By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Many months ago, we began the study of the Torah anew and learned the first Rashi on the Chumash. Rashi famously quotes Rav Yitzchok that the Torah should have begun with the mitzvah of hachodesh hazeh lochem. He explains that the reason it doesn’t is so that if nations of the world will ever allege that the Jews stole Eretz Yisroel, the Jews will be able to respond to them that Hashem created the world and it all belongs to Him. He chose to give it to us and thus it is ours.
Others answer that the reason the Torah doesn’t begin with Parshas Hachodesh is because the stories of Sefer Bereishis are a necessary backdrop, a hakdamah of sorts, to the mitzvos.
This week, in Parshas Bo, we finally arrive at the parsha of hachodesh hazeh lochem with which the Torah should have ostensibly opened. By now, we should have studied and internalized the messages of our avos and grown to appreciate the connection we have, through the promises made to them, with Hashem and with Eretz Yisroel. We know that this land is ours and that no one can ever take it away from us. We have learned how to behave and how to conduct ourselves from the stories of our forefathers and should now be ready to progress to the mitzvos of the Torah.
We need to explain the significance of the mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh and understand why it is that we are welcomed with this mitzvah into life as avdei Hashem. What is it about this mitzvah that through it we are introduced to all the subsequent commandments of the Torah? Of all the mitzvos of the Torah, why was this the first one given to the Jewish people as a whole and the one with which Rashi believed the Torah should have begun?
An answer, perhaps, can be offered based on the fact that Kiddush Hachodesh is a process that is entrusted to the Jewish people as a whole. The proclamation of the new moon requires a verbal statement of a bais din. The dayanim on the bais din, who certify that a new moon has been seen and proclaim, “Mekudash,” have to either be members of the Sanhedrein or “semuchin,” certified and invested with the power of p’sak, who are links in a chain stretching back to Har Sinai (Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush Hachodesh 5:2). Why does the Torah require those who proclaim the new moon to be semuchin? Why is it not sufficient for them to be proficient in the shapes of the moon so that they can ascertain when to accept testimony regarding the birth of the new moon?
The reason is that when it comes to this special mitzvah, it is plainly evident that the words and actions of humans can be invested with Divine properties.
The Nefesh Hachaim and other seforim discuss the ability of Klal Yisroel to affect happenings in this world and in Shomyaim through the observance – and transgression, chalilah – of mitzvos. That capability is first evident in the mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh.
It is through having the koach to proclaim Rosh Chodesh or be me’aber the shanah that the Torah first reveals to us the limitless capacity and potential of man to rise up to the highest sphere, becoming a partner with the Creator Himself.
Rav Chaim Vital and other authors of seforim kedoshim discuss how each Yom Tov brings with it special hashpa’os, an awakening of the Divine flow that occurred back when the miracle the Yom Tov commemorates originally took place. Bais din, through its proclamation of which day will be Rosh Chodesh, and subsequently on which day Yom Tov will begin actually determines when Hashem will cause that specific measure of Divine hashpa’ah to occur. The Ribbono Shel Olam, kevayachol, actually abides by the bais din‘s reasoning and determination to celebrate the Yom Tov on that day.
The many ramifications of bais din’s decision attest to their power. An example of the extent of bais din’s power is discussed in the Yerushalmi (Kesubos 1:2) regarding a physical phenomenon that can be manifest in a girl when she reaches the age of three. (See Shach, Yoreh Deah 189:13, for a further dissertation.) If she was born during the month of Nissan, for example, if the bais din decides to add a second month of Adar, postponing her birthday for a month, the physical realities which set in as she becomes three years of age are actually dependent on the bais din’s decision and are postponed for a month because she will not be celebrating her third birthday until Nissan!
Thus, since the mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh is unique in that it shows Klal Yisroel the incredible heights they can reach, that they can literally influence even the Heavenly realms, it is therefore the first mitzvah given to us as a group and serves as an introduction to all the other mitzvos. It goes to the root of the greatness of Am Yisroel and demonstrates how much we can accomplish if we devote ourselves to observing the mitzvos and living lives dedicated to Hashem and His Torah.
In Lita, people would retell a story to underscore the potency of a talmid chochom’s ruling. There was a man who lived in Volozhin who suffered from a lung disease. He sought out and tried all sorts of solutions and remedies which were available in his day, but he remained worried about his condition.
Legend has it that the sick man’s father appeared to him in a dream and informed him that his specific lung ailment was the subject of a machlokes between the Rama and the Shaagas Aryeh. The Rama held that when the form of lung disease from which he suffered occurs in a cow, the animal is treif, as it is incapable of living for another year. The Shaagas Aryeh, however, ruled that an animal with this disease was kosher, since it could live well past a year. In the dream, the father warned his son to remain in Volozhin, the Shaagas Aryeh‘s town, where the p’sak – and therefore the reality – would be in line with the Shaagas Aryeh‘s view, and he would therefore live.
This is the idea of the mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh, which would have been a fitting opening to the entire Torah.
Imagine the message that Klal Yisroel received when, still in the throes of servitude, they were injected with this awareness and taught the particulars of a mitzvah with capacity beyond time and space. What a resounding announcement of their own freedom from the constrictions of Mitzrayim! It is as if they were gathered together by Moshe Rabbeinu and told, “You are ge’ulim, redeemed and ready to soar!”
Anyone who has ever beheld the countenance of a true tzaddik or talmid chochom has experienced the wonder for themselves. Indeed, even in the world of 2012, when so much has been dimmed and dulled, we can still witness the spiritual heights that man can attain.
Last week, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was taken to Shaarei Tzedek Hospital for tests. While there, he went to visit his son, Rav Avrohom, who was on the eighth floor of the medical center, recuperating from an illness.
The gadol hador wished his son well, stayed a while, and then left. As Rav Elyashiv exited the room, Rav Avrohom’s roommate, an elderly Sefardic Jew, burst into uncontrollable weeping. When he finally calmed down, he told Rav Avrohom what it was that had so profoundly impacted him.
Seeing the old rov, related the roommate, brought him back to his years as a teenager at Yeshivat Porat Yosef and the time the rosh yeshiva, Rav Ezra Attiah, took him and his friends to be tested by a much-younger Rav Elyashiv, a virtually unknown talmid chochom at the time, in the solitude of a Meah Shearim shul.
“Much has happened since that day sixty years ago,” related the man. “I left the path of Torah and mitzvos. But when I saw the face of the tzaddik, I was transported back in time, and I remembered the happiest, most fulfilling moment of my life. When I saw him again, my entire life flashed in front of me. His face impacted me so…”
With that, the elderly Jew broke down in sobs and could not continue the conversation.
The heights that man can attain and the glowing countenance of a giant in Torah can move a Jew to teshuvah.
That awareness, with its accompanying demand for growth, was given to Klal Yisroel on the verge of freedom, as if to say, “This is what you can reach and accomplish through these mitzvos and by learning Torah.”
We can now understand the depth of a posuk later on in the perek. After the pesukim discuss the halachos of Pesach, the posuk (12:28) states, “Vayeilchu vaya’asu Bnei Yisroel ka’asher tzivah Hashem es Moshe ve’Aharon – The Bnei Yisroel did as Hashem had commanded Moshe and Aharon.”
The Mechiltah, quoted by Rashi, notes that the lesson was given to the Bnei Yisroel on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, while the actual fulfillment of the dinim of Korban Pesach didn’t take place until the middle of the month. Still, the posuk refers to the Yidden having done as Hashem commanded Moshe, in the past tense.
We can suggest that the posuk refers to them as having completed what was asked of them because this parsha of hachodesh hazeh lachem carries within it something integral to the observance of every mitzvah that would follow it, namely, an instructive lesson into what a mitzvah can do to man and the levels he can reach by following the Torah. “Vaya’asu” indicates that they understood the message that was being imparted to them, appreciating its relevance at every juncture of life. In this case, hearing, comprehending and internalizing the messages of hachodesh hazeh lochem and the chag hegeulah were themselves fulfillments of Hashem’s will.
The dinim and halachos of Kiddush Hachodesh and Pesach aren’t merely introductory and practical. They are a call from Heaven. “My children,” the Ribono Shel Olam is saying, “you are ge’ulim. There is no end to your freedom and to how great you can become!”
According to the Nefesh Hachaim (1:13), the word asiyah, which lies at the root of the word vaya’asu, means that what was being discussed achieved its tachlis, or purpose. Thus, when the Torah employs the verb asiyah to complete the discussion, stating, “Vaya’asu Bnei Yisroel ka’asher tzivah Hashem,” that indicates that they realized the potential inherent in Hashem’s commandment. They understood the message behind the tzivuy, and thus, even though they had not yet performed the mitzvah, they had actualized the potential of how high they could reach.
Salah Tamri is one of the Palestinian leaders with whom Israel expected to be able to work. Prior to being jailed during the Lebanon War, he advocated a peaceful coexistence with Israel and a sharing of the disputed land. That all changed when he was freed from jail in one of the infamous prisoner exchanges. He returned to his base of operations radicalized and no longer interested in achieving any accommodation with the Jewish state.
Tamri was asked what happened to him. How could such a bright, educated and successful Palestinian, who advocated peace, now be agitating for friction and war with the Jews?
In explaining his jailhouse conversion, Tamri related that he had previously wanted to reach a peace deal with Israel because he feared that Israel would win any war against the Arabs. He thought that Israel would swallow up the Palestinians and completely overtake the West Bank if prompted to take military action. He therefore felt that the best approach for the Palestinians was to reach some sort of amicable cooperation with the occupiers.
That all changed in jail the day he saw one of his Israeli guards eating falafel and pita. He said to the guard, “What are you doing? Why are you eating that?”
The guard was incredulous, “What is it your business what I eat?” he said. “Don’t tell me what to eat. I am the guard and you are the prisoner.”
“But today is Pesach, your holiday of liberation, and the Torah says you should not eat bread today,” scolded the prisoner. “How can you be eating pita so impassively?”
The guard unloaded on Tamri.
“He told me,” recalled Tamri, “that he couldn’t care less what a four-thousand-year-old book says about anything.”
When he heard that, Tamri began looking at the whole equation differently. He said that if the Israelis don’t care about what the Torah says regarding their liberation and Pesach, then they probably couldn’t care less about what the Torah says about Eretz Yisroel. The Arab concluded that if they don’t have a feeling for the Torah, then they don’t have a strong feeling for the land. And if they aren’t connected to the Torah and to the land, then they won’t sacrifice and fight hard enough for the land. And if they aren’t prepared to fight to the end for the land, then the Arabs will win. And if the Arabs will beat the Israelis, why should they work towards an accommodation and peace when they can fight for their liberation and win?
A people that has lost its belief in its own destiny and historic role, reasoned Tamri, is a people that wouldn’t fight for its G-d-given right either. Thus, when he left jail, he emerged determined to wipe out a nation that eats pita on Pesach.
What that rasha perceived was that his guard, and hundreds of thousands of others like him, had stopped hearing that they were ge’ulim. They no longer appreciated the lesson of Kiddush Hachodesh and Am Yisroel‘s potential. Thus, Rashi’s hakdamah to the Torah – that Eretz Yisroel is ours – was no longer relevant.
We, the she’airis Yisroel, the remainder that clings to Pesach and Kiddush Hachodesh and cherishes every mitzvah, know that we have a higher calling and a path to traverse.
With this, we can explain the significance of the custom to say “Shalom aleichem” to each other when we recite Kiddush Levanah. We go outside and greet the new moon, perceiving in its reflected light our ability to rise, and the levels we can attain if we would exert ourselves and dedicate ourselves to Torah. Beholding the new moon should generate thoughts of teshuvah, thoughts of growth, and thoughts of a new beginning. Thus, as we begin that journey, we wish each other “Shalom aleichem.”
As we study parshas Bo and begin this new month of Shevat, let us restart the march with renewed vigor towards realizing the potential that lies within each and every one of us to reach the apex and positively affect the world.