This Shabbat carries so much significance – it is Shabbat HaHodesh, the Shabbat of The Month, that is, the first month of the Jewish year, the month in which we will commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. That escape occurred on the 14th day of the month we now call Nisan, and every year we gather to tell the tale. The power, we are taught, is in the words that we share.
And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this ritual?” you shall tell them, “this is the Passover.” (Ex.12.26-27)
Our Rabbis taught that even those who know the tale well are considered praiseworthy if they tell it at length, this story of how one moves from slavery to freedom. Tell it again, tell it over and over, tell it until it is heard, and recognized.
We are so much in need of that story today. When we retell it, we remind ourselves of the importance of saying what is important out loud. From the beginning of creation, when the first people helped G*d create the world by naming all its creatures, Jewish tradition has understood the great power of speaking truth in words, out loud.
When I visited City Hall on the morning of March 1, I witnessed the power of speaking words directly. A group lifted up the simple chant:
Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes!
No matter how you feel about the tactic of refusing to allow regular city business to proceed as usual by showing up during open city council sessions and disrupting them, it is powerful to realize that a simple, repeated chant cuts right through such attempts to proceed with business as usual.
There is a tremendous power in speaking truth directly. Alas, we also know that there is a great deal of power in refusing to speak what should be spoken, and thus recognized as real and significant.
Our Jewish tradition decries the act of remaining silent when speaking up is the needed moral act, even as it denounces those who speak falsely in order to manipulate the truth to their own advantage. We have a surfeit of the latter, but what do we know about the former?
For Zion’s sake I wil not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still, until her justice shines like a light, and her help like a burning torch. (Isaiah 62.1)
That chant continues to ring in my ears: Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes!
On this Shabbat HaHodesh, we are called to consider the importance of saying our truth out loud, and supporting the rights of others to that same speech. The words of G*d echo through every person’s truth, even – probably especially – the truths that disturb our peace and quiet.
And on this Shabbat which is also called VaYakhel-Pekudey, after the Torah parashah that we are reading in the yearly cycle, we cannot but also note that VaYakhel, which means “gathering”, reminds us that words must not only be spoken aloud, but also heard, and witnessed, by the gathered community. Only in such a community of shared meaning and purpose do our words fulfill their purpose: to tell the story, and tell what it means.
Today at 2pm Quanice Hayes will finally be laid to rest – a horribly long time after he was tragically killed. His name joins too long a list of other young African American men killed at the hands of police. To say his name is to insist that we listen, and that we tell that story too, as many times as necessary until we finally discover the way from slavery to freedom for all.
In every generation we are commanded to consider that we ourselves are going out of Egypt. (BT Pesakhim 116b)
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other,
“This month shall be for you the first of months”. This is the way the special Torah reading for this Shabbat begins. With Rosh Hodesh (“the head of the month”) tomorrow begins the first Jewish month, Nisan.
If so, why is it that, even though the Torah clearly indicates that the High Holy Days are observed in the seventh month, we wish each other a happy new year at Rosh HaShanah, called “the head of the year”?
The answer illuminates the development of Jewish identity from antiquity. Once, we were farmers and herders, and the beginning of spring was literally the time of all things new – baby lambs and goats, new growth in field and tree. It was the natural rhythm of our relationship with G*d, and it echoed through all our acts as we excitedly, and worriedly, moved through this most vitally important of seasons to one’s physical life and well-being. With the growth of each healthy new plant and animal our own future seemed more assured.
As a result of the industrial revolution, of modernity and urbanization, many of us have to “go out” in order to connect with that most fundamental level of nature, of baby lambs now found in petting farms and new shoots in a community garden or on a window sill. It’s no less profoundly true that G*d is found in nature, just that we seek G*d less in the Great Outdoors and more in the Mysterious Inner Depths of our own being, and in our relationships with others.
We struggle to nurture a garden of morals, rather than (sorry) morels. And so the seventh month, with its Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, have become our moment for taking stock, turning a new leaf (even if only metaphorically), and starting over.
But this month of Nisan is still called “first”. Note what we are commanded: “this shall be for you the first of months.” Perhaps the buried hint is that each of us, for ourselves, can still relate to this time of new growth as a time that encourages new hope. And from that thought, of course, we move to the teaching of our embracing, loving tradition – that every month, every day, every moment can be for you the first of months.
What “first” needs your nurturing right now? what small green shoot of promise is there for you, simply awaiting your deeper gaze into its true potential?