Drash on Parashat Vayikra (HaChodesh, Rosh Chodesh)
Reverend Sam Zwarenstein
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
This Shabbat we get to enjoy a very special, rare occurrence. Not only do we start the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), the 3rd book in the Torah, which contains a strong focus on the sacrificial system, but we also mark two other events in the Hebrew calendar. The first is Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the beginning of the new month of Nisan, and the second is Shabbat HaChodesh, the Shabbat preceding (or in this case, coinciding with) the beginning of the month of Nisan.
On this Shabbat, we traditionally read from three Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls), one for Vayikra, one for Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, and one for Shabbat HaChodesh.
In the special reading for Shabbat HaChodesh (Shemot/Exodus 12:1-20), we find details regarding eating the Pesach sacrifice, along with bitter herbs and unleavened bread (starting to sound familiar?), as well as putting blood on the doorposts. In that same reading, God tells Moses and Aaron; “Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim rishon hu lachem l’chodshei hashanah” (This month shall mark for you the beginning of months, it shall be the first of the months of the year for you) - Shemot 12:2.
The instruction given by God to Moses and Aaron in Egypt occurs shortly before our redemption from slavery to freedom, and denotes the recognition of the Israelites, our ancestors, as a people or a nation. This, therefore, became the basis for the first commandment relating to sanctifying the new moon, in preparation for the new month. From this we also learn that it is Nisan that is declared as the first month of the year, not Tishrei (when Rosh HaShanah occurs).
Rosh Chodesh Nisan marks 2 weeks until Pesach, when we celebrate our redemption from a nation enslaved, to a nation free to go and serve God.
To paraphrase a popular song written by Meredith Willson, it’s beginning to look a lot like Pesach…
And that is the key purpose of these special Shabbatot leading up to Pesach. Today we have calendars (electronic and paper variants), so we can determine when the chagim are, years or decades away. Many moons ago (pardon the pun), they didn’t have such luxuries, so there was a strong reliance on the cycles of the moon and designated special Shabbatot, to help people prepare for the events leading up to the chag (festival).
So even though we have modern methods of informing us of the timing of Pesach (in this case), it is important to remember and to reflect upon our traditions, to show that even though we don’t need them as a direct reminder, they still command relevance in our tradition and our memory.
Moreover, this combination of events (Vayikra, Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Nisan, and Shabbat HaChodesh) doesn’t occur all that often. Although there will be a few other combinations where Rosh Chodesh Nisan and Shabbat HaChodesh occur on the same Shabbat, the next time Vayikra will feature in that celebration will be in 2029, 11 years away.
When we’re in the synagogue this coming Shabbat, we should take in the occasion, acknowledge the special circumstances, and appreciate the richness and depth of our tradition, allowing us to maintain a connection with our ancestors and the ways they prepared for these significant times.