Rabbi and Mrs Hackenbroch, Reverend and Mrs Robbins, family, friends and members of Woodside Park Shul, thank you for being here with me on my special day.
This week we read the Torah portion of parashat Bo. In it we read about the beginning of our journey out of our slavery in Egypt, and towards being a nation free to serve Hashem in the Land of Israel.
For the next few minutes, I’d like to focus with you on one mitzvah – commandment – that is buried in the middle of the story. It is the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh – of declaring the new month and, ultimately, of defining the Jewish calendar.
The Torah states, “Hashem said to Moshe and Aaron in the Land of Egypt saying, ‘This month shall be for you the first of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.’ “
Although the commandment takes only two pesukim – sentences – of the parasha, our rabbis teach us that this is the source from which we learn that it is our responsibility to decide when the months begin and end. It’s our job to decide when it’s going to be a leap year. And, by extension, it’s our job to work out when the festivals fall within the year.
The Jewish calendar is based on the cycle of the moon. It begins when the new crescent of the moon is just visible in the sky and, as the month progresses, the moon goes through a full cycle of becoming totally round, and then shrinking back to almost nothing by the end. In other words, as the months go by, the moon grows and shrinks, but never totally disappears. Just as it becomes almost impossible to see again, we know that a new month is about to begin and the moon will return to its full glory very soon.
During the time of the Chanukah story, three mitzvot were forbidden for the Jews to practise – keeping Shabbat, Brit Milah, and Rosh Chodesh. Shabbat is one of the most fundamental mitzvot for a Jew to keep and is one of the Ten Commandments. Brit Milah physically marks all Jewish males as being Jewish. The fact that Rosh Chodesh was chosen together with these two important mitzvot must mean that it is a crucial mitzvah with a powerful lesson for us to learn.
Before we think about the lesson, I would like to put this mitzvah into the context in which it was given. For 210 years we had been slaves in Egypt, which was the most immoral place in the world at the time – totally lacking in spirituality. No-one is completely immune to the influences of their society. The Jews tried so hard to maintain their special identity – they used their Hebrew names, they wore their particular clothes that made them stand out as Jews, and they spoke Hebrew as their language. But despite these efforts, over time they began to drop in their level of spiritual connection and belief in Hashem. In fact, although it was a terrible lifestyle being a slave, they became used to it. 600,000 people left Egypt with Moshe, but that number only represents 1/5 of the Jewish People in Egypt. 4/5 of them stayed behind. It may have been a horrible life, but at least it was familiar. Going in to the desert with Moshe was unknown and terrifying. They knew what it meant to serve their masters; they had forgotten what it meant to serve Hashem.
The Jewish People were getting ready to make the Pesach sacrifice and were preparing to leave Egypt just after the final plague – the death of the firstborn – was about to happen. The Children of Israel were physically tired, spiritually low and emotionally drained. The thought of following Moshe into the desert for an unknown period of time to go towards an unknown place, without knowing how they would survive, must have been extremely frightening. And right then, at that point, Hashem gave us the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh. Why then?
There are many reasons we can think about – here are a couple that I would like to share with you.
Firstly, this mitzvah gives us, as Jews, a huge amount of power and creates a partnership between us and Hashem. Yes, Hashem created the events that we now celebrate as our festivals, but we set the calendar and therefore define when those festivals fall each year. The calendar, by definition, looks to the future. At the time when we must have been so scared about what was about to happen to us, Hashem gave us a mitzvah that showed us that we would have events to look forward to in the future, and showed us that He was right there with us as a partner in defining how the Jewish year will look forever.
Secondly, the pattern of the moon is a symbol of the story of the Jewish People. We have our ups and downs, but we will never disappear, and when we find ourselves at our lowest points, it means that we are about to start growing again until our full glory returns. This must have been a huge source of hope and encouragement for the Jewish People at the time, and continues to be a lesson for us to carry with us at all times. It was this hope that the Greeks, at the time of the Chanukah story, were trying to keep from us in forbidding us to keep this mitzvah.
Since we became a nation after the exodus from Egypt, nations have always tried to attack us and wipe us out. Next week we will read parashat Beshalach. It contains the story of Amalek; as soon as we had crossed the sea and were finally free from Pharaoh, Amalek attacked us in the desert. Those attacks have continued throughout our history, through Chanukah, Purim, the Holocaust, and right now in Israel. We need to keep the message of Rosh Chodesh strong in our hearts. Hashem is with us – in partnership – and we will return to our full state of glory.
Becoming a Bat Mitzva is a bit like my own personal Rosh Chodesh. Being Jewish is not always easy – especially being in a non-Jewish world and, in my case, in a non-Jewish school. There are ups and downs and sometimes I may feel challenged as to what is the right thing to do. My family are like the full moon – they have shown me how wonderful it can be to be a Jew. Now it’s my time to create my personal partnership with Hashem as I become a Bat Mitzva, which really means that I am responsible for the mitzvot I keep. I will be rewarded for those that I keep, and I have to take the consequences for those that I don’t. I hope that I will make my family proud and that I will be able to inspire those around me in the way that I have been inspired.
I want to thank my parents for all that they have given me in my life, for giving me, my brother and sisters a love of our Jewish heritage, and for making me proud to be part of this wonderful community.
Thank you all for listening and for coming to celebrate with me today.