One of our young B’nei Mitzvah students asked me after reading the salient verses regarding the celebration of Passover in the 12th chapter of the book of Exodus, why the “first of the months”, the month of Passover (Nisan) is the new year in the Torah, while we celebrate the first of the month of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, as our new year?
She is right. There are two “new years” – in fact, four new years, including Tu B’Shevat (new year for trees) and the 1st of Elul (usually considered the last month of the year) if you read the Mishnah! The month of Passover, the first of Nisan, was clearly the biblical and the oldest Jewish new year, with Rosh Hashanah (1 Tishrei) added much later, after the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE. In exile the Jews adapted themselves to Babylonian culture, including its calendar.
The Babylonians celebrated their new year in the autumn, using the occasion to crown their king as the head of the Babylonian pantheon of gods. The Jews, mindful of their Babylonian neighbours, took the Babylonian calendar and made Rosh Hashanah their head of the year while rejecting the coronation of the earthly king. Instead they made it a time to re-establish our devotion to the King of Kings, Hamelech – God.That is why the music at the High Holy Days reflects royalty and subservience to the King (Adonai melech, Adonai malach, Adonai yimloch l’olam va’ed). The pageantry of the new year season reflects this historical reality.
Passover was always the holiday celebrating the birth and creation of the Jewish people, while Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birth of all humanity, a characterisation that was clearly added much later because the only reference we have in the Torah regarding Rosh Hashanah is that it was a Yom Teruah (a sound of the blasting of the shofar on the first day of the seventh month). In their great wisdom, our Rabbis kept the lessons and vision of both holidays, Passover and Rosh Hashanah.
Passover is to focus on the particularity of the Jewish people and our commitment to Judaism. Rosh Hashanah allows us to focus on the universality of God’s creation, of all humanity. In other words, to be a Jew means that we need to live in two worlds: our own world, the Jewish one and, at the same time, to live also in the rest of society. Each of those worlds nourishes the other. We cannot truly be Jewish if we close our eyes to our obligations to all people but, conversely, we cannot truly be human if we close our eyes to our obligations to our own people and faith.
As the rabbis taught regarding the blowing of the shofar at Rosh Hashanah: the mouthpiece of the shofar is small, the end from which it blows is large. If you try blowing a shofar from the wide end, there can be no sound. It will only make a teruah/shevarim/tekiah if blown from the smaller end. We Jews must make our contribution to society at large by blowing the shofar from the “Jewish” end, the small end.
And so this is one of the great teachings of our Passover holiday, to tell the story – Haggadah – to your children and family of the origins of the people of Israel. Remember who you are and what you mean as Jews to the rest of the world. Do not try to be “universal man” until you are able to express that universalism through Jewish ears, eyes and hearts. By being Jewish first, we will make the greatest difference to the fate of nations. The world needs us. Are we ready for the challenge?
I do hope that all of you will have meaningful Seders with your families this Passover. I would suggest that we discuss some of the crucial ideas that arise from our recitation of the story of our people, from their slavery in Egypt to their triumphant deliverance, and its message of freedom. What does our Judaism mean to us, to the world?
What does Israel mean to us? How was the modern state of Israel a fulfilment of Jewish history since our Exile 2,000 years ago? Why is it important to re-enact the sacred drama of Passover, the experience of slavery? Does it sensitise us to the needs of the poor, the hungry, the forgotten? What about the oppressed?
Be proud of our Jewish heritage, celebrate the foundation stones of our people with Passover, come to synagogue during the holiday (we need you there!), study the Haggadah, increase your awareness of your ties to Jewish history and tradition, and pray for the gift of freedom. We should never take for granted the freedom and liberty we enjoy in the UK, Israel and the free world.
May you all have a delicious, kosher, meaningful, blessed and enriching Passover with your families. May God bless our congregation and our people forever.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler