By Rabbi Dan Lewin
This week we began a new month — Nissan. Nissan is the first month in the Jewish calendar. Every month has a unique theme and opportunity that only that month can offer. And by understanding the character of that month, we can better know how to tap into its power.
The main feature of Nissan is the extra assistance that we get from “above,” which, in short, means that we can reach new levels in personal growth and spiritual heights that we could not accomplish through our own efforts.
Toil, choice and change
To explain the pervading atmosphere of Nissan, it is first necessary to examine an overarching principle: There are three components that are bound with a human being’s essence, which are intertwined with one another: choice, toil and change.
“Man was born to toil.” (Job 5:7) Someone who is not toiling or grinding will inevitably feel unfulfilled, out of touch with his or her essential purpose. Unlike all other creations, we have the freedom to choose and the ability to change the structure of our innate personality. Other creatures are more limited, working within their already programmed framework, able to be trained but not transcend their nature.
Put simply, to realize our highest spiritual purpose and potential, we can and must choose to toil in order to bring about some change within ourselves or the outside world. The relevant question always becomes how effective our effort is in achieving results. The answer often depends on the area. The Talmud (Megilla, 6b) implies that there is a direct correspondence: The more we toil, the more success we are guaranteed to find.
The commentaries then qualify this statement by explaining that such a guarantee refers only to the spiritual arena — Torah study and character refinement — but when it comes to career and other matters, success is largely dependent on “Heavenly assistance.” (This does not mean that effort is unnecessary to achieve results, only that the effort triggers, so to speak, the blessing rather than creates it.)
Arousal from above
The time of year where this “heavenly assistance” is both more dominant and precedes toil is Nissan. It is highlighted by the festival of Pesach, whose notable imagery is “taking a leap” and “breaking free,” and during this calendar period we are given the power to elevate, to experience a massive influx of holiness, beyond the average day’s experience.
Historically, the spectacular event of the Exodus from Egypt was the prime manifestation of this idea, wherein a group of suffering slaves was miraculously whisked away from the brutal Egyptian exile and made into a holy nation. From then on, this month, also referred to as “the month of the redemption,” was ripe for unusual divine assistance, regardless of effort or how deserving we may be. According to the opinion of our sages: “In Nissan our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt and in Nissan we too will be redeemed” (Rosh Hashanah 11a).
In contrast, during the months of Elul and Tishrei (the time of the High Holy Days), for example, the focus is more on steadily climbing the ladder of success. We initiate the process, toiling and praying, to then receive the desired response — mercy and blessings for the upcoming year. Historically, this was the time of regrouping after the sin of the Golden Calf, an effort to repair the relationship that culminated in Yom Kippur. So, that time of year represents working internally, from “below to above,” while this month begins the opposite movement — “an awakening that is initiated from above.”
Connecting to the cause, not the result
Looking at this “awakening from above” from a slightly different angle, we are given the privilege to travel to the source and stream downwards: The world we see has multiple layers. Depending on our sensitivity, mindset and focus, we can either see only the surface, the bottom of the spiritual chain which we call “the natural order,” or we can plug into the core — the upper dimension and supernatural force — that creates the physical occurrences, everything we observe. When we are operating on the human-animal level, we lose sight of the inner layers and simply react to what’s in front of us, seeing only the result. When we are elevated and tuned in, we can effect change from the top down, the deeper layer of reality, and this automatically flows to affect the exterior layers.
This mental shift in perspective is an internal “miracle” whereby we transcend our natural tendency to view things within physical confines and instead concentrate on the spiritual driving force behind the material. More broadly, Nissan is known as a month of potent miracles; even its name stems from the Hebrew word “nes,” “miracle.”
The first commandment
The first commandment given to the newly born nation of Israel before the Exodus from Egypt was: “This month [the month of Nissan] shall be for you the first of the months” (Exodus 12:2). In the Torah, Nissan is referred to as “the month of the spring.” Spring is the time of the rebirth of nature, of renewed growth and actualization of latent potential. This is hinted in the first mitzvah that the Children of Israel were given, even before leaving Egypt: “This month is for you the head of months; it is for you the first of the months of the year.” The root of the Hebrew word for “month,” chodesh, is the same root as the word “new,” chadash. The newness also implies unanticipated positive changes, out of proportion to our effort.
So, taken together, this month marks the mitzvah of chodesh (establishing a calendar), identical to the root for chidush (novelty). The name Nissan is from the Hebrew word nes, “miracle,” and contains the spiritual power of Passover (to leap), which always occurs in springtime, symbolizing new life.
To embrace this atmosphere of extreme growth, and maximize the Pesach experience, there must be moments of preparation — beginning now. And since the Seder is the primary time for Jewish education of children, we can utilize these interconnected themes of Nissan to discuss both how they played out in history and the current opportunities they present.
Wishing everyone the ultimate experience of growth this month, “leaving Egypt” in the true sense of transcending previous limitations!
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.