Sefat Emet: Hachodesh
The first Midrash of Tazria explains the pasuk in Tehillim, “From behind and from in front you have bound me…” Chazal explain that this pasuk alludes to this world and the next. “behind and in front” can
also be translated as “last and first.” “Last” refers to this world which was created last and “first” refers to the next world which was created first. If a person merits it, he inherits two worlds, this world and the next.
The word, “you have bound me, can also be translated, “you have formed me.” Chazal therefore relate this pasuk to the creation of man, “He … formed the man …” He formed, is written with two yods, an uncommon spelling, to teach us that man comprises two components, physical and spiritual. The Zohar teaches us that man is a microcosm of the entire physical and spiritual worlds. While he has a physical body, through his soul, he is connected to the upper spiritual realms. The Zohar teaches that a person’s soul includes the forms of these realms.
There is an aspect of the nation of Israel which is spiritual, corresponding to God’s thought, as it were, and there is an aspect that is physical, corresponding to the physical Creation. Chazal hint at this when they teach us that God created the world for Israel who are called ראשית/first. God’s thought comes before the physical Creation.
We find this split between thought and action in the relationship between the days of the week and Shabbos. The pasuk in Tehillim states, ”’ …/How great are Your works, God …” suggesting the days of the week during which God created the world. The pasuk continues, “very deep,” referring to Shabbos. Because Shabbos is the day on which God ceased to create, it is associated with God’s thought rather than with doing. It was given to the nation of Israel which existed in God’s thought before the physical Creation. Shabbos, then, is the sign that the children of Israel have a special spiritual status, “It is a sign between me and the children of Israel …” All the creations of the world have a place in the physical Creation. However, only the nation of Israel attaches to Shabbos, representing God’s thought.
We find another instance of this concept in a Midrash on the pasuk in Tehillim, “You have done much, God, my Lord; Your wonders and thoughts are for us …” The first part of the pasuk, describing God’s doing, relates to the physical world. The second part makes it clear that God’s wonders and thoughts – the spiritual – is for us, His nation, as the pasuk states, “ In front of all your people I will perform wonders …”
The nation of Israel merited this special relationship with God at the time of the Exodus when God changed nature on our behalf. Although the Exodus itself was initiated by God, He told us, at that time that we would need to work to merit this special relationship. This is alluded to in the first words describing the first mitzvah that God gave us as a nation, “This month is for you the beginning of the months …” The word “Chodesh” month connotes chodosh/new. With this first mitzvah, God hinted that He gave us the ability to draw novelty into the world.
Novelty is beyond nature because the natural world is a closed system. Nothing new can happen in it. Novelty can only come from without, from the spiritual. God is telling us that in order for us to be connected to the spiritual, we must draw it down. How do we draw novelty into the world? How can we not be bound by the physical world? The answer, the Sfas Emes explains, is by realizing that the physical world is dynamic, not set. By internalizing the concept that the physical world is changeable, the gates of miracles, wonders and novelty open.
This is why on Shabbos when, to an extent, we disregard the physical world by not performing creative work, the spiritual gates open. We find this in a pasuk from this week’s haftara. Yechezkel describing the gates of the Beis HaMikdash tells us that the gate of the inner courtyard will be closed during the six days of the week and open on Shabbos. These physical gates suggest spiritual gates
A person who takes these words to heart, though, realizes that the physical world is a barrier which separates him from God’s light. The Sfas Emes says that this is not a reason to become melancholy. It is all for good. God sent us into this world, exile and darkness specifically to find His enlightenment which is hidden within it. David HaMelech said, “I said, Surely darkness will shadow me, then the night would become as light for me.” Chazal translate the pasuk as, “I said, Surely darkness will shadow me in the next world. In the end even this world which is likened to night has become light for me.” David HaMelech was concerned that he would not merit God’s light in the next world. In the end, he merited it even in this world. We need to remember that the physical component of man and the physical Creation is also from God. Fortunately, God enlightens us in this world as well through the Torah and the mitzvos.
Both the darkness and the light are true and needed. Realizing that we are in darkness, that this world is a barrier that hides God’s light is the first step towards revealing that light. We find a hint to this idea in a story involving the Tanna Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch. When all his students went to Yavneh after the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash, Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch went to a different city expecting his students to follow him. They didn’t. Alone in a city known for its decadence, he forgot his Torah learning. When he had the opportunity to read from a sefer Torah, instead of reading, “This month is for you,” He transposed letters and read, “Their hearts were deaf.” Although at first glance this appears to be an innocuous mistake, the Sfas Emes explains that it actually bears out our concept. In Egypt we first needed to experience the darkness before we could merit the renewal of God’s light. The prophet Yeshaya, as well, prophesied this idea, “Listen deaf ones.” They needed to experience the deafness before they could merit listening.
In exile the nation of Israel pines to hear the word of God but its hidden from us. We need to not give up hope but rather to understand that it is hidden within the very darkness that we experience. In fact, since revealing God’s light is the primary reason that we exist in this world, we are guaranteed success through hard work. Yeshayah said this clearly, “Who … is deaf like My messenger who I send.” The messenger – us – needs to experience the deafness in order to merit being the messenger whom God sends. May we merit it!