We read in Parashat Bo of the command given to Benei Yisrael before the Exodus, “Ha-chodesh ha-zeh lakhem rosh chadashim” – “This month [Nissan] is for you the first of the months” (12:2). This verse has been understood as not only designating Nissan as the first month of the Jewish year, but also establishing the general system of the Jewish calendar, which is based upon the monthly sighting of the new moon.
The Gemara in Masekhet Shabbat (147b) tells the unusual story of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, who once went to a place called Deyomeset, which is described as having been inhabited by a wealthy, pampered, indulgent society. Rabbi Elazar, the Gemara relates, fell into this community’s lifestyle, indulging in physical and material pleasures, and thus forgot his vast Torah knowledge. Upon his return, he was called to read the Torah, and that day’s reading happened to begin with the command of, “Ha-chodesh ha-zeh lakhem rosh chadashim.” Having forgotten even to read properly, Rabbi Elazar mistakenly read the words “ha-chodesh ha-zeh lakhem” as “he-charash haya libam” (“their heart was deaf”). He confused the letter dalet of “ha-chodesh” with the letter reish, which closely resembles a dalet. Likewise, he confused the zayin in the word “ha-zeh” with the letter yod, and confused the khaf in “lakhem” with the letter bet. His peers pitied him and prayed on his behalf, whereupon he regained his knowledge.
The Kotzker Rebbe ambiguously comments about this incident, “Meaning, even though ‘their heart was deaf,’ nevertheless, ‘this month is for you’.” It appears that the Rebbe seeks to explain the significance of Rabbi Elazar’s misreading of this verse as “he-charash haya libam,” but his intent is unclear.
The mitzva of kiddush ha-chodesh – designating new months based on the sighting of the new moon – has often been viewed as symbolic of the theme of renewal. The word “chodesh” (“month”) is derived from the word “chadash” (“new”), because it begins when the moon starts to renew itself. The lunar cycle reflects our remarkable capacity for change, growth and revival, that just as the moon begins to grow anew after nearly disappearing, we, too, can change course and grow regardless of how “small” and low we have become.
This is perhaps the connection between the story of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh and the command of “ha-chodesh ha-zeh lakhem.” This is the story of a towering scholar, whose knowledge exceeded that of all his colleagues combined (Avot 2:8), who experienced a humiliating downfall. The mistake he made symbolized to the people around him that even though he became “deaf,” reaching a point where he seemed incapable of ever again accumulating knowledge, he still had the potential to rebound. In contrast to “he-charash haya libam,” his embarrassing, seemingly helpless state of ignorance and estrangement from Torah learning, stood the message of “ha-chodesh ha-zeh lakhem,” the eternal promise of the potential for growth and renewal. And thus Rabbi Elazar’s colleagues refused to despair, to resign themselves to the permanent loss of an extraordinary scholar of singular talents. They gave him encouragement and their heartfelt prayers, and indeed, like the moon, he regained his former stature and once again shone the brilliant light of Torah upon the world.