Mayanot Parshat Bo: Spiritual Quality Time
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Bo(Exodus 10:1-13:16)

Spiritual Quality Time

"God spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, 'This month for you shall be the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.'" (Exodus 12:1-2)

In his commentary on the very first verse in Genesis, Rashi states that the Torah should have begun with this passage, because this is the very first commandment addressed to the Jewish people.

While God did issue some prior commandments in Genesis - such as the commandment to be fruitful and multiply or the commandment to circumcise male children – these commandments are addressed to individuals. The significance of the commandment to establish the lunar month as the basis of the Jewish calendar, and to begin to count off the months of the year from the month of Nissan is that this is the first commandment in the Torah addressed to the Jewish nation as a public body. The need to create Jewish public institutions to discharge public Torah responsibilities is born out of this commandment to sanctify the lunar months.

One would expect that the very first public commandment would merit its position of primacy by addressing an issue of monumental importance. But what is the significance of counting the year using the lunar cycle rather than the solar cycle? Aren't the two calendar systems just different methods of locating yourself within the identical stretch of time? Isn't time the important commodity rather than the method we employ to keep a track of it?

If anything, counting off the years using the lunar cycle is relatively less efficient and certainly more inconvenient. As a result of the need to remain in tandem with the solar year, the Jewish calendar has to alternate between months that are twenty nine days long and months that are thirty days long and include seven leap years in every 19-year-cycle. The seasons follow the sun, and the Jewish Holidays follow the seasons. We may count by the moon but we must keep pace with the sun as well. There has to be some important spiritual factor to justify all this extra effort. Can we hope to find it?

 

* * *

 

NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN

Ecclesiastes declares:

"Whatever has been is what will be, and whatever has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun!" (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

The Zohar informs us that this passage is not a statement of negation. Solomon does not intend to teach us that the universe contains no novelty; he is referring to a special sort of novelty and telling us that it cannot be found under the sun. The implication of his statement; under the sun it is not to be found, but over the sun it exists in abundance. (See Zohar, Mishpotim, 115b.) To grasp Solomon's meaning we must examine the concept of novelty in some depth.

The search for novelty brings us right back to the months of the year. The Hebrew word for 'month' is 'chodesh,' whereas the word for 'new' in Hebrew is 'chodosh.' The two words are constructed out of identical letters and differ only in pronunciation. It is evident that the Jewish idea of month is related to the concept of novelty. Combining this idea with the statement of Ecclesiastes yields the following result. It is because there is no novelty beneath the sun that the Jewish people had to move over to counting off time by following the moon. Months must be associated with the sort of novelty that is not to be found under the sun.

Selecting the moon as the reference for the passage of time serves to emphasize the association with novelty. The sun rises and sets each day without change, whereas the moon waxes and wanes, renewing itself each month. There is never a new sun, but there is a new moon every month.

 

* * *

 

SWITCHING THE ORDER OF THINGS

God's intention in commanding the Jews to switch to a lunar calendar immediately prior to their emancipation from bondage was not to introduce a new way to measure time. He mandated the change as a means of inaugurating another dimension of time altogether. All living creatures fall under the dominance of time. But the time that dominates the rest of the world is not the same time as the one that governs the Jews:

The Sages taught: A solar eclipse is an evil omen for the nations of the world; a lunar eclipse is an evil omen for Jews. This is because the Jewish calendar is based on the moon whereas the secular calendar is based on the sun. (Talmud, Succah 29a)

To emancipate the Jews it was necessary to unlock the door to a new dimension of time. The novelty that originates over the sun was introduced to the world. There are actually two sorts of novelty; one sort that is part of the natural system of creation, or 'under the sun', and another sort that is symbolized by the switch to the lunar calendar; connecting to the time 'over the sun' was an essential part of the Exodus process.

 

* * *

 

NATURAL NOVELTY

 

"Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, 'Go bring offerings to your God in the land (of Egypt).' Moses said, 'It is not proper to do so. For that which is sacred to Egyptians we will sacrifice to God, our Lord. Behold, if we were to slaughter the deity of Egypt in their sight, will they not stone us?'" (Exodus 8:21-22)

Paraphrasing a bit; Moses offers Pharaoh an explanation why the Jews cannot remain on Egyptian soil while celebrating their holiday - the Jewish plan is to sacrifice sheep and the Egyptians worship sheep as gods - it would be highly inappropriate and provocative to slaughter the Egyptian divinity in full view of the Egyptian populace.

Can we relate to the idea of someone intelligent worshipping sheep, or is all worship of animals nothing more than an expression of primitive superstition?

We must bear in mind that the Torah is replete with admonitions against idolatry. Since the Torah clearly does not consider the Jews a primitive people, and yet feels constrained to offer so many warnings against idol worship, it would appear that the worship of idols is a practice that can attract even the cultured and sophisticated.

 

* * *

 

THE WORSHIP OF SHEEP

Let us see if we can use our imagination and discover the rationale for the Egyptian form of worship. We offer the following theory. Sheep symbolize nature's power to renew life, and to constantly increase the supply of its bounty.

Sheep are unique animals in two aspects. There is no waste involved in raising sheep; all the parts are useful to man; we use its wool, meat, milk, horns, and skin etc. Sheep are cheap to cultivate; all they need is pasture. The sheep was the only domesticated animal bred to abundance in Biblical times. Cattle were much too costly to feed and served the ancients mainly as work animals. The ox was the tractor of the ancient world. But sheep multiply rapidly and consume very little useful resources. Because they were bred to abundance they became the symbol of wealth in the ancient world and came to represent the idea of natural abundance.

It is clear that nature must be able to provide an ever-increasing amount of different types of output if man is to be able to prosper and to multiply. If nature did not have the capacity for increase, human societies would never be able to increase their populations. To expand your numbers you must expand your food supply.

It is equally clear that the earth cannot physically expand or grow any new parts. Yet, although the doomsayers have been declaring for many years that the earth is vastly overpopulated, and have been predicting ever since Malthus (in 1798) that it has passed the limit of the number of people it can feed and support, somehow nature has always managed to come through with the necessary increase and support ever greater numbers of people.

 

* * *

 

EXPANDING POPULATION, EXPANDING RESOURCES

There is no mystery behind this. The key to natural increase lies in ideas. As human knowledge and understanding of the laws of nature expands, man is able to extract steadily increasing amounts of the necessities of life from the same basic resources through the application of new technologies.

In fact, there is no reason to assume that nature has any real limits. God created it with an infinite capacity to provide. All that is required to exploit its riches is steady progress in finding new solutions - in short, novelty.

Such novelty is a product of knowledge and originates in the human spirit. All novelty in the world is the expression of the spiritual power of mankind.

No one knows how ideas originate. We can trace the development of technologies, but the origin of ideas remains a mystery. The theory of relativity dreamed up by Einstein a century ago is an example of an idea that is still being exploited to develop new technologies.

Original ideas are the true embodiment of the novelty of nature; natural novelty is a spiritual phenomenon – only man's spiritual power can access it. This gives us the clue we need to appreciate how the worship of sheep can be a product of creative intelligence. The Egyptians who worshipped sheep were attempting to tap into the spiritual forces of nature implanted by God at the time of creation in the form of new ideas. We may not know how to do this, but we are certainly capable of realizing the necessity of the practice.

Scientists say that there have not been any really novel ideas for quite sometime now. All the technological progress we are making - and it is enormous - comes from ideas that are at least a century old. Eventually, we will need new ideas, and to get them, we will need to tap in to some spiritual source.

The Egyptians were the most scientifically advanced culture in the ancient world; they had the best technology because they came up with the most new ideas. They worshipped sheep because they realized that physical phenomena contained infinite energy, and that this energy could be unlocked with the help of ideas, the spiritual counterparts of all natural phenomena. Sheep worship was the way they accessed the hidden aspects of the familiar.

Ecclesiastes refers to this sort of novelty as "nothing new under the sun." There is nothing genuinely new about the novelties of nature. Nature hasn't altered an iota since creation. When we find something new what we are really doing is uncovering a hidden aspect of nature that was already there. Genuine novelty pertains to phenomena that are not merely newly discovered, but that never before existed. Let us return once again to the Jewish months.

 

* * *

 

NOVELTY ABOVE THE SUN

Maimonides in his Book of Commandments comments on the positive Mitzvah to sanctify the lunar months:

This commandment contains one of the foundations of the faith. Only someone with deep understanding can understand or appreciate it ... When we today in exile consult our reckoning of the Jewish calendar and declare that this day is Rosh Chodesh, [the first day of a new month], or such a day is a Yom Tov, [one of the holy days], it is not through our reckoning that this day acquires the holiness of a Yom Tov, but because the Supreme Court in Israel established it as Rosh Chodesh or Yom Tov. And it is because of their determination that it becomes such, whatever their reasons for reaching this result, as it is written (Talmud Rosh Hashana, 25a): "These are God's holidays that you declare; I have no holidays other than these." That is to say, whatever days the Supreme Court may declare even if they are coerced or mistaken ... (Mitzvah 153)

Maimonides goes on to explain that the Holy days the Jewish calendar informs us about derive their holiness from the sanctification of the Supreme Court of the Jewish nation, the Sanhedrin in Israel and not from the dates of the month on which they fall. If Jewish settlement in the land of Israel were ever to come to a total stop, the holy days would lose their holiness; the authority of the Sanhedrin, which is a product of the Jewish community in the Holy land would evaporate and there would be no special sanctity in the dates on our calendar that we now regard as sacred.

Contrast this with our own conception of time and the way the secular calendar works! This is like saying that January the first is only the first day of the new year if some court declares it so. We think of time as something that exists independently of us. The days pass whether we take notice of them or not. When it is three o'clock, it is three o'clock whether I consult my watch or not. This turns out to be true only about natural time, the time "under the sun." There is nothing new in time itself. The seasons unfold, the clock ticks, and life goes on. The calendar merely informs; it never creates.

This does not apply to time above the sun.

The Jewish calendar can only be renewed by the spiritual power and authority vested in the Sanhedrin sitting in the land of Israel. If the court fails to establish the calendar, the special quality possessed by the days of the lunar calendar would simply disappear. Holy days are not like natural days - they are not a part of the natural cycle of nature as created by God; they must be brought into being by the dedication of people in order to exist at all.

The 15th day of Nissan, the day we celebrate as the first day of Passover, the day on which we conduct the Seder and eat the Matzah is only a holy day if the Sanhedrin has sanctified the month of Nissan this year. If they had failed to sanctify the month, there would be no obligation to eat the Matzah or to conduct the Seder on the 15th of Nissan. Passover would just not happen in such a year.

On Shabbat we recite in our prayers that 'God sanctifies the Shabbat', but on a Holy day such as Passover we say that 'God sanctifies Israel and time'. Shabbat belongs to the week, and the week unfolds automatically, but Holy days fall on the calendar dates of the Jewish months, and months do not happen automatically. Months require sanctification.

On Holy days the Jewish people inhabit sanctified, man-made days, not ordinary natural days. The Sanhedrin declares and sanctifies the months, and it is through their act of dedication that the days of the months acquire sanctity. There are two kinds of days in the world, natural days and holy days.

 

* * *

 

SANCTIFIED TIME

The novelty "above the sun" represents the establishment of a connection to a brand new world, a sanctified world.

In the natural world, the laws of nature totally define all life's possibilities. Although the capacity of nature is infinite and although nature definitely has a spiritual aspect, it has no sanctity. Nature has no 'good' days or 'bad' days. Natural man is trapped beneath the sun and has to express all his potential within the world of nature, whether physical or spiritual.

We Jews, in contrast, were given yomim tovim, holy days, or literally "good days."

A 'good day' is a window to infinite time and we can pass through this window and leave the natural world beneath the sun on such days. All activities of the 'good' day take place in infinite time and take on a metaphysical aspect. On such a day a Jew and a non-Jew can perform an identical act, say eat a festive holiday meal. But the non-Jew is simply having a meal, while the Jew escapes the confines of natural time and enjoys a picnic in infinity.

The world of nature and its rules and regulations simply do not apply in this world above the sun. The miracles of the Exodus did not take place in the natural world at all. They took place in this holy world "above the sun." Strictly speaking they weren't really miracles at all. In the world of the infinite all things are possible. The rules of nature do not apply at all. They cannot be broken because they simply do not exist.

The transition from the world under the sun to the world over the sun enabled the Exodus; it is symbolized by the introduction of the lunar calendar and powered by two events:

 

  1. The Passover sacrifice, and
  2. The smiting of the first born, the tenth plague.

 

 

* * *

 

THE SACRIFICE OF THE LAMB

The Passover sacrifice is crucial to the transition process because the Zodiacal sign of the Lamb is at its most powerful in the month of Nissan. As we have explained, the sheep is the symbol of natural novelty and abundance. It is not by accident that the Zodiacal sign of the lamb is at its greatest point of ascendance during Nissan, the first month of spring, the season of growth. God commanded us to slaughter the lamb and eat it to celebrate Passover, the 'good' day that commemorates the Exodus to internalize the lesson that it is not a natural force that empowered the Exodus. The Exodus was empowered by the force of the Infinite; it happened above the sun.

The rationale behind offering the lamb as the Passover sacrifice is compelling. By sacrificing the Passover lamb we symbolically subdue the Egyptian god when it is at the very peak of its strength and reconnect the offshoot of natural power to its source, the Creator of all things who took us out of Egypt. (See Nachmanides, Exodus 12:3)

Nature must expand and increase if man is to survive and prosper. The Egyptians and the Jews both knew that. The Zodiacal sign of the lamb represents the natural power of renewal. When a spiritual connection to God is established through the act of reconnecting this natural power of renewal to its origin, a brand new power of renewal that is above nature is sent down through the newly formed channel of communication. This is the power of renewal that comes from above the sun to which Ecclesiastes refers.

 

* * *

 

THE SACRIFICE OF THE FIRST BORN

Just as the lamb is the symbol of the power of natural renewal and increase, the first born child is the symbol of human renewal and increase. He is called the 'b'chor' in Hebrew, a word that is comprised of the identical letters as the Hebrew word 'brocho,' meaning blessing. The word is composed entirely of seconds; the letter 'bet' is the second letter of the alphabet and is also the second number of units, the number 2; the letter 'chaf' is the second unit of the tens, the number 20, and the letter 'reish' is the second unit of the hundreds, with a value of 200. One could not imagine a better way to convey the idea of 'multiplication' and 'future' than the word 'b'chor'. The hope of a better world is always centered in the next generation.

The smiting of the first born constitutes the slaughter of the power of human renewal 'under the sun.' The first born of Egypt died, while the first born of Israel, who embody the power of human renewal that comes from above the sun, lived. Since they survived only through their connection to the world of holiness, the first born of Israel have been sanctified ever since.

One of the mysteries of human history is the phoenix-like ability of the Jewish people to continually rise from the ashes of destruction apparently none the worse for wear. The secret of this power of renewal lies in the connection to sanctified time. Its uniqueness clearly demonstrates that it is not a product of natural renewal. It comes directly from above the sun.

Every Jew can always tap into this infinite power of renewal. All he has to do is preserve his attachment to the Jewish holy days, the 'yomim tovim,' the 'good' days of the world. Why would anyone want to relinquish such a treat?

Published: January 4, 2003

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Miriam, February 7, 2009 6:35 PM

Very good!

Rabbi Weisz, you always amaze me with your knowledge and insights! Thank you for sharing it with all of us. May the L-rd continue to bless you with the wisdom from on High which enables you to give us the understanding that we so much need.

(4) Pam, February 2, 2009 2:28 PM

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(3) Rochel, January 27, 2009 9:55 AM

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(1) jope, January 15, 2009 11:34 PM

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