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Nisan: The (Re-)Beginning of Time

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Did you notice the recent re-beginning of time? It happened on Monday night and Tuesday -- the first day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar. It's one of four new years in our annual spiral. One is for trees, one is for animals, and two are for all of life. As with many things, there are diverse views within our tradition on how these latter two new years relate to each other. My personal preference is for the view of Rabeinu Tam, a medieval French rabbi who suggested that the autumnal new year of Rosh Hashana marks the anniversary of the conception of the Universe, while the new year we just passed, the first day of Nisan, commemorates its birth. As the trees blossom, and the newborn lambs take their first steps, we will mark this season by re-enacting and actually re-experiencing the story of our people's delivery (in both senses), through the birth canal of the Red Sea.

This first month, Nisan, is an exciting, auspicious and joyful time. The word for month, Chodesh, itself means "new," and since Nisan is the beginning of a new cycle of months, it begins a new round of newness, if you will. This springtime energy of enthusiasm and vitality can assist us to find renewal in every area of our lives. During the autumnal new year of conception, we turn inwards, spending much time and energy on reflection and personal accounting. In contrast, the focus of Nisan is celebrating life through connecting with those around us, and with nature, through song, feasting and blessing. Our traditional prayers of supplication are dropped from the liturgy, and replaced by joyful rituals such as blessings on the new blossoms, and of course the Pesach (Passover) Seder.

The name of the festival, Pesach, reminds us of the springtime energy that we can tap into in order to make changes in our own lives -- one of its meanings is "leap." As the book of Shemot (Exodus) tells it, the very first Seder actually happened in Egypt itself, while our ancestors were very much still under the noses of their taskmasters. Something about that Seder helped them find the strength to take a giant leap forwards. Despite centuries of persecution and tremendous fear, they left their place of constriction and moved forwards towards the unknown, towards the uncertainty that eventually yielded our people's rebirth at the Red Sea. Similarly, when we re-experience the Seder every year, sharing our songs and stories of oppression and liberation, we have the opportunity to emancipate those parts of ourselves that our not yet free.

But before we could have that first Seder, we had to create our own relationship with time. Near the dramatic climax of the of the Exodus story, between the ninth and tenth plagues, the action pauses, and the first mitzvah is given to our people. One might have expected this to be a moral law (e.g. don't murder), but instead the first mitzvah is an instruction to begin a new calendar, based on the waxing and waning of the moon. There is a profound teaching here. If we are working according to the clock of our oppressors, they still own us. In contrast to the calendar of slavery, the Hebrew calendar is a dignified partnership, in which we co-create reality with the Eternal One.

We might not, at first blush, think this is a relevant lesson for us, but if we are honest with ourselves, we are all somewhat enslaved, in that we use our time and energy in ways that we do not fully chose, with our best or wisest selves. This might mean regretted hours of online surfing, compulsively checking our phones every few minutes, or eating, drinking, smoking or injecting things we might not actually want to. Or it might mean making key decisions in our lives to try and please or impress others. Any which way, we all have some slavery in us, and we can all benefit from Nisan's invitation to re-callibrate our relationship with time, and ask ourselves how we really want to spend it.

This Pesach, may we all come to see that which is enslaving us, and take a step -- perhaps even a giant leap -- towards true freedom.