Nissan! The name itself evokes a sense of freshness and renewal. From the very beginning of Jewish history, Nissan has been synonymous with a longing for redefinition and hope.
The Talmud tells us that Abraham observed Passover. Obviously it was not to commemorate the Exodus, which only took place centuries later. Maharal explains that the Nissan season ‘spoke to him.' The more Abraham saw physical evidence of God's love and creativity, the more humble he felt. So during the Passover season, Abraham chose to eliminate everything from his life that was puffed up -- a semblance of the over inflated ego.
This included all leavened food. It was Abraham's way of holding on to his recognition of what renewal really means and where it comes from.
Flock of Sheep
The astral sign of Nissan is the lamb. Lambs graze in a flock, faithfully following the shepherd. Being a follower is sometimes a mature choice, not a passive failure. The Jewish people made the choice to follow God, and not our own inflated egos as people. In Egypt, as we seesawed between the twin forces of assimilation and oppression, we came to realize that relying on transient humans for our self-definition was national suicide. We chose to follow God.
We also came to realize that no amount of autonomous political action would bring us the spiritual freedom we craved. We finally humbled ourselves to acknowledge that the only possible way we'd ever get out of Egypt would be by God's mercy.
No amount of political action will bring us the spiritual freedom we crave.
Something within us moved, enough for us to follow God into the desert, and later accept His Torah. We were like lambs that finally discovered the shepherd who cares for them. How appropriate that the liberation from Egypt took place in the month of the lamb.
Nissan is referred to in the Torah by three names, each one of which opens a door to a deeper understanding:
1) "The First Month" -- The month of redemption is considered even greater than Tishrei, the month of that the universe came into being. The world was created with a purpose, which is that we humans imbue it with purpose, in order to rectify ourselves individually and the world at large. Nissan is the month in which our people emerged with this goal as their national definition.
Nachmanides, the great 13th century sage and commentator, goes so far as to say that when assigning a number to each month, it is a mitzvah to count beginning with Nissan, to increase our awareness of the miracles that led to our liberation. From his perspective, it's better, when possible, to refer to the secular months by their names -- January, February, etc. Assigning numbers would dull our sensitivity that "month number one" is number one is reserved for that month which leads us toward national self-definition.
2) "Aviv" -- This name means spring, the time when the physical and spiritual messages of rebirth meet and blossom.
3) "Nissan" -- Although this name is technically of Babylonian origin, the Aramaic word Nissan is related to the Hebrew word, nitzan, meaning bud. In Song of Songs, King Solomon's epic poem in which he depicts the love that bonds us to God, redemption is symbolically referred to as "the time that the buds were seen in our land," which means that the inarticulate earth gave birth to a people who soon would flower.
Besides Passover, other days in Nissan carry deep significance. The first day of Nissan marks the inauguration of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle that accompanied the Jewish people during 40 years of wandering in the desert. The Mishkan served as a visual allegory of how the macrocosm and microcosm can both be transformed as a sanctuary for God. In the Mishkan, each vessel, material and metal was carefully selected to symbolize specific ways in which the animal vegetable and mineral worlds can be uplifted.
Years later, the first of Nissan was when the Jews of the Babylonian exile began their return to Israel. The buds had begun to blossom.
Amazingly, Nissan is the time when Jews make a special blessing over new blossoms. Upon the first sighting of the new blossoms of fruit trees at the start of spring, the following blessing is recited:
Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the Universe, for nothing is lacking in His universe and He created within it good creatures and trees, with which to provide pleasure to mankind.
The first of Nissan is also the time that most congregations begin their fundraising campaign for Kimcha DiPischa (literally, "flour for Passover"). No Jew can fully experience the freedom of these days while in isolation. The Exodus was the liberation of an entire nation, not of any one individual. No one is free when he knows that his fellow Jew doesn't have what he needs.
In earlier times, the rabbi of the town had the legal authority to mandate contributions. While this is no longer the case, the underlying premise hasn't changed: that true freedom comes through giving, not taking.
When God created the world, His plan was that we choose to know Him. When we internalize His presence by choosing goodness, in a certain sense we receive the greatest gift of all: God Himself. The kabbalists state this idea as: "An awakening [of Divine mercy] from above, must be preceded by an awakening [of commitment] from below." For this reason, God didn't free us from Egypt without challenging us to make a commitment to Him, so that we would share in the process of redemption.
God challenged us to slaughter a sheep, a symbol of pagan belief in Egypt.
The way that God challenged us was by requiring each family to take a sheep, an important symbol in the pantheon of pagan belief that characterized ancient Egypt. Each family tied the sheep to their bedposts for four days, and then offered it as a sacrifice to God. The day they took the sheep was Shabbat, the 10th of Nissan.
We see this day as the beginning of the redemption, for it is on this day that we followed God's instructions, to later slaughter the sheep, even at the risk of enraging our Egyptian captors. But our trust in God made this act possible.
On Shabbat HaGadol, it is a well-established custom to read those sections of the Haggadah that deal with the miracles of the liberation -- i.e. from "We were slaves" until "You brought us to the Temple to atone for our transgressions." It is also a custom for the rabbi of every synagogue to deliver a major sermon on this Shabbat.
The deadline for removing all leavened ("inflated") food from one's house is the evening, one day prior to the Seder. The idea of ridding our homes of chametz is that it is a tool to simultaneously rid ourselves of its spiritual counterpart, egotism. Egocentricity is the source of all evil. God infused these times with the spiritual power to destroy the ego's grip on our personalities.
Getting ready for this night requires quite a bit of physical and spiritual preparation. For some people, "Passover cleaning" begins at least a month before the holiday arrives. They spend days removing every trace of leavened food from the home, sometimes getting involved with general spring cleaning and possibly even a tad of redecorating or painting. It is important to realize that the religious requirements are relatively simple, and in situations where doing a great deal of cleaning is just not feasible, it is best to stick to the basics. The focus should be on doing God's will -- getting rid of leavened food and negating the ego.
The more we open our hearts to God, the more ridiculous our pomposity feels.
Indeed, freshness and renewal most easily comes when we let go of the heaviness of self-importance and give ourselves permission to be simple. For the more we open our hearts to God's presence and love, the more ridiculous our pomposity feels.
The formal act of searching to remove chametz is called Bedikat Chametz. The examination begins at night. Every nook and cranny has to be checked. The examination must be done by direct light -- i.e. using a candle or flashlight. It is customary to hide 10 pieces of bread (remember where you put them!), which symbolize the 10 mystical Sefirot in reverse.
The kabbalists use the Sefirot to describe the ways in which God reveals His presence to us, for instance through his continual outpouring of goodness. Since we live in a world in which free choice is authentic, we acknowledge that if it is possible to be good, and we find it attractive, we will find doing evil equally as compelling.
Each one of the 10 Sefirot has a negative counterpart. Passover is a time that all the forces of evil can be defeated, just as they were in Egypt over 3,000 years ago.
The timing is critical. Rabbi Chaim Vital tells us that the first 13 days of Nissan hint at the first 13 years of one's life. When the 13th year is over, and the 14th year is about to begin, something crucial happens to us. The yetzer tov (positive impulses) becomes just as forceful in the battle for one's personality as the yetzer hara (negative impulses). It is then that the ability to examine and introspect begins, in the same way that when the 13th day of Nissan ends, we now can search, discover and ultimately destroy the actual chametz that is so much part of our lives.
The climax of our search for chametz is our stating that "whatever chametz is in our possession, is now considered to be as ownerless as the dust of the earth."
The next day, the 10 pieces of bread, plus any residual chametz, must be destroyed.
As you sit down to the Seder, to relive the enslavement and the Exodus, you will eat the matzah and drink the wine. These are tools to help you write your own personal story of redemption, added to the millions of stories that are part of our unwritten history. May we all merit to see the buds of Nissan blossom into full and genuine redemption. And may we spend the next Seder together, in a free and rebuilt Jerusalem.