NISAN, MONTH OF FREEDOM – Vayikra 5778 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
On this coming Shabat morning, every traditional congregation will
bring out not one but three Torah scrolls. Truly a rare occasion.
This week we will begin reading the Book of Leviticus, with all its
detailed descriptions of sacrificial worship. That’s one scroll. We
will also be marking Rosh Chodesh — the first day of a new month with
its accompanying reading in another scroll. And we will observe the
“Sabbath of THE Month” – Shabat haChodesh—by reading from scroll #3
the special section added for this occasion, Exodus 12:1-20, a
particularly significant passage for a few reasons.
First, this section sets up the order of the Jewish calendar which we
still follow. “This month for you is the head of the months, the
first of the months of the year.” This month’s name is Nisan and we
will welcome its arrival this Shabat. Even though we count our years
as beginning in the fall, we start naming our months in spring, from
Second, this section alerts us to prepare for Passover, the holiday of
freedom. It recalls the physical and spiritual drama that our
ancestors experienced when leaving Egyptian slavery.
Third, this section instructs us in the process of perpetuating the
Exodus celebration in the present and the future.
Personally, I also find special significance in this section that a
son of mine chanted at his Bar Mitzvah.
Initially this section concerns the special sacrifice – the Paschal
lamb. “Take one lamb for each household. And if the household is too
small to consume the lamb [in one evening], join with your neighbor
[and share a lamb]…each according to what that person can eat.” We
might note that the Torah sets no minimum or maximum on individual
appetites. It’s neither “hold back!” nor “ess, ess, mine kind.”
Rashi quotes the Mechilta explaining that the ill, the infants and the
aged family members who cannot eat even as much as an olive (the
minimum size portion) cannot be counted when dividing the lamb’s meat.
When slaughtering the lamb, they were commanded to take some of its
blood and put it on the lintel and the doorposts of their house, to
alert the destroying angel that this was the home of Israelites. That
blood proclaimed that this was not an Egyptian house that was to be
visited with the fearful Tenth Plague – the death of the firstborn.
Some commentators develop a teaching about that blood. Later in the
chapter comes the commandment: “No uncircumcised male may eat of it.”
Since many Israelite slaves were not circumcised, that meant they
would have to have a quick Bris in order to partake of the Paschal
Lamb. And their blood could be combined with the lamb’s blood to form
the signal on the doorpost. Human and animal bloods join to herald
We continue to read the detailed rules of how to cook the lamb (or
goat, by the way, either was acceptable): roast it whole, don’t boil
it or eat any of it raw, and combine it with Matzoh and bitter herbs.
(All those processes we still follow at our Seder meals.) Also what
to wear at that feast? Travelling clothes – tie your belt, put your
shoes on, and keep your walking stick in your hand – because you must
be ready to go.
Indeed our people found themselves in that double situation many times
throughout history – celebrating the heritage, and ready to go.
Indeed many of us still do. What will empower Pesach for endangered
Jews this year – in France or Syria or Ukraine or Iran – should be the
hope that their desperate travel will take them to freedom.
Keyn y’hi ratzon – may this be G-d’s will.