In a certain sense, the process of yetzias Mitzrayim started with Hashem telling Moshe Rabbeinu “Hachodesh hazeh lachem… This month (i.e., new moon) is to be for you (Klal Yisrael) the head of all other months; it is to be the first of all the months.” That parshah in the Torah then goes on to talk about the korban Pesach, eating matzos, and the prohibitions associated with chametz. This seems a bit incongruous; what is that first passuk doing there? As important as that mitzvah is, and in fact that passuk reflects the mitzvah of setting up the Jewish calendar, both its (lunar) months and its (sometime 13-month ) year, what is its connection to this particular parshah, which deals with the mitzvos which help form our celebration of Pesach and yetzias Mitzrayim. It becomes even stranger when one considers that when we read this parshah as the last of the ‘four parshiyos’ which lead us up into Pesach, the name we give it is not ‘Parshas Matzah’ or ‘Parshas Korban Pesach.’ Rather, it is called “Parshas Hachodesh,” echoing that first passuk. Why is that the case? True, we have to read that passuk —after all, it’s there, and it surely wouldn’t do to skip it! However, why name the Torah reading after that ‘foreign’ passuk? Moreover, in another indication of this specific passuk’s significance, Rashi, in the very first statement of Rashi on the Torah, tells us that the very first mitzvah given to Klal Yisrael, and hence rightfully the theoretical beginning of the entire Torah, should be this mitzvah of “Hachodesh hazeh lachem.” Of all the mitzvos, why this one?
The actual story of yetzias Mitzrayim quite arguably starts with the passuk in Shemos (1:8), “A new King arose in Egypt who knew not Yosef”. The Medrash Rabbah on this passuk cites a passuk in Hoshea “They (Bnei Yisrael) have been traitorous to Hashem…now their enemies will devour their portion monthly.” The Medrash treats the word “chodesh (monthly)” as it is written, meaning without a ‘vov’, and thus easily read as the word “chadash (new),” and the Medrash then cites our passuk in Shemos (1:8) as a fulfillment of that prophecy, as if that prophecy read “….now their enemies will devour them with the power of newness (chadash).” “A new King arose in Egypt…” is an example of that power of newness unleashed and given to our enemies. What does all this mean?
The Gemara in Shabbos (147b) tells the following story about R’ Elazar ben Arach, of Pirkei Avos fame (see there 2:8,9), one of the five greatest disciples of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, and according to one opinion, equal to all the greatest Rabbis of Israel put together. The Gemara recounts that he was once visiting cities renowned for their fine wines and hot baths. He partook a bit of those pleasures, Chazal tell us, and promptly his learning, his connection to Torah, was “uprooted”. Chazal go on to say that this went to such an extent that when he returned to his hometown, he was given a sefer Torah to read, and instead of reading the words “hachodesh hazeh lachem” (the passuk we are dealing with) properly, he read them as “hacheresh (substituting a reish for a dalet) hayah (substituting a yud for a zayin) leebam (substituting a beis for a chaf). The ‘new’ meaning of this mispronounced passuk is “their hearts were stuffed like (the ears of) the deaf.” Quite obviously, besides the issue of the mispronunciation itself, there is a message here—why was this passuk, of all pesukim, chosen by R’ Elazar to read? And is it just coincidence that his mispronounced words form a coherent sentence, and deliver a coherent message? What is that message?
The passuk says in Koheles (1:9), “There is nothing new under the sun”. Chazal tell us the corollary: “There is nothing new under the sun; but as for matters which are above the sun, there certainly can be something new.” These somewhat cryptic remarks are explained as follows: ‘under the sun’ refers to everything in this world, in this universe, everything physical, and it is saying that there is “nothing new”—everything is under the influence and is affected by—time! In the world that we occupy, in the universe that we occupy, we live under the influence of time —time marches on. Thus, things grow old, experiences grow old, and people keep searching for that rush of newness that will make whatever it is they are experiencing exciting rather than boring. New furniture, a new car, new (in-style) clothing (and what is in-style if not a search for the thrill of newness), trips to places merely for the sake of going to a new place, having a new experience. We search for newness, but we will ultimately not find it tachas hashemesh —in all things physical, which are under the sway of time.
However, above the sun, with things spiritual, things not of this world, these are timeless and forever fresh —unaffected by the march of time. I daven Minchah —the same Minchah as yesterday. I review the blatt (in itself no easy task). I take challah–just as I did yesterday. Yet if I am connecting to the spiritual sphere, I will always feel connected, fresh, ever gaining a new insight, a deeper understanding, and a new closeness to Hashem. For these things are indeed, or should be, unaffected by time.
The formation of Klal Yisrael required a brand new narrative. Here is to be a nation rooted in ruchniyus, in spirituality. An otherworldly people
—and thus, unaffected by time. For spirituality is indeed timeless. Thus, we are told to measure time by the moon, an entity of perpetual renewal, reminding us to remain ‘above the sun.’ R’ Elazar ben Arach became, to a degree, somewhat unleashed from the spiritual moorings to which he was usually attached. And so, “hachodesh hazeh lachem” — this newness (new moon) is for you (Bnei Yisrael, a nation of spirituality), became “hacharash hayah leebam” —their hearts became stuffed up— old, boring, not ready for new, fresh, matters —being physical, and under the sun.
As Bnei Yisrael succumbed to the physicality of Egypt, their enemies were given the gift of newness —never tiring of oppressing Bnei Yisrael. Not remembering the past (“asher lo yoda es Yosef”) is the ultimate “melech chadash.” The Exodus recaptured for Bnei Yisrael the gift of ‘chadash’, the gift of spirituality, and thus the gift of timelessness, of always feeling fresh and exuberant, of finding new meanings and new connections in “old” containers. So if your davening seems stale… if you acts of chessed get boring… if your berachos are by rote —you might be missing that first step of geulah— being rooted in spirituality, rather than being tachas hashemesh.