Rabbi's Corner

From One Cycle to the Next

Ordinarily, Jews associate the New Year with Rosh Hashanah, the time of the year when we start over with a clean slate while celebrating the sweetness and happiness that traditionally comes with new beginnings. But the Rabbi’s of the Talmudic period suggested that there were in fact four New Years: Rosh Hashanah corresponds to the birthday of the world, Tu B’shvat as the New Year for the trees and the environment, the first of the month of Elul for tithing, and the beginning of Nissan aligns with a resetting of the agricultural calendar with the onset of the spring season, which is one of the main reasons why Passover must take place in the spring (See Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1). Additionally, our rabbinic tradition equates the month of Nissan as marking the transition from being the Children of Israel (B’nai Yisrael) to becoming a Nation of Israel (Am Yisrael) with the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

If we look at the calendar in this way, then Purim, which always falls in the Hebrew month of Adar, is in fact the last celebration of the year while Passover is the first. Important note: Since Passover is the holiday of springtime, it must always fall in the spring. Because Rosh Hashanah was so early in 5774/2013, in order to reset the Hebrew/Lunar calendar, we add in leap month as a way of recalibrating, which is why this year we have a leap year, an extra month of Adar. If it weren’t for our leap year cycle, Rosh Hashanah could end up being in the spring and Passover in the fall...Oy!

There is an interesting juxtaposition between starting our year with Passover and ending it with Purim. What’s striking is that if we follow the Rabbinic model of beginning with Passover, then our Jewish narrative begins with our narrative of slavery, oppression, darkness, and the like. The Passover seder even speaks to this tension and the hopeful and eventual Exodus from Egypt, the shift from darkness to light, slavery to freedom, and mourning to joy. In some ways, the story of Purim has a similar motif: a story about near destruction and sadness, a moment where one of our enemies who will remain nameless (and I’m not talking about Voldemort) sought to wipe us off the face of the earth. Yet somehow, both Passover and Purim, in coming full circle, help to bookend our year with a sense of strength, of opportunity, of happiness, and the possibility of peace.

Of all of the holidays, rituals, and meaningful experiences that exist in Jewish tradition, my sense is that both Passover and Purim will be the two sacred events that will always exist throughout time. Toward the end of the Book of Esther we read, “These days of Purim shall be observed at their proper time, as Mordechai the Jew—and now Queen Esther—has obligated them to do” (Esther 9:31). A Midrash, a rabbinic story teaches that Purim will never leave us. Perhaps a time will come when other holidays will lose their meaning when our world reaches a state of unity and peace, yet “we will still need Purim for its silliness, its irreverence, its ability to unmask secrets and unseat self-righteous powers. Purim...awakens us through laughter and teaches us to know ourselves” (See The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons by Rabbi Jill Hammer). Similarly, I would argue that if it weren’t for Passover, our existence as a people, our strength as a nation would not have come into being. As such, the Passover narrative will always serve as reorienting us to where we’ve come from and where we are going as we say Zecher L’yitziyat Mitzrayim, we remember the Exodus from Egypt. And it is through that journey and our collective memory as Jews that we have been inspired to pursue freedom and peace for all.

As we move into Purim and then transition to Passover, I think it is important to hold on to both pieces of the pole: the Exodus narrative that helped us form as a People and the joy and happiness can be achieved when we walk side by side in the face of vulnerability, struggle, and oppression. In the same way that our holiday cycle begins with the defining moment in Jewish history of our becoming a Nation of Israel and concludes with our coming together to celebrate the thwarting of evil in the world, so to may we be reminded that our coming together as Jews has allowed us to endure until this day. And perhaps it will be through this shared narrative that we will be able to bring freedom, happiness, and holiness to the world. May your Purim be filled with joy and happiness and your Passover filled with hope, inspiration, and strength, as we complete one cycle and begin the next.

Rabbi Corey Helfand