Tomorrow is Shabbat HaChodesh (“Sabbath [of the] month”), which is the Shabbat that precedes the month of Nisan during which Pesach (Passover) is celebrated (Exodus 12:1-20). Traditionally, Rosh Chodesh Nisan is the first month of the Jewish year according to the schedule of the mo’edim (festivals; Lev. 23). Pesach is probably one of the most Judaically defining of all the mo’edim. Without the Exodus, and therefore without Pesach which commemorates the Exodus, the Jewish people would not exist today.
It is also important to note that Pesach is not just a commemoration of a historical event that happened centuries ago; it is re-lived every year. Rabban Gamaliel instructs the Jewish people,
In every generation a man is obligated to regard himself as though he personally had gone forth from Egypt, because it is said, “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: ‘It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8). Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise, laud, glorify, raise up, beautify, bless, extol, and adore Him who made all these miracles for our fathers and ourselves; He brought us forth from slavery into freedom, from sorrow into joy, from mourning into festivity, from darkness into great light, and from servitude into redemption. Let us say before him, Hallelujah!M. Pesachim 10.5
Each one of us is to personally consider that we ourselves have come out of Egypt. Notice that Rabban Gamaliel commended each person “in every generation” to recognize that Hashem has brought the individual out of Egypt. But in light of this understanding, Rabban Gamaliel also states that “ it is our duty…,” the duty of the entire community, “to thank, praise, laud, glorify, etc.,” Hashem for His actions on behalf the Children of Israel way back then as well as for His actions on behalf of us today.
It is often said that a sense of community is at the very heart of the Jewish people. I can remember going camping on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, arriving in the early Thursday afternoon so that we could get the tent up before the afternoon winds came. Often, because of our arrival time, we would be the only one in the campground, which was usually rather large and spread out. By evening time, the campground had filled with other week-end campers. What surprised me, at least the first couple of times, is that when others came into the campground, they seldom chose a separate or more isolated section–they usually set up their tent either near ours or near the folks that were already next to us. In the end, though we did not know one another, we were all close proximity to one another, almost like a mini community. Once a friend described it as an Israeli herd instinct. Looking back on it though, I think it affirms the fact that community is at the heart of the Jewish people.
On this Shabbat HaChodesh, as we begin thinking about Pesach and our traditional gatherings as a community with family and friends to commemorate the festival, the traditional gatherings may well be minimalized or forbidden all together due to the COVID-19 pandemic that we are currently experiencing. Jewish lifecycle events all over the world have been curtailed or postponed indefinitely due to the social distancing that the pandemic has necessitated. So how do we as a community celebrate a festival when we cannot gather together in our customary fashion due to health concerns and numeric restrictions? The answer is simple, we create new customs. We do what we can do with what we have. We focus on Him who is the reason for the festival, and we remember not only the Exodus, but we remember those times when we celebrated with family and friends. Aside from just remembering past celebrations, one person suggested to link family members together via the internet possibly setting up laptops, iPads/tablets, or even cell phones at individual place settings where family members or friends would normally sit. No, it is not ideal, but is a way to maintain a degree of community.
Closer to the present, however, this Shabbat (and Sunday for some) most of us will be subject to local health ministry and governmental restrictions. Meetings in Israel are now restricted to 10 (some events 5) individuals or less with a 2-meter social distance between them. For chavurot (house groups) like ours, the number is not a problem, but the social distancing is. Some congregations are attempting to live stream their services while others are using applications like FaceTime and Zoom to stay connected and to support one another during these “interesting” times.
During these “interesting times, let’s remember these words from the writer of Hebrews,
And let us keep paying attention to one another, in order to spur each other on to love and good deeds, not neglecting our own congregational meetings, as some have made a practice of doing, but, rather, encouraging each other.Hebrews 10:24-25, CJB
Even though we cannot meet together physically, today’s technology allows for, even encourages, us to stay connected and to meet together for support, edification, and encouragement. I encourage everyone to find ways that work for you and your community to stay connected and to stay safe.
The readings for this Shabbat are:
Torah: Exodus 35:1 – 40:38
Special Maftir: Exodus 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16 – 46:18
Besorah: Matthew 15:32-39