In Hebrew, the book of Leviticus is called Vayikra, which means “and He called.” The book of Leviticus begins with the word “vayikra,” as God calls to Moses from the Tabernacle inviting him to initiate the Tabernacle service, the model or template for all future Divine service. God’s call to Moses on Rosh Chodesh Nisan (the first day of Nisan) is related to the Sage’s statement, “Who is the wise one? One who sees that which is born” (Tamid 32a). In context, the answer refers to one who comprehends the birth of the new moon, but in a broader sense, it refers to one who discerns what consequences an initial act may lead to.
The Midrash calls Rosh Chodesh Nisan “the day of the ten crowns,” a phrase alluding to the ten rituals that were performed for the first time on this day, for it was on this day that Moses erected the Tabernacle in the desert and the cohanim began performing the Tabernacle service on Israel’s behalf (Bereishit Rabbah 3:12). Parenthetically, this service was also performed in the Temple and even became the basis for synagogue prayer after both Temples were destroyed. (For further elaboration, see “The Tabernacle, the Temple, and the Synagogue.”)
Rosh Chodesh Nisan is also significant for several other reasons. The first mitzvah the Jewish people received as a nation was to establish Nisan as the year’s first month and to set up the Jewish calendar according to the secrets that God taught Moses. This first mitzvah is publicly recited once a year before Rosh Chodesh Nisan as part of Parashat Hachodesh one of the four special portions read between the new moon of Adar, the last month of the year, and Pesach, which occurs in the first month of the year, in Nisan. We learned above that the ability to become masters of time, signified by being in tune with and realizing the deep secrets contained in the calendar, was a prerequisite to the redemption from Egypt. (See “Four Perspectives on Time and the Mastery of Time.”)
Rosh Chodesh Nisan is also one of Judaism’s four New Year’s days. Kings in the biblical era would count their reigns from this day. Furthermore, according to one rabbinic tradition the world was created on this day (this will be discussed at greater length in the next section). And, finally, the cycle of the three major Pilgrimage Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot begins in this month. Rosh Chodesh Nisan obviously manifests its importance in many different ways, and therefore we must attempt to determine how all the various aspects of this auspicious day are connected.
A hint to this connection may be discovered in the letter alef being written especially small in the word “vayikra” in traditional Torah scrolls. The mystical tradition teaches that the 600,000 men between the ages of twenty and sixty who left Egypt represent the archetypal root soul sparks of the entire Jewish nation. As the introduction to this book discusses, these souls are further connected to the 600,000 letters of the Torah, as each Jewish soul spark has its own letter, its very own unique gate or pathway to understanding the Torah. Thus, one might suggest the following: Who is the wise one? One who sees the whole Torah shining through every portion, verse, word, and even letter in the Torah. Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the day on which Moses was called with a small alef, possesses great significance for each individual Jew in every generation, as the small alef represents the service of God to which all Jews ultimately aspire. Furthermore, the small alef, as we will see, alludes to the process of creation, its purpose, and the prospect of human beings relating to an Infinite Creator within the temporal parameters of a finite world.
The Zohar (2:161b) teaches that “God looked into the Torah and created the world.” The Torah’s depiction of the seven days of creation not only recounts the unfolding of the Divine creative process, but also is the very blueprint that God employed before speaking the world into existence. Just as scientists designate atoms, particles, molecules, and elements as the building blocks of energy and creation, Jewish tradition relates to the Hebrew letters as prototypes of spiritual energy, the building blocks through which the world is constructed and maintained. As we learned in the portion of Bereishit (“Blessed is the One Who Spoke”), God’s speaking the world into existence teaches us the connection between Divine speech and the creative process.
The first letter in the Torah, a beit, is written especially large in our Torah scrolls, and has the numerical value of two. This is a remez, a hint, to the dualistic nature of the world: infinite and finite, spiritual and physical, soul and body, life and death, day and night, man and woman, sun and moon, and so forth. The question naturally arises: why does the Torah begin with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beit, and not the first letter, alef?
The Zohar answers with the following parable or derash (Introduction to the Zohar, 23). When God decided to create the world, all the letters came to Him asking for the merit of being the first letter in the Torah. Each letter, beginning from the end of the alphabet, came before God and argued that it should be first since a certain word with positive connotations started with it. God countered these arguments one by one by explaining that certain words with negative connotations also started with these letters. God disqualified all the letters until the letter beit successfully argued that the people of the world would praise their Creator with the word baruch (blessed). Since the first letter of the alphabet, alef, had still not made its case, God now offered it a chance to argue, even though He had already accepted the beit. The alef, instead of complaining that it had not been given a proper chance, answered that since the beit was already chosen, it would forego making an argument. God replied that since the alef displayed such humbleness, it would merit becoming the first letter of “anochi,” the first word in the Ten Commandments.
The two tablets containing the Ten Commandments were kept in the ark in the Tabernacle’s Holy of Holies, and later in the Temple’s Holy of Holies in Jerusalem. Even before Moses inaugurated the Tabernacle, God had told him that He would speak to him from between the two cherubs on top of the ark. The Holy of Holies in the Temple represents the central point, the spiritual vortex, around which the entire world revolves. Alluding to the alef’s crucial role, God calls (“vayikra”) Moses on Rosh Chodesh Nisan from this place. The alef instead of appearing at the beginning of the Torah, as the first letter of creation, adopts a central role on this day in the holiest of places.
The alef being written especially small in the word “vayikra” also alludes to the great secret of tzimtzum revealed by the Kabbalah. When God “thought” of creating the world, an existential problem became immediately apparent. Since no reality can exist beyond (or outside) the infiniteness of God, where could a finite, “independent” world possibly find “space” to exist? The Arizal explains that God “contracted” Himself, as it were, in order to create, a “vacuum” or womb-like space in which a finite world could then be created. Into the “vacuum” God shone a ray of light and the world came into being. The letter alef, which has the numerical value of one, represents the oneness and unity of God, while the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beit, signifies the duality of the world and God’s seeming act of contraction to make “space” for the world. (See “One Becomes Two in Order to Become One” above.)
The act of tzimtzum, which allowed the world to come into existence, is the sod, the foundational secret, of the Temple in Jerusalem. Just as God contracted Himself in order to allow the world to come into existence, He likewise contracted His infinite presence, as it were, in order to allow the Jewish people (and the world) to perceive Him in a finite place. The small alef alludes to our ability to actually experience and comprehend this paradox.In a sense, we spend our lives trying to live within the paradoxical context of God both revealing and hiding Himself in the world. Jacob called the ladder – stretching from the earth to the heavens, in the very place where the Temple was eventually built – the “gate to heaven” (Genesis 28:10-17). A Jew must constantly be a ladder between eternal and temporal time, between infinite and finite space. “Who is the wise one? One who sees that which is born.” The small alef, representing the paradox of creation, beckons us to connect ourselves to the mystery of all life.