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Drash on Shemini Shabbat HaChodesh 2024

Rabbi Allison RH Conyer

Temple Beth Israel

In the tapestry of Jewish life, time is not merely a linear progression but a sacred continuum, woven with rituals and observances that imbue each moment with significance. From the weekly rhythm of Shabbat to the annual cycle of holidays, marking Jewish time is not just a matter of counting days but of sanctifying them, infusing the passage of time with spiritual meaning and communal connection.

This Shabbat, we will observe Shabbat Ha’Chodesh, acknowledging the arrival of Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the inaugural month in the Biblical tradition of marking Jewish time. Some have questioned why the Hebrew month of Nisan, which includes Pesach, was chosen over Tishrei, which includes Rosh Hashanah. While Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world, the Pesach narrative signifies the formation of the Jewish people.

Our Jewish calendar commences with the saga of Pesach, recounting the Exodus from Egypt — our narrative of redemption. It embodies a message of universal hope, of triumph over oppression on the journey towards freedom. Yet, Pesach also carries a unique message of Jewish struggle — one where fear and misunderstanding of the Jewish people leads to demonisation, alienation, and/or attempted elimination of Jews, prompting our community to seek refuge and solidarity in one another, fighting for our right to live freely and fairly, as valued and respected citizens in our own land and in whichever land we reside. The dual messages of Pesach, both universal and particularistic, foster empathy towards other oppressed peoples while also reminding us of the importance of internal unity, support, and celebration of our own freedom.

During the month of Nisan, a profound transformation unfolded. The Israelites transitioned from twelve individual tribes of Israel, enslaved under Pharaoh’s rule, to one united entity — Am Yisrael, the People of Israel. Therefore, the inception of Jewish time symbolises the unification of Jewish peoplehood and community, embracing our diversity while collectively progressing towards a shared goal. Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel – continues to represent our mutual freedom. It is within this collective ethos that our redemption resides.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shmini, commences on the eighth day of the priestly ordination. Aaron, the High Priest, and his four sons were divided. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, took it upon themselves to make an unsolicited offer to G-d and were consumed by a Divine fire. The motives behind their actions remain uncertain. They could have been driven by youthful naivety, arrogance, or even noble intentions. Regardless of their reasoning, the consequence was severe, and Aaron was silent.

Over the past 13 months, many of us have been divided over Israel’s judicial reforms and current leadership. Some of us have been divided over Israel’s response in Gaza after the October 7th and Nova Festival massacres. Some are torn over the continued loss of life and devastation to innocent, traumatised, and displaced Palestinians in response to the unprecedented Hamas terrorist attacks on the most innocent of Israeli civilians, the continued daily barrage of enemy fire into Israel, the continued loss of life and devastation to the innocent, traumatised, and displaced Israelis, and the continued refusal to release the hostages despite hostage-taking being an internationally recognised war crime. Many Israeli and Diaspora Jews have acknowledged and put aside their differences in collective solidarity of our shared goal – bringing home the hostages and creating peace externally in order to rebuild peace internally.

Some of us offer up unsolicited anger, hatred, and fearmongering and risk being consumed by fire. Others are silent. However, we can find common ground, not just in the antisemitism we face regardless of our level of religiosity or our support or critique of Israel, but by virtue of our birthright. Our unity, our Jewish peoplehood, is our redemption.

As we come together this Shabbat Ha’Chodesh Shmini, let us remember the dual messages that infuse our Jewish time with meaning, both the universal and particularistic. Let us not be silent. Let us remember to foster empathy and compassion towards all innocent and oppressed peoples,
while also remembering the importance of our Jewish homeland, Jewish unity, and celebration of our own freedom.

Find more Parashat Hashavua