“This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.”
There is finally a crack in the universe. The first signs of spring are appearing after a harsh winter, and the world feels on the tip of its annual renewal. This time is always reminiscent of the verses from Song of Songs, “Look! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come...” (2:11-12). The earth is in transition, and our first biblical instruction is to look because it would be a crying shame if we missed the first signs of spring’s newness and the sense of hopefulness and relief that spring brings. Now, in the poem “Footsteps of Spring,” we begin to feel what Haim Nahman Bialik wrote, “A different wind is blowing through the world.”
This Shabbat we welcome the new Hebrew month of Nissan, with permission to say a blessing only rendered in this Hebrew month upon seeing a blossoming fruit tree: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has withheld nothing from His world, but has created in it beautiful creatures and trees for human beings to enjoy.” This is the after-effect of looking, of paying careful attention to what is happening to the physical landscape. We cannot help but bless it.
If we look at the book of Exodus, as we should in this month of preparation for Passover, we find a mandate to pay attention to Nissan for a different reason. As stated above, the opening of Exodus 12 asks us to declare it the beginning of time for us even though we’ve had a sense of time for centuries. The month of Aviv is biblically referred to as “when the ears of barley ripen,” so the calendar is attuned and marked by agricultural developments, but there is more to it than that. The Jews of the ancient world were surrounded by those with their own calendars and ended up using Babylonian names for Hebrew months during their first exile. Scholars debate what the months were called before this exile, but one thing is clear: you cannot have your freedom without owning your time.
The medieval Spanish exegete Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra states this outright. Before this moment, the Jews had followed the solar calendar of the polytheists around them. The request to follow a lunar calendar must have represented a huge psychic shift in the way they regarded time, only one of the seismic changes they were asked to make as they left Egypt. This request is slipped into chapter 12 before the instructions to roast a paschal lamb and prepare themselves for the major exit that become known as the exodus. It is as if following directions was not enough; they had plenty of experience as slaves of having their lives ordered: the details of the sacrifice were likely not very different in specificity to other tasks and jobs they encountered in daily slave life. But as slaves their time was never their own. It is for this reason that slaves were exempt in rabbinic law from any time bound commandments. If you don’t own your time, you cannot give it away or sanctify it.
The writer Eva Hoffman, in a small and challenging book called Time, writes about the cultural influences on our perceptions of time. She was born in Poland and noted that Slavic time is much more leisurely than American time, for example. People were more willing in the Europe of her youth to wait on long lines, to expect tasks to take a long time and to enjoy time with friends without being ever-vigilant about time wasted. When she moved to America, she was deeply struck by the way time had a different structure even though the clock ticked away the same on one side of the ocean and the other. “...everyone suffered the stress of not doing enough, or the possibility of doing more, or at least feeling good and guilty about it.” People were more strict and competitive about time and less likely to respond to a spontaneous break. American efficiency and productivity come at a price of enjoyment.
If freedom requires the ownership and control of time, then the ultimate leave-taking from Egypt would require that we do more than change the clock. We must shift our cultural approach to time; it’s a different take on “Jewish” time.
This is a month where we can challenge our own perceptions of time: who owns our time, how do we manage it and are we so task-oriented that we fail to enjoy the time we have? Nissan offers us the freedom challenge, today no less than long ago.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Rosh Hodesh!