Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Maya Zinkow, Rosh Machon 2016. Maya returns this summer for her third season as a Rosh Aidah, having spent the last two summers as Rosh Bogrim. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, and a lifelong Ramahnik, Maya is currently finishing up two years of Torah study at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. In the fall, she will be heading back to the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, home to her beloved alma mater Barnard College, where she will start rabbinical training at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Reflections on Shabbat HaChodesh by Maya Zinkow
Suddenly, it’s time. As usual, in the broader Midwest, and most of all in Conover, winter is overstaying its welcome just a bit. Yet meanwhile, campers and staff alike are counting the days to the embrace of friends, to unpacking carefully folded t-shirts, to falling asleep and waking up surrounded by smiling faces. In just over seven weeks, the rashei aidah (division heads) and outdoor education staff will be the lucky first arrivals to the lush green kikar (central campus). In eight, we will be joined by our energetic staff to begin planning and preparing for an incredible summer. And in 68 days, suddenly, camp will burst and bustle with color, laughter, and joy. The countdown has begun in earnest. As a camper, I was an avid time-keeper throughout the year; I anxiously crossed days off in my calendar from the moment I arrived home at the end of each summer until that early morning in June when I popped out of bed and hurriedly – if a bit bleary-eyed – hopped in the car to the Columbus airport. I counted and counted until finally, I didn’t need to count anymore, and time seemed to stop. For eight weeks, within the miraculous space of summer, the only differentiation in time would be tefilot (prayer), chaotic meals, and the calm and renewal of Shabbat. I was no longer a slave to time, but rather living in each holy moment.
This week, we roll our sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) back in time for the last of the four special additional readings that guide us from the topsy-turvy nature of Purim towards the redemptive, structured celebration of Pesach (Passover). The special maftir (additional reading) of Shabbat HaChodesh (literally: the Shabbat of The Month), which this year falls on Rosh Chodesh Nissan (the beginning of the new month of Nissan) itself, recounts the first mitzvah (commandment) given to bnei Yisrael (the Israelites) following their release from slavery in the land of Egypt: the dedication of the month of Nissan as the start of the Hebrew calendar year.
וַיֹּאמֶר ה׳ אֶל משֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר: הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה
Vayomer HaShem el Moshe v’el Aharon b’eretz Mitzrayim leymor: HaChodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim rishon hu lachem l’chodshei hashanah
God spoke to Moshe and to Aharon in the land of Egypt saying: this month will be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you (Exodus 12:1)
As the Israelites stand between absolute bondage and total freedom, God gives the precious gift of differentiated time. Slaves have no control over their own time, no structure in which to build their own lives. It is fitting, therefore, that the mitzvah of counting, of establishing a cycle and a framework for living a life of meaning is intrinsically linked to the reality of freedom. In discussing the different mitzvah of counting from Pesach to Shavuot (“the Omer”), Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains: “The basic criteria, which distinguishes freeman from slave, is the kind of relationship each has with time and its experience. Bondage is identical with passive intuition and reception of an empty, formal time stream… A slave who is capable of appreciating each day, of grasping its meaning and worth … is eligible for Torah. He has achieved freedom.” (Soloveitchik, Sacred and Profane: Gesher Journal)
There is, of course, a danger in relying too much on time. In obsessively planning for the future or dwelling too much on the past, in filling our calendars with to-do lists or regretting the time wasted on this or that, we lose sight of the precious, present moment. The medieval Torah commentator Rashi offers two explanations for the phrase “hachodesh hazeh.” First, he translates it literally and plainly as “this month,” but then he goes on to present an alternative reading. He says that God showed Moses the new moon and explained to him: “when the moon renews itself, it will be to you a new month.” That is to say, “hachodesh hazeh” can also be translated as “this renewal,” granting bnei Yisrael the opportunity to express renewed gratitude for that particular moment in time. Our special reading this Shabbat illustrates a unique aspect of Jewish reality; we are granted the gift of structured time but also encouraged to soak in the beauty of individual moments. This is evident in the way we ritually mark time: candlelight welcoming Shabbat, structuring the day around gratitude through prayer, renewing ourselves with each new month or festival. At camp, we model this Jewish balance of structured time and presence, starting each day with tefila (communal prayer), observing Shabbat as a community, renewing ourselves at every major milestone of the summer, all rituals which mark time with meaning and create the context for appreciating each moment’s gifts.
In this new month, as we count the days until Passover, and then begin counting towards Shavuot until the last day of school, and until the first day of camp, let us cultivate excitement and energy for ritual celebration and for the summer ahead, but let us not lose sight of what we can accomplish today, here, now.