This week we start the third book of the Torah, Vayikra. The English name of the book is Leviticus, referring to the fact that much of the book is concerned with priestly laws. In addition to the week’s parasha, we also read an extra section called Parashat HaChodesh, meant to prepare us for the upcoming holiday of Passover.
Parashat HaChodesh recalls God’s command to the Jewish people to set the month of Nisan as the first month of the year. Although we count the years from the start of Tishrei – which is the 7th month – the months themselves are counted from Nisan. The Mishnah (Rosh HaShanah 1:1) tells us that there are actually four new years: “the first of Nisan is the new year for kings and festivals; the first of Elul is the new year for animal tithes… the first of Tishrei is the new year for years, for sabbaticals, jubilees, for planting and for vegetables; the first of Shevat is the new year for trees according to the house of Shammai; according to the house of Hillel, however, it is the fifteenth of Shevat.”
Nisan represents the new year when it comes to the sequence of holidays, and to the counting of the reigning of kings. The Gemara explains here that even if a king took the throne at the end of the month of Adar, and the month of Nisan begins just a week later, he is already considered to have started his second year of kingship! The big question is, why is Nisan singled out as the month to start all months, and what does kingship have to do with any of it?
The Straight Serpent and the Twisted Serpent
The prophet Ezekiel describes Pharaoh as “the great serpent” (Ezekiel 29:3). Meanwhile, the prophet Isaiah mentions two serpents: nachash bariach, the “straight serpent”, and nachash ‘akalaton, the “twisted serpent”. The Kabbalistic Sages state that the straight serpent represents Moses, while the twisted serpent represents Pharaoh. The twisted serpent is depicted as one with its tail in its mouth, forming the shape of a circle (a mystical symbol often known as the ouroboros in Greek).
The circle is a shape that represents cycles, and is symbolic of nature. In nature, just about everything is cyclical: the movements of the stars and planets in their orbits, the months and years, the seasons, the water cycle, the circle of life, and so on. The circle thus represents the physical world and its strict, repeating laws of nature.
The straight line – Moses’ nachash bariach – represents the very opposite. It is a symbol of a direct connection to the upper worlds. It is about breaking free from the strict, cyclical laws of nature, and transcending into a higher realm. Indeed, this is one of the meanings of the name “Israel” (ישראל) which can be split into yashar el (ישר-אל), literally “straight to God”.
The Egyptians, with Pharaoh central among them, believed in nature and its various forces. They worshipped the sun and the moon, the earth and the sky, the Nile river (and its cyclical, seasonal flooding), a host of animals, and countless other natural entities. This was their entire reality.
The Jews, on the other hand, with Moses central among them, believed in Hashem, the one infinite God, the creator of all natural forces. They knew there is a God above all the laws of nature, one who could perform supernatural miracles when necessary. This was the very essence of the Ten Plagues, which were meant to convince all doubters that the laws of nature can be totally broken. They are all under the supervision of One God.
This was also the symbolism behind the first encounter between Moses and Pharaoh. Moses’ straight staff turned into a serpent. The staffs of Pharaoh’s magicians turned into serpents, too, but “twisted” ones. In supernatural fashion, Moses’ serpent swallowed the others whole. The straight serpent devoured the twisted serpents.
The Central Lesson of Pesach
One of the key lessons of Pesach is to teach us that we are not bound by the laws of nature. God created us in His divine image, and told us from the very beginning that we are above nature (Genesis 1:27-28). Today, many would want to have us believe that we are nothing but biological machines, here because of strict, mechanistic, evolutionary laws – laws that we cannot break free from – subject to our genes, our neural wiring, and conditioning. The reality is in fact the very opposite: our bodies are only vessels for our souls, and we are in control of our bodies, not the other way around.
The Sages state that a person who is above the natural whims of their body is a true king. The Hebrew word for “king”, melekh, is spelled מ-ל-ך, where מ stands for מוח (brain, or mind), ל stands for לב (heart), and כ stands for כבד (liver). God created the body with the brain anatomically above the heart, and the heart above the liver. The lesson is that our minds should be “above” our hearts (representing emotions and desires), and above our livers (representing honour and pride). A king is one whose mind is in control of their body. The opposite case, where one’s desires are above their mind, and the ego above all, would carry the opposite sequence of letters: כ-ל-ם, which spells klum, meaning “nothing”. And finally, a person who does not necessarily have much pride, but nonetheless succumbs to the petty emotions and desires of their body, has the sequence ל-מ-ך, which spells lemekh, meaning “servant”. They are likened to one who is enslaved by their body.
The message of Passover is to free ourselves from slavery. To become real kings. The month of Nisan is the best opportunity to do this, a month whose very root is nes (נס), “miracles”. It is the month of transcending nature, the first of the months; the new year of festivals, and the new year of kings.