Progressively Speaking: Remember the forgotten new year of Nisan

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Progressively Speaking: Remember the forgotten new year of Nisan

 Rabbi Danny Rich takes a passage of text and looks at a Liberal Jewish response

Rabbi Danny Rich
Rabbi Danny Rich
Rabbi Danny Rich

“This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.” (Exodus 12:2)

A decision to declare the end of a period and the beginning of a new one may seem arbitrary but, frequently, it serves a practical function.

In England, there are a number of ‘new years’ including that ordained by the Inland Revenue (6 April), the academic year of universities and, most recently, the return to school after the coronavirus lockdown.

Judaism also has a number of ‘new years’, as Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1 records: “There are four days in the year that serve as the new year, each with a different purpose.  

“On the first of Nisan is the new year for kings, it is from this date that the years of a king’s rule are counted.”

It is, of course, the Tishri new year that is best known to the Jewish community with the marking of Rosh Hashanah and the beginning
of the atonement period leading to Yom Kippur. Nevertheless, it is the somewhat forgotten first of Nisan – which is marked on Sunday night – that has pre-eminence in the Torah itself, as God declares to Moses and Aaron in Exodus 12:2.

Coming as this verse does in Parashat Bo, it is, of course, a precursor of the dramatic liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt – the Exodus.

The Exodus is the beginning of the process that will transform a bunch of slaves (and others) into a people who undergo wandering in the desert, a covenantal moment at Sinai and entry into the Promised Land, thereby fulfilling its national identity. 

The contrast between Rosh Hashanah – which heralds a period of introspection that might be seen as a universal human need – and this commemoration of national transformation is reflected throughout the Torah.

This tension between universalism and particularism is reflected in the prediction of the Book of Numbers that ‘Israel’ is ‘a people who dwells alone’ and Isaiah’s vision of Israel as a ‘light unto the nations’.

It remains the predicament of the modern Jew to advocate for the particular interests of the Jewish people but, more importantly, to affirm the universalism of ‘One humanity on earth, even as there is one God in heaven’.

  •  Rabbi Danny Rich is a vice president of Liberal Judaism 

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