By Rabbi Allen Darnov
Parashat Bo announces: “This month (Nissan) shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you….” (Exod 12:2). This sounds, of course, as if the Torah is commanding a New Year’s festival to be observed in the spring. Should we be confused that the Torah posts two different New Years (one in the spring and one in the fall), Nahmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, also known as Ramban) comes to our aid. He calls Tishrei the “beginning of years” (since Creation) while he refers to Nissan as the “beginning of months” since the Exodus from Egypt. By having Israel number their months in relation to Nissan, we would always keep in mind the miracle of the Exodus and our freedom. Thus, when the Torah calls for a day of blasting the ram’s horn “in the seventh month,” it means to remind us that we blast the ram’s horn in the seventh month of our Exodus from Egypt.
Nahmanides’ attempt to harmonize the New Years in Nissan and Tishrei might seem a bit forced. After all, the Sages appear comfortable with listing no less than four New Years in the Mishnah (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:1). Nevertheless, Ramban’s comment calls to mind a thematic connection between the two major Jewish New Years, inasmuch as one derives from Creation and the other from the Exodus.
The Creation and Exodus maintain an implicit association throughout our sources. The first presentation of the Ten Commandments explains the Sabbath as a reminder of Creation: “For in six days Adonai made heaven and earth… therefore Adonai blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exod 20:11). But the second version of the Ten Commandments understands the purpose of the Sabbath as a way to remember the Exodus: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Adonai your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore Adonai your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deut 5:15).
The Friday evening Kiddush also juxtaposes the Creation and the Exodus as two distinct reasons for keeping the Sabbath. On the one hand, the Sabbath is “a reminder (zikkaron) of the work of Creation….” And on the other hand, the Sabbath “is a remembrance (zekher) of the Exodus from Egypt.”
Sometimes the Bible blends the imageries of these two events. The story of the Exodus begins by telling us that the Israelites “were fruitful…and multiplied…and filled the earth” (Exod 1:7), words which summon memories of procreation in Genesis (Gen 1:22; 9:1). Moses’ mother looks upon her newborn as “beautiful” (ki tov; Exod 2:2), a Hebrew expression which also evokes the Creation story (Gen 1:4).
The birthing of Israel through the sea’s divided waters (Exod 14:21-22;15:1-21) echoes God’s dividing the cosmic waters during Creation (Gen 1:6-8). The Song of the Sea states: “At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood straight as a wall, the deeps (t’homot) froze in the heart of the sea” (Exod 15:5). Mention of “the deeps” (t’homot) brings to mind God hovering over the abyss (tehom) in the story of Creation (Gen 1:2). By painting the Exodus with the colors of Creation, perhaps the Song of the Sea is suggesting that Israel’s birth is a new Creation.
Isaiah (51:9-10) also plays with this ambiguous imagery when he proclaims there will be a new Exodus for the exiles of Babylon. His image of a path through a divided sea recalls both the stories of the Exodus from Egypt and the creation of the world. Isaiah describes creation by citing ancient myths in which God vanquished the primeval Sea Dragon, and dried up the deep (tehom): “…Was it not You who smashed Rahab, who pierced the Dragon…who dried up Sea, the waters of the great deep (tehom), who made the depths of the sea a road for the redeemed to pass?”
At times juxtaposing the Creation and the Exodus, and other times projecting the imagery of one onto the other, Jewish tradition implies a correspondence – even an equivalency – between these two events. The historic freeing of Israel is celebrated in cosmic terms: it is as important to God as a new Creation.
History is still midwifing new nations in our generation. With every birth of freedom, Creation is renewed. Hence we have two major New Years, one in the fall and one in the spring.
Rabbi Allen Darnov is the rabbi of Reform Temple of Putnam Valley, New York; he and his wife, Cantor Avima Rudavsky Darnov, are co-directors of The Hebrew Corner, a Hebrew learning center in Marlboro, New Jersey. He has served on AJR’s faculty for more than fifteen years.