Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the new moon of Nisan, is called in the Midrash, “the day of the ten crowns,” for it was on this day that Moses raised the Tabernacle in the desert, and the service of the Cohanim, the priests, on behalf of all Israel was begun. It was this service which was continued in the Temple, and later, after its destruction, became the basis of our prayers in the synagogue.
Rosh Chodesh Nisan is also the day when Israel received two year earlier, its first mitzvah as a people in preparation for leaving Egypt. This mitzvah established the month of Nisan as the first of the months of the year, along with the wisdom to arrange the Jewish calendar according to the secrets that God gave to Moses. The ability to become the masters of time was the preparation needed to come out of Egypt where we were slaves. We read the section describing this first mitzvah every year as one of the four special portions read between the new moon of Adar, the month of Purim, and Pesach.
Rosh Chodesh Nisan is one of the four New Years in the Jewish calendar. Kings count the years of their rule from this day. It also begins the cycle of the three major pilgrimage festivals – Pesach, Shavuot and Succot.
The book of Leviticus begins with God calling to Moses from the Tabernacle on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the day of the ten crowns, instructing him in the service which would from then on be the focal point of all Divine service. The Book of Leviticus is called after the first word vayikra, “and He called,” and the fact that it occurred on Rosh Chodesh Nisan is connected to the statement of the Sages: “Who is the wise one? One who sees the ‘birth'” (Tamid 32a). “Birth” in a narrow sense means the birth of the new moon, but in a broader sense means – one who sees all subsequent events born from an initial act.
It is obvious that Rosh Chodesh Nisan manifests its importance in many different ways and therefore we must attempt to see how all the various aspects of this auspicious day are connected.
There is one more phenomenon connected to this day and that is the appearance in the Torah of a small letter alef in the word vayikra, the first word of Leviticus. We are taught that the 600,000 men between the ages of twenty and sixty who left Egypt represent the archetypal root souls of all of Israel. These souls are further connected to the 600,000 letters of the Torah, wherein every Jew has their particular letter, their special gate or pathway through which to understand the whole Torah. Who is the wise one – one who sees the whole Torah shining through every portion, verse and word, even every individual letter.
As we will see the small alef appearing in the word vayikra, “and He called,” can be seen as the connecting point of all the various aspects of Rosh Chodesh Nisan, bringing a deep understanding of the significance of the day for each Jew in every generation. For the small alef represents the service of God to which all Jews ultimately aspire. Even more than this, the small alef hints to the process of creation, its purpose, and the possibility of relating to an Infinite Creator within the temporal parameters of a finite world.
The Zohar (2:161b) teaches that when God created the world He first looked into the Torah and then created the world. The seven days of creation as written in the Torah are more than the recorded history of the creative process as it unfolded, rather these very letters and words are the blueprint itself into which God “looked” and then “spoke” the world into existence. Similar to a scientist who relates to atoms, chemicals, and energy as the “building blocks” of creation, Jewish tradition relates to each Hebrew letter as a prototype of spiritual energy, the building blocks through which the world is built and maintained. God speaking the world into existence teaches us the connection between speech and the creative process.
We are taught in Pirkei Avot (5:1) that God created the world through ten utterances – for example: “and God said let there be light and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). Similarly we recite daily in our prayers: “Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into existence.”
The first letter of the Torah is a large beit, whose numerical value is two. This symbolizes the dualistic nature of the world, i.e. infinite and finite, day and night, man and woman, sun and moon, life and death, spiritual and physical, soul and body etc. The question naturally arises – why does the Torah begin with the second letter beit, and not the first letter an alef.
The Zohar answers in the following parable (Introduction to the Zohar: 23). When God wanted to create the world, all the letters came before Him one by one, beginning with the last letter, asking that they have the merit of being the first letter in the Torah. Each letter had a good reason based on a positive word which began with itself, but God countered them one by one, exclaiming that a word signifying a negative idea also started with that letter and therefore the Torah could not begin with them. All the letters were disqualified till the letter beit came before God and said the word baruch, blessed, begins with it and through this word people will come to praise the Creator. God agreed to this argument and thus the first letter of the Torah became the beit. Then God asked the alef to present a claim. The alef, instead of objecting that it was not given a proper chance answered by saying that since it was already decided there was no need for it to present a claim. God replied that since the alef had so much humbleness, it would be the first letter of Anochi, the initial word of the ten commandments.
The two tablets containing the ten commandments were kept in the ark in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. Even before Moses raised up the Tabernacle, God had told him that when He wanted to speak to him it would be from between the two cherubs on the covering of the ark. The Holy of Holies in the Temple represents the center point, the spiritual vortex around which the entire world revolves. It is from this place that God calls (vayikra) to Moses on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. The alef, which seemingly does not appear in its logical place in the creation of the world, significantly appears on this day in the holiest of places. The fact that the alef in the word vayikra appears as a small letter alludes to the great secret of tzimtzum, “contraction,” as taught in the Kabbalah. Through this concept we can begin to understand the reappearance of the alef on the “day of ten crowns.”
When the “thought” arose in God’s mind to create the world, an allegorical problem arose as well. Since there was no reality other than the infiniteness of God, where, as it were, could He create “space” for a finite, “independent” world. The Arizal, the great 16th century Kabbalist, explained that God “contracted” Himself, so to speak, in order to create, a “vacuum” or womb like space in which a finite world could then be created. Into the “vacuum” God shone the first ray of light and the world came into being. It can be understood that the alef, representing oneness and the unity of God, and preceding the beit, signifying duality, contracted itself (only seemingly of course) to make room for the world.
The act of tzimtzum which allowed the world to come into being is the basic secret of the Temple in Jerusalem – the revelation of the Creator contracting His Infinite presence, as it were, in order to be to be perceived in a concentrated manner in a finite place. The small alef hints at our potential to actually experience this paradox of paradoxes.
Our life is spent trying to live within the paradoxical context of God both revealing and hiding Himself in the world. Jacob called the ladder, stretching from the earth to the heavens, in the very place where the Temple was eventually built, the “gate to heaven” (Genesis 28:10-17). A Jew must constantly be a ladder between eternal and temporal time, between infinite and finite space. “Who is the wise one? One who sees the ‘birth’.” The small alef, representing the paradox of creation beckons us to connect ourselves to the mystery of all life.<
The connection between the small alef of Vayikra and Rosh Chodesn Nisan can be better understood if we relate it to the discussion in the Talmud as to during which month was the world created – Tishrei, the month of Rosh HaShanah and the new year, or Nisan, the month of Pesach and the first of the months (Rosh HaShanah 11a). There are many proofs brought for both arguments, but according to one opinion, the world is created in potential in Tishrei and in actuality in Nisan. This sheds a totally new light on the significance of the erection of the Tabernacle on the very day that God created the world!
It is known that the construction and contents of the Tabernacle were intended to be a reflection of the upper spiritual worlds. Each of the measurements, colors, materials, arrangements, numbers etc, which appear in the Torah’s explanation of the Tabernacle allude to the actual order and arrangement of the physical and spiritual worlds. It is on Rosh Chodesh Nisan that God manifests even clearer His offer made at Sinai: “And you shall be to me a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).
At the revelation at Sinai we were passive, but in the Tabernacle we took an active role in becoming partners with God in the creation and maintenance of the world. The service to which God invited Moses and all Israel to partake for all time, on the day the Tabernacle was inaugurated, is reflected in what we say every morning in our prayers: “in His goodness He renews daily, perpetually the work of creation.” The “ten crowns” of Rosh Chodesh Nisan are a manifestation of the ten utterances through which God created the world. This is represented by the simple meaning of Vayikra, “and He called,” being similar to an utterance. Our service of God gives us the strength and creative ability to renew ourselves again and again, thus connecting our service to God and the power of creation itself.
The first Rashi on the opening verse of the Torah begins: “Rabbi Yitzhak said: ‘The Torah did not have to start except from ‘this month will be for you the first of the months,’ because this was the first mitzvah commanded to Israel.” At first, this opinion is almost incomprehensible, even with understanding his reason that since the Torah is basically “instruction,” we don’t need to start except from the beginning of the commandments, which is Rosh Chodesh Nisan. If we understand though that his opinion alludes to the fact that the world was not created until Rosh Chodesh Nisan, then the opinion of Rabbi Yitzhak is much more understandable.
The first mitzvah given in preparation for coming out of Egypt connects the birth of Israel as a nation with the creation of the world. This idea is the manifestation of the statement of the Sages that when God “thought” to create the world “the thought of Israel arose first” (Bereishit Rabbah 1:4). Our slavery in Egypt is analogous to the tzimtzum preceding creation, while the exodus corresponds to the primordial ray of light piercing the void. The beginning of redemption is Rosh Chodesh Nisan and finds its ultimate expression on Shavuot with the giving of the Torah, when the alef appears as the first letter of the ten commandments.
The ten commandments, intrinsically linked to the ten utterances of creation, manifests an even further revelation on the day of the ten crowns.
The small alef is also connected to the fact that Moses was “heavy mouthed,” leading him to feel inadequate at first to fulfill the mission of taking Israel out of Egypt. Moses was truly humble, so much so that the Torah testifies that Moses was “the most humble person on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). According to the Midrash, when God told Moses to write the word vayikra, Moses objected to this language of endearment being used in relation to himself and asked that the word be written without an alef altogether. A compromise of sorts was reached and Moses wrote the word with an alef, but as a sign of humbleness wrote it small.
An even deeper way to understand the small alef is that when God called to Moses to enter the Tabernacle he was unable to enter because the Glory of God filled the whole place. God, so to speak, contracted His Infinite Presence, as alluded to in the small alef, as in the beginning of creation, to make a place for Moses to enter into the service of God.
The paradox of the small alef is in fact related to all of the mitzvot, which allow us to experience the infiniteness of God within limited time and space. One who performs a mitzvah with a pure heart and intent is one who sees the “birth,” connecting to the very purpose of creation.
The rejuvenating energy of creation is the “crown of a king” and therefore Rosh Chodesh Nisan is the New Year from which a king counts the years of his reign. In this sense the Jewish people as children of the King of Kings are perpetually drawing from the renewal of creation.
The ability to walk, symbolizing the concept of progress and growth, also draws its energy from Rosh Chodesh Nisan, and accordingly, it is considered the New Year of the festival cycle, called in Hebrew, regalim, “feet.” Going up to Jerusalem during the three pilgrimage holidays are similarly referred to as aliyat haregel, the “going up of the foot.”
According to the teachings of Chassidut we must attempt to see every mitzvah, story and character in the Torah as somehow connected to our personal lives. Every person has within their consciousness a small part of the archetypal characters in the Bible and each mitzvah, whether they apply to us today or not, are equally relevant in their eternal moral value. This is especially true of all the mitzvot which we no longer do because of the destruction of the Temple, and on whose existence they depend.
The small alef teaches us many things about the nature of teshuva, repentance, whether as a means of penitence or as a means of returning closer to God. A very deep teaching about teshuva and our relationship with God can be learned from the mitzvah received on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, namely the wisdom and secrets of arranging the Jewish calendar.
It states in Pirkei Avot ( 2:5 ): “Do not judge you fellow man until you have been in his position.” Rabbi Natan, the primary disciple of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, in his book Likutai Halachot, used this teaching to explain a novel way of approaching God on Rosh HaShanah. The Torah records that when God created the world, He created the two great lights, the sun and the moon. According to the Talmud, the moon complained that two kings cannot rule with one crown; so God said to the moon, if that is the case then make yourself small (Hullin 60b). The Jewish calendar is unique in that it combines a basic lunar cycle, while taking into account the solar cycle as well. This compatibility of opposites in itself points to the ultimate purpose of the service of the Jewish people.
Every Rosh Chodesh in the time of the Temple service a goat was brought as a sin offering. In the Torah it is referred to as a sin offering for God (Numbers 28:15). The Talmud declares that God Himself, so to speak, brings a sin offering every Rosh Chodesh because He regrets making the moon small (Hullin 60b). Rosh HaShanah is also Rosh Chodesh Tishrei, though there is virtually no reference in our prayers to this fact. Nevertheless, it is written: “Blow the shofar at the moon’s renewal, on the day of veiling the moon, for our feast day” (Psalms 81:3).
Rabbi Natan explains that on Rosh HaShanah, when we approach the King, the Holy Judge, with awe and fear, God is fulfilling the phrase: “Do not judge you fellow man until you have been in his position.” It is as if God is saying to us – “I understand your predicament, I also bring a sin offering today – please let us draw close again.” This teaching can be extended to understand the service of the Temple and the process of teshuva itself. If someone needs help to rectify themselves, they can only approach a Rebbe, friend, or loved one, if they think that person can truly empathize and relate to their pain and confusion.
The moon, as a symbol of the Jewish people, teaches us the cyclic flow of life and of constant rebirth and hope. When God calls us to the service of the Tabernacle He is inviting us to have a personal relationship with Him, he makes room for us to enter. The small alef of Vayikra and the large beit of Breishit, the first word of the Torah, spell av, father – our father in heaven.
The idea of empathy relates to why, on at least a superficial understanding, Aaron was partly responsible for the Golden Calf, even though we know from the commentaries that he did all he could to stop the people. Aaron, who was to be the High Priest, needed to feel in the deepest way the teaching of “Do not judge you fellow man until you have been in his position,” so he would be able to relate to all those who would come to the Temple to do teshuva. This is why the Talmud states that not only Aaron, but the entire generation of the desert were not fitting to do that sin. The same is said of David when he sinned with Bat Sheva. The Talmud asserts that they sinned on some deep level to show teshuva to all the generations – for the individual in the case of David and the multitude in the case of the generation of the desert (Avodah Zara 4b;5a).
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov perhaps more than anyone else in recent times took the idea of relating to God directly as a “friend” who cares to its farthest logical conclusion in his concept of hitbodadut, the spiritual discipline of “being alone [with God].” He taught that we need to talk to God and express ourselves fully in set times other than daily prayer, and during these moments to cry, be joyful, pour out our hearts, talk and confide in Him, as if He was a friend whose presence can be felt intimately. This attitude relates to God’s relationship with Moses: “and God spoke to Moses face to face, like a man talks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11).
Besides relating to God as Lord, Master, Creator, Judge, Loved One, Infinite and Omnipotent, there is also a way of relating to God as an understanding Friend. The significance of hitbodadut being one of the pillars of the teachings of Rebbe Nachman can be better understood when we realize that he was born on Rosh Chodesh Nisan.
“In every place you find God’s greatness, there you find His humility” (Megilah 31a). This statement can certainly be understood to be manifest in the small alef, as explained above. Just as God gives of Himself to create and sustain the world, so too we must give of ourselves for God. It is as if God is telling us – “I make a place in my Self to create the world; if you want to draw near then make a place in your hearts and lives for Me.”
Following the opening verse of Leviticus where God calls to Moses, the second sentence begins: “A man who brings from yourselves a sacrifice to God…” In other words, a sacrifice to God can only come from the inner most essence of each person. When taking the letters of the word ani, “I,” (alef – nun – yod ) and changing their order we form the word ain, “nothingness,”(aleph – yod -nun).
The form of the alef is a yod above and a yod below with a vav connecting them. Therefore, in the unity of the alef is hidden the potential duality of the world, and all the inherent paradox therein The vav of the alef serves to both divide and unite simultaneously. This paradox can best be seen in one of the ten miracles which occurred in the Temple on Yom Kippur. The people were so crowded together that there was hardly any space to move, but when the High Priest would pronounce the Ineffable Name of God there would miraculously be enough room for everyone to completely prostrate themselves. This represents the true transformation of the ani, “I” into ain, “nothingness.” This miracle can be seen additionally in the letters of the word alef, when read backwards, spell pelah, a “wonder.”
“A man (Adam) who brings from yourself a sacrifice to God.” Rashi explains that the use of the word Adam in this verse alludes to Adam, the first man. Just as the first man did not bring from anything stolen, for all was his, we also should not bring a sacrifice from anything stolen. We must strive to attain the level of Adam before the sin. We know that Rosh HaShanah celebrates the birthday of Adam. When God created man, the Torah states: “and He blew into his nostrils soul of life…” (Genesis 2:7). The “soul of life” is translated by Onkelos as a “speaking spirit/intelligence.” The differentiating quality of man is the ability to express himself in speech. Just as God created the world through speech, this quality gives us the ability to translate potential thought into action through the power of speech.
Pesach is read peh – sach, the “mouth speaks” and the Hagadah of Seder night is based on telling over the story of the redemption from Egypt, Mitzrayim. The narrow place – meitzar – the root of Mitzrayim, symbolizes the narrow constraints we need to break out of in order to allow freedom to reach its full potential. The full expression of the word Adam is found in the first letter of the Book of Chronicles, the last book of the Bible: “Adam, Seth, Enosh.” In this verse, the alef of Adam is a large alef. The purpose of creation will ultimately lead the whole world to a full revelation of the alef and the ultimate unity of all things.
Rosh Chodesh Nisan begins yearly the process of renewal and freedom and its teachings are relevant to each and every person. Who is the wise one? One who can see the unity of God in all creation.