Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the whole thing is to have no fear at all.” Rabbi Nachman’s teaching reminds us that we are bound by time, the infinite that preceded our birth identical to that which will greet us on our death. In this narrow bridge of our world we are impelled to make meaning in our lives, and knowing that our experience in these bodies is so finitely limited, one way we do so is by making meaning in time. Judaism excels in creating meaning in time. We choose counter-intuitively to begin our days with the sun’s setting; we then count seven days to create a unit of time known as the week. We fashion Shabbat that one precious day in seven to stop and re-soul, remembering that each of us has a spark of infinite being and that each of us has the right to freedom. While the seven-day week is a product of the human imagination, marking time by the natural month also has significance.
Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the 19th century Hasidic Torah scholar and commentator known as the Sfat Emet, has taught, “Why does Israel count by the moon, with each month starting when the moon emerges? Because the moon, unlike the sun, waxes and wanes, nearly disappears and then grows bright again. So the Jewish people go through cycles of prosperity and suffering, knowing that even in darkness there are brighter days ahead.” The 19th century modern orthodox rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, has added, “God shows Moses the sliver of the new moon as a symbol of Israel’s capacity for constant renewal.” (Quoted in Etz Chayim Torah Commentary on Exodus 12:2). Each moon month gives us the opportunity to think, both as individuals and as a people, of the waxing and waning of our life. If we think of ourselves within the context of a single moon, we are reminded of our birth and our death, our growing strength and diminution in between. As Jews, we know that even though we come and go as individuals, we are part of an ancient people who have been here for many moons and will be here for many moons to come. Each moon has its significance within an annual cycle, its deeper meaning connecting us to the past and encouraging us in the present to shape the future.
The month of Nisan is most significant in our people’s consciousness, indicated by this week’s Torah portion, which commands us to begin the counting of our months with the moon of Aviv, known to us now as the month of Nisan. “God spoke to Moses and Aaron in the Land of Egypt: ‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.’” (Exodus 12:1–2). It is in this month, as the moon grows in strength that we are commanded to take a lamb, holding on to it until the evening of the 15th; with the full moon, we slaughter it and place its blood on the lintels of our doorposts, the first Pesach. As the first of our months, Nisan teaches us the centrality of the Exodus for our people’s consciousness.
Many Jews, no longer as literate in our tradition, assume that just because our year begins in Tishrei, so too the counting of our months. Rather, Tishrei is our seventh month – and with the commemoration of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah – is special like Shabbat. Similarly, just as the first day of creation symbolises the mystical moment in which time and space begins, Nisan is the in which we as a people begin our journey in time and space. “Yetziat Mitzraim”, leaving the servitude in Egypt to engage in service to God makes us who we are. Over and over, Moses has given Pharoah God’s message: “Let my people go that they may serve me.” Throughout the Torah we are reminded of this event, compelling us to be good to the stranger, to love the other, to work for justice and equity, in general to serve the source of all conscious being.
Judaism’s take on time teaches us to make each day, each week, each moon significant. Parasha Bo reminds us that as Jews, our lives have meaning beyond our individual context, for we share an ancient experience with its memories and lessons. “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you”; without our memory of oppression deeply ingrained, we will not remember our calling as a people to serve.