap year, the readings for Nissan are usually more-or-less those from the first half of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus); this year, we read Vayikra, Tzav, Shmini, plus Tazria-Metzora on the transitional Shabbat of Rosh Hodesh Iyyar. That is, those portions dealing with animal sacrifices and ritual purity.

Long ago, there was a tradition that small children began their study of Torah with the sacrifices, “that the pure may involve themselves with pure things.” But times have changed, and for many modern people this book is the most difficult and incomprehensible of all: whereas Genesis and Exodus recount the narratives of the Fathers and of the Exodus, Deuteronomy is moral exhortation and law, and even Bamidbar, the most disjointed and fragmented of the five books, is filled with interesting, if rather disillusioning and even dismaying stories of collective human frailty and weakness, one cannot help but ask: what has Vayikra, with its sacrifices and obsession with purity, to do with us?

Anthropologist Mary Douglas once wrote a strange little book, Leviticus as Literature, in which she draws a series of parallels between the sacrifice itself, the architecture of the Temple, and the human body. That is to say: Vayikra is all about archetypes; it is a kind of symbolic language that needs to be deciphered. The actions and categories and laws outlined therein are not meant to be taken at face value, as ways of magically appeasing God or as mysterious taboos, but as pointing beyond themselves. That generation which grew up during the first half of the twentieth century, for whom modern rationalism and science seemed destined to be the dominant intellectual and cultural stream, thought that religion was a lot of nonsense because it involved such arcane and, in themselves, seemingly pointless actions. They didn’t realize that the key to making sense of Leviticus is to see beyond it, to realize that it is a language that needs to be unlocked. Thus, even if one personally understands only some small portion of it, or not even that, what is important is the knowledge that it is a language to be learned, that has its own inner sense.

Douglas’s specific interpretation is of course but one example. Midrash, Kabbalah, Hasidism, the literature of ta’amei ha-miztvot are all filled with attempts to make sense of these rituals.


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