Parashat Bo: “This Month Shall Be to You the Beginning of Months - Chodesh and Hitchadshut in Shemot Rabba

  • Dr. Tziporah Lifshitz
The Tanchuma literature is a genre within late Midrashic literature created and developed during the era of the Geonim in Eretz Israel. The second half of Shemot Rabba (from parasha 15 and on) belongs to this literature.[1] Some of the derashot brought in parasha 15 on the verse: "This month (chodesh) shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you" (Shemot 12:2) are built on the derashot of Tannaim and Amoraim on this matter, the source of which is the Mekhilta or Pesikta de-Rav Kahana. About half of them contain many derashot that appear nowhere else in Rabbinic literature.[2]
In the course of this shiur, we will examine one derasha from this group.[3]
“This month shall be to you” in Shemot Rabba
The subject of this derasha is renewal (hitchadshut, from the same root as chodesh, a term which can denote either the period of a month or the new moon which signals the commencement of such a period). Let us examine this derasha:
Another explanation: "This month shall be to you"
This is what is stated: “Who is she who looks forth as the dawn” (Shir Ha-shirim 6:10).
There are here four praises of Israel corresponding to the four exiles; for in the four exiles that befell Israel, they did not deny the Holy One, blessed be He.
Regarding the Babylonian exile, from where do we know this? As it is stated: "Who is she who looks forth as the dawn (shachar)." Nevukhadnetzar would bow down to the sun, as it is stated: "How are you fallen from heaven, morning-star, son of the dawn" (Yeshayahu 14:12). Whereas Daniel would rise at dawn and pray to God, as it is stated: "Now his windows were open in his upper chamber toward Jerusalem" (Daniel 6:11) ]to pray] evening, morning and afternoon. Why did he rise at dawn (shocher) and pray? So that the Holy One, blessed be He, would have mercy upon Israel. About him, Shelomo said: "Whoever rises at dawn (shocher) for good seeks favor" (Mishlei 11:27).
And God is found with them in their time of trouble, as it is stated: "I love them that love Me" (Mishlei 8:17). And similarly we find that when Daniel was thrown into the lions' den, he was not hurt, as it is stated: "My God has sent His angel, and has shut the lions' mouths, and they have not hurt me" (Daniel 6:23).
Chananya, Mishael and Azarya were cast into the fiery furnace, but they too were not hurt, as it is stated: "Nor was the hair of their head singed… nor had the smell of fire passed on them" (Daniel 3:27). Rather they illuminated the world, like the dawn (shachar) that illuminates the world. Therefore, "Who looks forth as the dawn." And they brought the idolaters to recognize the Holy One, blessed be He, and praise Him.
For Nevukhadnetzar said when Chananya, Mishael and Azarya emerged from the furnace: "Blessed be the God of Shadrakh, Meshakh, and Aved-Nego, servants of the supreme God" (Daniel 3:28). And similarly Daryavesh said when Daniel fell into the lions' den: "That men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for He is the living God" (Daniel 6:27). Therefore it is written: "Who is she who looks forth as the dawn."
"Fair as the moon" (Shir Ha-shirim 6:10), in the Median exile.
You find at night, when the moon is not visible in the sky, there is darkness in the world, and a person cannot walk even in the city. When the moon is visible in the sky, all are happy and walk about. So too in the days of Achashverosh, when they decreed against Israel to destroy, to kill and to annihilate, that Ester came and illuminated for Israel, as it is stated: "The Jews had light and gladness and joy" (Ester 8:16). Therefore it is written: "Fair as the moon," in the Median exile. And if you wish to know that Ester was likened to the moon, just as the moon is born (anew) every thirty days, so Ester said: "But I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days" (Ester 4:11). Therefore, "Fair as the moon," in the Median exile.
"Clear as the sun" (Shir Ha-shirim 6:10), in the kingdom of Greece.
Alexander the son of Helios was his name,[4] and the sun is called a strong man, as it is stated: "And rejoices as a strong man to run his course" (Tehillim 19:6). In the season of Tammuz, who can stand against the sun? All run away from it, as it is stated: "There is nothing hid from the heat thereof" (Tehillim 19:7). Similarly, in the kingdom of Greece, all ran away from it, but Matityahu the Priest and his sons stood in the surety of the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Greek troops fled and were all killed. And so the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: "Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning-hooks into spears; let the weak say: I am strong" (Yoel 4:10). And it says: "So perish all your enemies" (Shoftim 5:31). To fulfill what is stated: "Clear as the sun."
"Terrible as an army with banners" (Shir Ha-shirim 6:10), in Edom.
Why is she called "terrible"? Because she stands in a kingdom which casts fear. As it is stated: "And behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly" (Daniel 7:7).
What is "terrible as an army with banners"? You find twelve constellations in the sky. Just as the sky cannot stand without the twelve constellations, so the world cannot stand without the Twelve Tribes, as it is stated: "If these ordinances depart from before Me" (Yirmeyahu 31:35).
"Terrible as an army with banners (ka-nidgalot)." Degalim means hosts, as it is stated: "The standard of the camp, and his host, and those that were numbered of them" (Bamidbar 2:3-4). And similarly the standards of heaven and the angels, and the standards of the earth — Israel. The hosts of heaven, angels, as it is stated: "And all the hosts of heaven standing" (II Divrei Ha-yamim 18:18). The hosts of the earth, Israel, as it is stated: "That all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt" (Shemot 12:41). And the master of both of them is the Holy One, blessed be He.
And just as they all fear the Holy One, blessed be He, and the angels, so too the idolaters fear Israel, as it is stated: "And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the Lord" (Devarim 28:10). Therefore it is stated: "Terrible as an army with banners," for the Holy One, blessed be He, likened Israel to the angels.
Regarding the angels it is stated: "Above Him stood the seraphim" (Yeshayahu 6:2), and regarding Israel it is stated: "You are standing this day" (Devarim 29:9). The angels say every day: "Holy, holy, holy," and Israel say: "God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak, and God of Ya’akov."
The angels are called fire, as it is written: "His ministers are a raging fire" (Tehillim 104:4). And Israel likewise, as it is written: "And the house of Ya’akov shall be a fire" (Ovadya 1:18). The angels renew themselves each day, and praise the Holy One, blessed be He, and they return to the fiery river from which they emerged, and God renews them once again, and restores them to the way they had been at first, as it is stated: "They are new every morning" (Eikha 3:23). Thus Israel become immersed in sins because of the evil inclination in their bodies, and they repent, and God every year pardons their sins and renews their hearts to fear Him, as it is stated: "And I will give you a new heart" (Yechezkel 36:26).
Therefore it is written: "Terrible as an army with banners." (Shemot Rabba 15, 6)
This derasha deals with the Jewish people's loyalty to God under the rule of various foreign powers. The framework of the derasha is based on the verse: "Who is she who looks forth as the dawn, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, terrible as an army with banners" (Shir Ha-shirim 6:10), which contains four images, each of which is expounded as referring to a different period of foreign subjugation in the nation's history. Thus, the question "Who is she?" in the verse relates to the traits introduced in each one of these eras. According to this reading, and even before we examine the nature of these traits, the darshan points to the people of Israel as a people in which the capacity for renewal exists in the very foundation of its being. In each period of foreign rule, it finds within itself different powers that allow it to continue to be faithful to the covenant.
Now that the subject of the derasha has been defined, we can explain the connection between it and the verse: "This month (chodesh) shall be to you." The connecting link is hitchadshut — the first commandment given to the people, which is connected to the renewal of the moon and the ability of the court of Israel to establish the calendar, contains within it tidings of a power of renewal unique to Israel.
What is the novel trait of the nation in each period? In the Babylonian exile, two traits reveal themselves: the element of prayer, embodied in Daniel; and the readiness to sacrifice one's life for one's faith and the Torah, embodied in Chananya, Mishael and Azarya. When Babylon is conquered by Persia and Media, Ester appears, symbolizing the leader who accepts the mantle of leadership for the sake of the people, even when this entails a heavy personal price. Under Greek subjugation, it is not self-sacrifice which is expressed, but rather the heroism of the Maccabees to stand up to and confront a powerful empire. Babylon and Media demonstrate the nation's need for individuals who are prepared to rise and act on behalf of their faith or people, whereas Greece demonstrates the power and voice of a brave group of people who act zealously on behalf of the values of their people.
In contrast to these three, in the Roman exile, the focus is not on individuals or a small and well-defined group of leaders, but on the whole of the Jewish community — the Jewish public, which appears in the Midrash in the form of the Twelve Tribes. As a community, the Jews are God's ambassadors, who earn awe and admiration by way of their adherence to their Jewish way of life.[5] This idea is expressed through the derasha on "the army with banners," and in the points of comparison between Israel and the angels, as we will explore below.
The derasha compares Israel to the angels in four ways.
The first relates to the motif of standing. Let us consider the verse brought in the derasha in its original context in order to appreciate the meaning here:
You are standing this day all of you… your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water; that you should enter into the covenant of the Lord your God… Neither with you only do I make this covenant… but with him that stands here with us this day… and also with him that is not here with us this day… Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turns away this day from the Lord our God, to go to serve the gods of those nations… the Lord will not be willing to pardon him. (Devarim 29:8-19)
These verses from Parashat Nitzavim refer to the commitment for all generations not to betray the destiny of Israel as God's people. The Jewish community in exile preserves its identity and does not betray its Judaism. The second point of comparison relates to Israel's standing for the Amida prayer in the synagogue, which lies at the heart of the Jewish community.
The comparison to the angels with regard to fire also becomes clear from an examination of the cited verse:
And the house of Ya’akov shall be a fire, and the house of Yosef a flame, and the house of Eisav for stubble, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them; and there shall not be any remaining of the house of Eisav; for the Lord has spoken. (Ovadya 1:18)
Israel in exile continues to believe in deliverance. The fourth matter appears in the derasha at length, and it seems that it is the main focus: repentance, which is well-anchored in the Jewish calendar on Yom Kippur, allows for absolute purification from the evil inclination, which parallels the immersion of the angels in a river of fire. This process ensures the internal renewal of each and every member of Israel, and the renewal of the covenant between him and God.
At each stage of the four periods of foreign domination, a different power of Israel is introduced. The theme of renewal that appears at the end of the derasha adds a new dimension to this — not only does the nation as a whole renew itself, but this feature touches each and every one of its members in an essential and poignant way. What is more, the ability of each and every Jew to renew himself or herself before the Lord preserves and revives the entire nation.
The power of hitchadshut that comes into being over the course of the exile is also the force leading to salvation.[6] Thus, this derasha, which is based on the verse, "This chodesh shall be to you," connects the first redemption to the final redemption.
The first part ("who looks forth as the dawn") and the fourth part ("terrible as an army with banners") of the derasha relate to the reactions of the nations among whom the people of Israel dwell as exiles toward Israel. This emphasis accords with the context of the verse being expounded, which deals with the features of Israel in the eyes of the nations of the world, as is fitting for the reality of exile:
There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and maidens without number. My dove, my undefiled, is but one; she is the only one of her mother; she is the choice one of her that bore her. The daughters saw her, and called her happy; yea, the queens and the concubines, and they praised her. Who is she who looks forth as the dawn, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, terrible as an army with banners? (Shir Ha-shirim 6:8-10).
Over the course of the derasha, each of the images in the verse — who looks forth as the dawn, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, terrible as an army with banners — is expounded as relating to one of the exiles. In this way, the Babylonian exile is characterized as the dawn, in the image of Nevukhadnetzar ("son of the dawn"), Daniel ("rises at dawn") and the illumination of the world by way of the public sanctification of God's name. The image of the moon is expounded in reference to the joy of salvation, and the figure of Ester who resembles the moon in her beauty. Under the yoke of the kingdoms of Greece and Rome, the people of Israel merit a reversal of the traits of their oppressors to their benefit: the Greeks flee before Israel as everyone flees the heat of the sun, and the non-Jewish nations fear Israel.
The ability to live in an innovative manner in the exile requires resisting the ruling forces. The verse cited in the derasha in relation to Rome is Devarim 28:10: "And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the Lord is called upon you; and they shall be afraid of you.” This verse is one of the verses of blessing in the covenant at the plains of Moav:
The Lord will establish you for a holy people to Himself, as He has sworn to you; if you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and walk in His ways. And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the Lord is called upon you; and they shall be afraid of you. (Devarim 28:9-10)
If so, we are dealing with non-Jews who see Jews and Jewish life, perceiving something exalted and angelic. The derasha expounds a verse that describes the ideal situation in reference to the exile. In the reality of the curse, the people of Israel continue to shine and be God's people.[7]
“Who is she who looks forth as the dawn” — Shir Ha-shirim Rabba
As mentioned earlier, the derasha under discussion does not appear earlier in Rabbinic literature, but the verse from Shir Ha-shirim is expounded by the Amoraim of Eretz Israel in Shir Ha-shirim Rabba:
"Who is she who looks forth as the dawn."
A story:
Rabbi Chiya and Rabbi Shimon bar Chalafta were walking in the Arbel Valley at daybreak, and they saw the first rays of dawn breaking through.
Rabbi Chiya the Elder said to Rabbi Shimon bar Chalafta: This is the way that the redemption of Israel will break through; as it is written: "Though I sit in darkness, the Lord is a light to me" (Mikha 7:8). At first it comes little by little, afterwards it spreads wider and wider, then it increases and multiplies, and finally it thrives more and more.
Thus, at first: "In those days, while Mordekhai sat in the king's gate" (Ester 2:21), and afterwards: "And Mordekhai went forth from the presence of the king in royal apparel" (Ester 8:15); and finally: "The Jews had light and gladness" (Ester 8:16), like the dawn.
Perhaps, just as the dawn has no protection, so too Israel? Therefore the verse states: "Fair as the moon."
Perhaps, just as the moon has no clear light, so too Israel? Therefore the verse states: "Clear as the sun." This is what is stated: "But they that love Him be as the sun when it goes forth in its might" (Shoftim 5:31).
Perhaps, just as the sun beats down, so too Israel? Therefore the verse states: "Fair as the moon." This is what is stated: "How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! [and the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings]" (Tehillim 36:8).
Perhaps, just as the moon, sometimes it is deficient, sometimes it is full, so too Israel? Therefore the verse states: "Clear as the sun."
Perhaps, just as the sun serves by day, but doesn't serve at night, so too Israel? Therefore the verse states: "Fair as the moon." Just as the moon serves by day and at night, as it is written: "And to rule over the day and over the night" (Bereishit 1:18), so Israel, both in this world and in the World to Come.
Perhaps, just as the sun and the moon cast no dread, so too Israel? Therefore the verse states: "Terrible as an army with banners" — like the banners above, such as Mikhael and his banner, Gavriel and his banner. And from where do we know that they cast dread? As it is stated: "As for their rings, they were high and they were dreadful" (Yechezkel 1:18).
Rabbi Yehoshua said: [Like the banners] below, such as dukes, governors and commanders-in-chief. And from where do we know that they cast dread? As it is stated: "[After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast] dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly" (Daniel 7:7).
Rabbi Yudan and Rabbi Huna (said).
Rabbi Yudan said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yosei the Galilean, and Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Elazar of Modi’in:
It is not written here ka-degalim, "as banners," but rather, ka-nidgalot – like the generation that was stirred up for its exile (she-nitnadned le-galuto). Which is that? The generation of Chizkiyahu. As it is stated: "This is a day of trouble, and of rebuke" (Yeshayahu 37:3). And from where do we know that they cast dread? As it is stated: "He was exalted in the sight of all nations" (Divrei Ha-yamim 32:23).
Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Elazar of Modi’in:
It is not written here ka-degalim, "as banners," but rather, ka-nidgalot — like the generation that was stirred up for exile, but was not exiled. And which is that? The generation of the messianic king. This is what is stated: "For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle" (Zekharya 14:2). And from where do we know that they cast dread? As it is stated: "And he shall smite the land with the rod of his mouth" (Yeshayahu 11:4). Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Yosei bar Yirmeya: At that time Israel will be stirred from journey to journey.
Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin said: The people of Israel said: The Holy One, blessed be He, brought me to a wine cellar — this was Sinai; there was Mikhael and his banner, Gavriel and his banner. He said: O that we should journey on with this heavenly array. At that time the Holy One, blessed be He, said: Since my children have yearned to be like banners, let them camp under banners. As it is stated: "The children of Israel shall pitch by their fathers' houses; every man with his own banner, according to the ensigns" (Bamidbar 2:2). (Shir Ha-shirim Rabba 6, 1)
The initial theme of this derasha is salvation, but over the course of the derasha, the subject changes to Israel. The Midrash lists the praises of Israel, which are put together from all of the terms in the verse in Shir Ha-shirim: the people of Israel enjoy protection, their light is clear, their light is pleasant (it doesn't beat down), they are whole (they are never deficient), they serve in this world and in the World to Come, and they have standing and dignity in the world (political standing and spiritual standing as representatives of God, like the angels).
In contrast to Shemot Rabba, which expounds the verse as relating to Israel's virtues in exile, in Shir Ha-shirim Rabba the verse is expounded in reference to climactic points in the history of the people of Israel: in the course of deliverance (in the book of Ester), in the days of Chizkiyahu and the fall of Sancheiriv, in the days of the Messiah, or at Mount Sinai — the people of Israel reveal themselves in their full splendor and glory. Another difference between the two derashot is that in Shemot Rabba the four images in the verse in Shir Ha-shirim describe different traits that become manifest in different periods, whereas in Shir Ha-shirim Rabba the multiple images in the verse are expounded in reference to a single wholeness that is revealed at the same time. The people of Israel enjoy the advantages of all of the images appearing in the verse, and each one's deficiencies are filled in by the others.
Midrash and Chasidut
Connecting "This chodesh shall be to you" to Jewish characteristic of hitchadshut is a clearly Chasidic idea. We will bring two sections from the words of Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur, the Sefat Emet:
Concerning this verse: "This month shall be to you," the Sages said that the Torah should have started here. What this means is that the people of Israel merited to draw a new path into the world from the upper world, namely, the path of wonders and miracles that is unique to the people of Israel. Nature is for the nations. Since this innovation came into the world by way of the people of Israel, therefore they take a part at the beginning. This is the entire path of the Torah: how to direct nature according to the heavenly governance based on the Torah and the mitzvot. God, Who wished to renew the world based on the Torah, granted the people of Israel the privilege that this renewal would be through them.
And so too forever. Every exile is a preparation for the light of renewal that must be in the time of the redemption. And it is written: "Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them" (Yeshayahu 42:9). This means that God will allow the people of Israel to appreciate the new lights that will come in the future.
"This month shall be to you"… for with the exodus from Egypt the nation of Israel became a truly new creature, when they were chosen to become God's servants. And their souls were renewed, as Chazal said that a convert is akin to a newborn…
This is also a trait of the Jew; to be ready to sacrifice one’s life for the Holy One, blessed be He, as the Jew knows that this is the goal of creation. About this itself it is stated: "This month shall be to you." And it is written: "This people I have formed," for the people of Israel have a unique form.
In truth, everything depends on one's service, as it is stated by the Zohar regarding the verse: "And He formed the spirit of man within him," for in accordance with one's service does one merit the revelation of the spirit and soul within him… And in accordance with one's acceptance of [God's] Lordship, so is one's spirit renewed internally. Therefore there is always renewal among the people of Israel, and this is "This month shall be to you." (Sefat Emet, Bo 5641; ibid. 5650)
In the first section, the Sefat Emet points to the capacity for renewal as a general trait of Israel. In the second section, he points to this ability in the soul of each individual member of Israel, the readiness for self-sacrifice and the capacity for internal, personal service. These two planes of renewal find expression in our midrash as well.[8] From the two ends in time in Jewish spiritual creation, at the beginning of the exile and at its end, the historical wonder of Israel's loyalty to God becomes formulated and clarified, igniting hearts and refining minds.
In the current reality, in which the State of Israel is recognized as a start-up nation, the matters that have been clarified here are no longer relegated to the hermeneutical or theoretical realm. To the power of thought, let us join spiritual renewal based on the refinement of our personal traits, desires and beliefs, and may this lead to the coming of the Redeemer.
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] In contrast to the first part of Shemot Rabba, which follows the sequence of the verses, the second part has a chain of derashot on the first verse in each seder.
[2] The new derashot in Shemot Rabba 15 are: 3, 6-8, 10-11, 13-15, 17-19, 21-23, 25, 29 and 31. Some of the other derashot as well are adaptations and reworkings of earlier derashot of Tannaim and Amoraim.
[3] Often these derashot make use of existing derashot formulated in the context of other topics, now integrated in a new derasha relating to "This month shall be to you."
[4] See commentary of the Maharzav, Rav Ze'ev Wolf, ad loc.
[5] In our consciousness, exile is a place where Israel is tormented and dehumanized. It is possible, however, that the experience of exile was viewed differently during the period of the Geonim.
[6] The motif of renewal finds expression in another derasha in Shemot Rabba 15, which also, like the derasha under discussion, has no previous source in Rabbinic literature. See Shemot Rabba 15, 21. The renewal is expounded there in relation to ten innovations to be found in the world in the future.
[7] Compare Sefer Ha-Kuzari, II, 36; IV, 23.
[8] The question of the relationship between Chasidic ideas and ideas expressed in aggadic and Midrashic literature is a broad and fascinating issue, but this is not the forum to expand upon the matter.