Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

Parshas Hachodesh: Our Power Over Nature

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz used to tearfully relate the story of a survivor who endured six bitter years – 1939-1945 – in the concentration camp.

“The Germans took everything away from me,” he declared poignantly, “my family, my prayers, my parnassah and my humanity.” His tone suddenly changed to strength and faith. “But one thing they couldn’t take from me: the moon. Every month, seventy-two times in a row, we went out and sanctified the new moon. We said, with the utmost feeling, ‘To the moon He said that it should renew itself as a crown of splendor for those borne by Him from the womb, those who are destined to renew themselves like it.’ Imagine the wonder. A Jew looks at the moon and sees that although it has completely disappeared, it returns once again. Each month, this mitzvah and sight gave us hope as we realized that even in the darkness, we can look forward to the new month ahead.”

These extraordinary words speak for themselves. However, there is a deeper context to Parshas Hachodesh and our relationship to the moon which affects us all. The Alter of Kelm used to bemoan the fact that people stopped celebrating Rosh Chodesh with a seudas mitzvah. He explained that Klal Yisroel’s joy in the renewal of the moon and the lunar month can be an important experience in the life of every Jew. The Alter always pointed out that the Hallel of Rosh Chodesh commemorates the future, not the past. It is a monthly reflection upon the fact that despite the current state of Klal Yisroel in the world, we will be uplifted and redeemed in the future.

This is true every month, but when commemorating the month of Nissan, there is a much deeper level as well. Nissan is the only month when we don’t recite Tachanun at all. The poskim write that for the first twelve days, the reason is that we are remembering the chanukas hamizbei’ach – the renewal of the altar – when the nesi’im offered their korbanos. Then, from Erev Pesach until the day after Yom Tov, we don’t recite Tachanun, as with every other holiday. But why don’t we begin saying Tachanun after that? The Bais Yosef answers that since most of the month has already passed, we don’t begin after that. A number of poskim are troubled. What does this halacha have to do with the usual application of majority, rov?

The Chida answers in the name of the Rokei’ach that the novi Yechezkel says that not only will the third Bais Hamikdosh be built during the month of Nissan, it will be on the night of the Seder. It will descend from heaven, but we won’t celebrate on Pesach so that “we don’t mix one gladness with another” (Moed Koton 8b). Then, as did Shlomo Hamelech, we will have a great celebration in honor of this colossal event during the week after Pesach. Hence, we even now don’t recite Tachanun during that week. Now, imagine: Over two thousand years have passed and the Bais Hamikdosh has not descended, but we have not begun saying Tachanun. It is already a Yom Tov because Yidden live and breathe with the thought, hope, belief and prayer for the Bais Hamikdosh. It is as real as all of us laining and learning Sefer Vayikra, poring over Seder Kodshim and following the inner paths of the Bais Hamikdosh through Masechtos Tomid and Middos.

A Yid lives the life of the moon, which is borrowed, reflected light. There is as yet no warmth or much light, but it provides the certain knowledge that there will be a better and brighter future ahead. Jewish history itself attests to this reality. The Zohar (1:34) teaches about the kingdom of Dovid and Shlomo that just as the moon has 15 days of ascendancy, so were there 15 generations from Avrohom Avinu until Shlomo Hamelech (see Sefer Dibros Tzvi, page 138). Then the generations descended until the tragic one of Tzidkiyau, when the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed (Yirmiyahu 22:30). At that point, it seemed that Malchus Bais Dovid had disappeared as surely as the moon does every month. However, then, after Yehoyachin was imprisoned and things seemed as bad as the imprisonment of Yosef Hatzaddik, Zerubavel was born miraculously. Rav Yaakov Emden (Sefer Hakesurim L’Yaakov) enumerates from that low point how the 15th generation from Zerubavel resulted in the glory of Rabbon Gamliel. Yes, those who live with the moon know that the darkness always leads to new light.

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Pesach, Kuntrus Reshimos 4:3) taught us that while the unit known as years (shonim) refers to the cyclical aspect of time, the unit known as months (chodoshim) refers to the restorative rejuvenation powers of time. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the very first mitzvah in the Torah (see first Rashi in Bereishis) given to Klal Yisroel was that of Kiddush Hachodesh. Hashem knew that we would have a rough ride until Moshiach and immediately gave us the mitzvah which promised us renewal and even eventual resurrection. As Rav Yonasan David, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Pachad Yitzchok, has pointed out (Kuntrus Pesach, Maamar 3:3), “In the very beginning of Yetzias Mitzrayim (Shemos 12:2), Hashem granted us power over time. Later, He granted this same power to Yehoshua (10:2) when He stopped the sun.”

We can now understand the incredible chizuk of the survivor who moved Rav Chaim Shmulevitz to tears. It is not only that he felt that things will improve and change. Being mekadeish the levanah puts us all in touch with our own immense potential, not only that of the Creator. Chazal tell us that when the Sanhedrin sanctifies the new moon, even if they have made an error, what is done is done and there is a new month with Yomim Tovim to follow accordingly. Thus, we recite in the Shemoneh Esrei of all Yomim Tovim, “Mekadeish Yisroel vehazemanim,” meaning that it is we alone who shape and form the days and month ahead. This power, which was granted to Klal Yisroel in the form of the first mitzvah, gives us the strength and confidence to not only survive, but to hold our heads up knowing that the universe revolves around us.

It is well-known that, indeed, many of our gedolim had power over the physical and natural world. Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein (Sefer Mitzvos B’simcha, page 86) relates an incredible exchange between one of the mekubalim of Yerushalayim, Rav Asher Zelig Margoliyos, and the Chazon Ish during Churban Europa. He sent the Chazon Ish a letter asking – it seems almost demanding – why, if Rav Shimon Bar Yochai was able to rid Klal Yisroel of demons, couldn’t he stop the Nazis from entering Eretz Yisroel? It was clear from the mekubal’s question that he felt that the Chazon Ish had this power. We do know that the Nazis never did enter Eretz Yisroel. Interestingly, the Chazon Ish’s answer was that the Rashbi was the rov of all of Eretz Yisroel, but these days no one has that title or force. On another occasion, the Chazon Ish confessed that Hashem had hidden the truth of what was happening in Europe from him and he therefore was unable to stop the tragedy.

For us, it is enough to know that some tzaddikim can even overcome nature after they have passed from this world. Rav Zilberstein goes on to tell the incredible tale of the ship that carried the bier of Rav Amram Gaon. The Seder Hadoros relates that in the year 4606, the Gaon traveled from his home in Magenza to Koloniah to found a yeshiva. Just before his passing, he instructed his talmidim there not to bury him in Koloniah, but to make sure that his body was returned to Magenza, where his family was interred. The talmidim responded that since there was a war raging between these two countries, they could not promise that they would be able to fulfill his wishes. Rav Amram Gaon calmly instructed his talmidim to provide the proper taharah, place him in an aron, and put it on a small ship, which would proceed by itself. They did just that and, lo and behold, the ship reached Magenta on “its own steam.” The gentiles who viewed the ship’s miraculous arrival declared it to be carrying a holy man. When any of them approached the ship, the boat moved away from them.

When the Magentza community finally obtained access, they discovered the following letter from the Gaon:

“To my dear brethren of the city of Magentza: I have come to you because I passed away and ask that you bury me in my ancestral tomb with my family. May you all be well. Signed, Amram.”

The gentiles, however, seized the ship with the tzaddik’s body and erected a house of worship above it, refusing the Jews permission to take Rav Amram’s holy body back. No amount of money would change their minds. Rav Amram appeared to several of his talmidim in a dream, begging them to bury him properly. Finally, they thought of a plan. In the dead of night, they exchanged their rebbe’s body for that of a criminal who had been executed by hanging. Miraculously, no one was the wiser and Rav Amram Gaon, one of the authors of our siddur today, was buried with his family.

As the Sefer Hachinuch writes, Kiddush Hachodesh can only be done by “gedolim and chassidim” because it signifies the power of Klal Yisroel and its leaders over nature itself.

May we all soon see the return of Kiddush Hachodesh with the power of Klal Yisroel’s renewal bimeheirah beyomeinu.

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