First, Foremost, and Faith

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Sermons of the Aruch HaShulchan, Sermon 13: First, Foremost, and Faith

The Torah (Shmot 12;2) tells the Jewish people that the month we now call Nisan should be the first of the calendar. Aruch HaShulchanwonders what Mechilta Bo 1 means when it infers that it’s the first month for Jews and not non-Jews, but also for Jews and not Adam haRishon, the first man.

Rishon as First or Most Important

He reminds us of Rosh HaShanah 11a, where R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshu’a disagree whether the world was created in Tishrei or in Nisan (in an earlier sermon, we saw him discuss another two of their disagreements on that page). For R. Eliezer, who held that it was created in Tishrei, Hashem is making a special cycle of the year for the Jewish people, with Nisan as first month. Mechilta is pointing out that the verses themselves imply the truth of R. Eliezer’s position, that Nisan is the first month for us, not back in Creation (Adam HaRishon), nor for other nations now.

Of course, R. Yehoshu’a had to read those verses as well. To explain, Aruch HaShulchan points out that rishon, which we often translate as “first,” actually means something more like “the head of.” It’s root is in rosh, head, which is the most important part of the body (he gives examples we’ll leave for some other time).

Once we know that, we can see how the verse is differentiating the Jewish experience of Nisan even from that of the other nations. For all that R. Yehoshu’a thought it would be the first month for them, Hashem was telling us it would be the most important month, the month that sets the tone for the rest of the year, for the Jewish people.

Supporting that reading is the fact that the Torah generally uses the word echad for first, not rishon. The most well-known example (and the only one of the several he offers that we’ll discuss here) is the description of the first day of Creation in the Torah, where it says it was evening and morning, yom echad, one day. For Aruch HaShulchan, that’s because rishon in fact doesn’t mean first, it means most important.

Levels of Faith

That basic insight is going to explain issues he has with the next verse, where Hashem tells the Jewish people to take the animal for the Pesach sacrifice on the tenth of the month, a rule that applied only that year, not to the Pesach in general.

On his way there, he makes preparatory points. First, he notes that the Torah speaks of the Jews as believing in Moshe three different times. When he first tells them Hashem had sent him to redeem them, the verse says the people believed. After the Sea was split, Shmot 14;31 says they believed in Hashem and Moshe His servant. Then, at Sinai, Hashem tells Moshe that the event will instill in them permanent faith in Moshe (that he is Hashem’s authentic representative, etc.).

That matches three kinds of faith. The enslaved and oppressed always believe those who claim they’ll help them, because they want to believe it (a cautionary message in other circumstances). But it’s not real faith, it’s hope.

Witnessing a miracle also stimulates faith of a slightly deeper level, but of a fragile sort, dependent on the miracle and which fades soon after. Only hearing Hashem speak with them face to face, as it were, seeing and hearing themselves, with their own senses, the Presence of Hashem, produced a permanent faith that never went away.

The Importance of Faith to Pesach, Then and Now

Two more pieces of information put the faith question into the pre-Exodus Jewish people. Rashi on the Torah notes another Mechilta, which reads Yehezkel 16;7 (a verse we say in the Haggadah on Seder night), “you were naked and bare,” to mean the Jews lacked merit at the time of the Exodus, that Hashem had to give the mitzvot of Pesach and circumcision to “earn” it.

It takes a great deal of faith for an entire nation of men to have themselves circumcised—what would convince them to do that? Aruch HaShulchan links that to Tosafot in Shabbat 87b, which points out that when Hashem told the Jews to take the animals for the sacrifice on the tenth, that was the Shabbat before the Exodus, which happened on Thursday the fifteenth. That, too, was a miracle, that the Jews took animals that were gods to the Egyptians, making very clear they intended to sacrifice them, and the Egyptians did nothing.

For Aruch HaShulchan, that’s the missing piece of our puzzle. Since it takes three days to recover from circumcision (we know from the story of Avraham and the angels), the eleventh was the last day Jews could be circumcised (so that the fourteenth would be their last day of recovery—note that he’s assuming they did not do it before, and that they did not have enough faith on their own to do it, they needed a miracle to convince them they should).

It was seeing the miracle of the day before, taking the animal for the sacrifice without resistance from the Egyptians, that got them to agree to circumcision.

This explains why the Torah puts the command to take these animals the verse after Hashem declares that this would be the first or most important month of the Jewish calendar. The month has that status because of all the miracles they were about to witness (up to and including the Splitting of the Sea), and the first of those, the one that got the ball rolling, is taking the Egyptians’ gods for sacrifice.

That’s why the standard for eradicating chametz matches the standard for getting rid of idolatry and other alien worships, remove it completely. Matzah signifies proper Jewish faith, and on Pesach even a modicum of non-faith (symbolized by chametz) is a problem (It’s unclear to me how he knows that matzah symbolizes faith, but our goal in these pieces is to learn from Aruch HaShulchan, not “respond to the lion after he is no longer with us.”)

Slaves’ Effect on Owners

The centrality of faith is shown also by Rambam’s ruling that a Jew may not eat a Pesach sacrifice if s/he owns female slaves who have not converted by immersing in a mikveh or male slaves who have not had a circumcision. After a back-and-forth we cannot recap here, he concludes that Rambam held that circumcising a male slave would be enough even though that slave would still need to immerse in a mikveh to be converted.

Circumcision is the standard because of its significance as an expression of Jewish faith. That’s also why they are the only two Biblical obligations (mitzvot ‘aseh, as opposed to prohibitions, lo ta’aseh) for which the Torah assigned the punishment of karet, excision from the people.

For Rambam, the slaves’ being circumcised declared the faith sufficiently for the owner to be included in the Pesach sacrifice, also a moment of declaration of faith, even though the slave had not in fact completed the conversion.

Helping Us Buck the Tide of History

That background explains why the third paragraph of Shema links the warning against following our eyes and hearts to remembering Egypt. Our eyes and hearts—which he here takes to refer to what ordinary human intuition would understand—might tell us it’s impossible to live a proper Torah lifestyle in a particular era (contemporary overtones alert!), which is why the next verse reminds us that the memory of Egypt, which we must always carry with us, is a lasting lesson that Hashem operates outside of and above natural law, can abrogate those laws with whatever miracles Hashem wants, or are needed to support the Jewish people.

The bracha that comes after that paragraph of Shema includes the phrase ezrat avoteinu atah me’olam, magen u-moshi’a, You have been a help to our forefathers from long ago, a shield and savior. Based on textual proofs we cannot rehears here, he says yeshu’a is temporary, a salvation from an immediate problem, while ezrah is a more lasting help, a changing of one’s situation.

For the Avot, the Patriarchs, Hashem provided ezrah, but later generations of Jews have gotten mostly yeshu’a, momentary salvations that leave their basic situation unchanged. Going overtly contemporary again, he says that leaves them with the sole option of turning to Hashem with faith, they are the generation about which Chabakuk 2;4 said “the righteous shall live by faith.”

Makkot 24a had seen that as Chabakuk finding one sole principle that captures all the mitzvot (Makkot 23b-24a is a fascinating piece, about which I’ve spoken and written more than once, where Chazal saw David, Yeshayahu, Michah, and Chabakuk as working to express all of mitzvot in more encapsulated forms). Aruch HaShulchan argues here that it’s what’s most essential for his generation (I think it’s no less true in ours).

The Moon, Rosh Chodesh, and Continuing Faith

That view fits nicely with another aspect of the commandment that started this sermon. Rosh HaShanah 20a sees the verse that told us to make Nisan the first month as also the source for the idea that it is a new moon that starts a new month. Tradition held that Moshe Rabbenu struggled to understand that aspect of the obligation.

Rather than take that technically (that he couldn’t understand what constitutes a “new moon”), Aruch HaShulchan relates it to the fact that the moon, in contrast to other stars, waxes and wanes, which he took as symbolic of Jewish history.

When Hashem tells us to watch the moon and declare a new month each time it reappears, it is to remind us that even when history seems darkest, it is in fact just before a new month (a new era). This might have been what Moshe struggled to absorb, how the Jews will be ever-rejuvenating.

The Message

The sermon stops here, but it seems clear that it is an attempt to shore up discouraged listeners. Aruch HaShulchan wants them to know that, with faith, they can see a new era, filled with more hope (as indeed we have, in the century plus since his passing in 1908).

That’s the message of Nisan, including especially the holiday of redemption, which the Jewish people “earned” by performing just two mitzvot. With the kicker that each was an expression of faith in Hashem, showed a willingness to follow Hashem’s commands even when they did not match what ordinary human intuition would have supported.

That’s the last of his four sermons for Shabbat HaGadol. Next week, Gd willing, I hope to briefly summarize any common themes among these four, and then see how they do or don’t relate to the other sermons we saw.

About Gidon Rothstein

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