By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Nissan is here. The cold is gone, snow is history, and the harsh weather is a thing of the past. The ground has warmed. Trees and bushes are beginning to show signs of life as tiny green buds begin to unfurl. Branches bloom, grass turns green, and squirrels and birds dart across the lawn seeking life. The sun rises higher in the sky, shining brighter, filling hearts with promises of warmth and color.
Young and old soak in the pleasures of recreation, walking, biking, and playing ball, as they strengthen their bodies, enhance their well-being, and broaden their perspective.
Spring, the season of new beginnings, announces that Pesach, the Yom Tov of freedom, is almost here. Freedom is the feeling of not being subjugated to another power. Freedom is the ability to think, speak and act without fear. Freedom is a feeling of liberty and emancipation. The freedom of living a Jewish life is here.
It was during this period so many years ago that Hashem announced that the time for our freedom had come. He told our beleaguered ancestors that this month of Nissan was to be the first of the year for them. As the Bnei Yisroel were about to become an independent nation and gain their freedom, Hashem told them that they would begin counting their months from Nissan. The world may have been created in Tishrei, but that month precedes the doom of winter, while Nissan heralds spring. It is fitting for our nation to begin counting from when the world starts to get back to itself after lying in semi-hibernation.
Spring, the season of new beginnings, gave rise to the newfound freedom for an enslaved nation. For 210 years, they knew subjugation and torture. The people were as a tree in the depths of winter, broken by pain, hunger and demoralizing servitude. Hashem appeared to Moshe and told him to inform the salves that life as they had known it would come to an end.
“Hachodesh hazeh lochem.” There would soon be a new month, a new season, a new reality. “Lochem,” given to you, a personal gift that you would recognize and appreciate. From this month forward, you will never be the same. No longer lowly slaves, you will become a holy nation.
At the Seder, we retell the story of our redemption from Mitzrayim. We tell of the misfortune that befell our forefathers as our nation was forming. We speak of what the Jews in Mitzrayim endured and progress to discuss to their liberation and formation as a new people, for there is no spring that is not preceded by winter, no freedom that comes without agony, and no birth without pain.
Thus, the posuk states (Devorim 16:1), “Shamor es chodesh ha’aviv, v’asisa pesach laHashem Elokecha ki bechodesh ha’aviv hotziacha Hashem Elokecha miMitzrayim laylah – Watch the month of spring, and make in it the Korban Pesach to Hashem, because in the month of spring Hashem removed you from Mitzrayim in the night.”
Pesach is intrinsically tied to spring. We were taken out in this season and we celebrate our delivery in this season. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 11a) understands from this posuk that the month of Nissan must be watched – “shamor” – to ensure that it falls in spring, and when it appears that it will be during the winter, we must make a leap year, like this year, when we had two months of Adar.
Perhaps we can also explain that the reason the posuk interjects that we were taken out of Mitzrayim during spring and at night, “laylah,” is to reinforce the concept that we were enshrouded in slavery, darkness and tumah. We were removed from that dark situation and placed in “aviv,” spring, with our newly-gained freedom and soon-to-be rebirth as a nation.
Even after our formation as a people and even after receiving the Torah, there were ups and downs, as there are in daily life. The lesson of “Hachodesh hazeh lochem” reminds us that there is always opportunity for hischadshus, renewal, in our world. We should never despair. Cold will give way to heat, and sadness to joy. If things aren’t going right for us, we have to believe that there can be improvement and set ourselves to realize that goal. It may be difficult and it may take special effort, but there is no goal that is unattainable for a person of faith.
Leading up to Pesach, we scramble, expending much energy to prepare for the chag. The drive to clean every part of the house and clean every closet is widespread, even when not halachically mandated. It hints to the fact that we remember our history and that before the geulah there was hard work. Mekubolim reveal that the sweat that results from working to clean for Pesach purifies as a mikvah, for there is no purity and no holiness without lots of hard work and sweat.
The connection between the exertion involved in biur chometz and the enduring struggle against evil is referenced by Chazal, who compare the yeitzer hora to se’or sheba’isah, the layer of chometz in the dough. Chometz represents immorality, and by eradicating it, we undergo a profound spiritual cleansing.
The eternal message of chodesh Nissan is that just as winter leads to spring and darkness leads to light, periods of g’nus – shame – lead to times of shevach.
Now, with winter’s end, with so many of us smarting from challenges, hardships, sickness and discouraging news, we grab on to the message of hope and rebirth afforded to us by this glorious month and the glorious Yom Tov.
Although it may appear to be laylah, armed with emunah and bitachon we fortify ourselves with additional strength, even when we think we have none left. We sense that we are in chodesh ha’aviv and that our travails will give birth to recuperation and success.
Sickness will give way to health, failures will lead to achievements, losses will lead to triumphs, and golus will lead to geulah.
Freedom is accompanied by obligations. We are given the abilities we need and enabled to rise to greatness. We are no longer held back from dreaming and setting goals.
When the Alter of Slabodka decided to open a yeshiva, he approached his rebbi, Rav Yisroel Salanter, and asked him what his main task should be as he directed the yeshiva.
Rav Yisroel told him that the task of a rosh yeshiva is to recharge the lives of the downtrodden and depressed. The Alter adapted this message and set as his goal in Slabodka to educate and inculcate the message of “gadlus ha’adam,” the greatness that man can reach.
Apparently, they are not the same goal, for while Rav Yisroel told him to raise the weak and deficient, the Alter concentrated on motivating the bright.
But, in essence, they are one and the same, for the way for people to realize their talents and inner greatness is by helping them when they are down and letting them know that periods of darkness and dread don’t need to be followed by despair, because each person has greatness within that they can tap into and realize.
Each person can have their own spring. When everything seems dark and dreary, when all seems lost and you understand nothing, know that each person has a path that they can follow that can lead them to light, warmth and understanding.
As deep as a person has sunk, and as locked away as he may feel, if he latches himself onto Torah, he has a way out of his personal swamp. “Asei lecha rav,” make for yourself a rebbi, a teacher, “uknei lecha chover,” and procure for yourself a good friend, for they will guide you and lead you and help you reach your own promised land.
Seek warmth on a cold day and light when all is dark. “Hisna’ari mei’ofor kumi,” lift yourself off the floor and out of the dirt. “Hisoreri, ki va oreich,” lie not in slumber, awake, for your light is there, “kevod Hashem olayich niglah,” Hashem’s honor is upon you.
You’re not alone, you’re not weak, and you’re not powerless or incapable. Spring has sprung and you also can.
Pesach cries out to all, from the rich man with the sterling ke’arah to the poor man who is fed by the tamchui. It proclaims in a language all can understand, in a voice all can hear, that Chag Hacheirus is here. You have the freedom and the ability to accomplish any goal you set for yourself.
“Kol dichfin yeisei veyeichol, kol ditzrich yeisei veyifsach.” Let us all partake of the Yom Tov’s blessings. We will soon be redeemed as blessed, free, wholesome people in the land Hashem promised us.