BY REBBETZIN LISA SEPTIMUS
This week, Parashat HaChodesh, we kick our Pesach preparation into high gear. In shul, we read about the Pesach offering; at home, the lists of what to clean, buy, and cook are formed and revised. But the parashah also speaks about the mitzvah to keep a calendar and bless the new moon–reminding us of some of the themes and imagery of this time of year.
Yetziat Mitzrayim is the subject of almost half of the book of Sh’mos, revealing the remarkable way that this group of slaves became a nation. But that story actually begins much earlier. Sefer Bereishit centers around building a family and that family’s relationship to G-d. As part of that relationship, G-d had told Avraham that his children would go down to Egypt where they would be slaves, and so the beginning of Sefer Sh’mos seems to be the next natural stage. The first few pesukim repeat the names of Yaakov and his children who traveled down to Egypt. But the next pasuk abruptly reports that they all died. And the pasuk after that tells us that Children of Israel multiplied wildly and rapidly, expressed with six consecutive adjectives relaying their fecundity.
We are being told that the small and intimate family with whom G-d developed a relationship has been transformed dramatically. It has been replaced by a quickly growing nation, now called Am Yisrael, the Nation of Israel. But an essential ingredient is missing at the beginning of the Book of Sh’mos–G-d. Not only is HaKadosh Baruch Hu hidden from view, but the identity and personalities of the people seem hidden as well. The only Jew mentioned by name in the first few chapters is Moshe. Nor are we told anything about the people as a collective. The details that we are given about them relate to their remarkable fertility. The first chapter has 22 verses and there are 4 separate verses that mention the remarkable multiplying of Bnei Yisrael, as well as a number of others that address Pharaoh’s fear of them multiplying even more.
Through these verses, the Torah is slowly revealing to us that not only is the Jewish people’s remarkable procreation from G-d, but also that through that procreation, G-d is revealing himself and that this fertility is an important motif of Sefer Sh’mos. In speaking to Pharaoh–who called himself a god–Hashem describes Bnei Yisrael as His firstborn (Sh’mos 4:22). As such, their extraordinary transformation into a nation becomes the first way of getting the Egyptians to recognize Hashem. If we read about the new month in parashat HaChodesh with the motif of fertility in mind, we can see how the cycle of the moon also represents the cycle of life through which G-d is revealed to mankind.
However, there is a certain irony that the fertility of Bnei Yisrael becomes the symbol of G-d’s presence, His relationship with humans, and the birth of a nation promoting that relationship. It is ironic because one of the more prominent themes of G-d’s connection with the Avot and Imahot is the infertility that they face, and their continued commitment in the face of adversity. Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah, Yaakov and Rachel, all struggle in conceiving, as well as in pregnancy and labor (see Bereshis 22:22 and 35:15).
Procreation and raising a family are at the center of Jewish communal life. We celebrate the glory of Hakadosh Baruch Hu at every shalom zachor, brit milah, bar or bat mitzvah, wedding. Moreover, intergenerational family connection stands at the center of Jewish life, with the holidays, especially Pesach, centered on the children. The Hagaddah is structured to keep the children asking, learning, and celebrating. In all the abundance of celebration of communal fertility, where are the individuals and couples who do not have children or have struggled in building a family?
Let us remember that before we were a nation, we were a small but holy family. We were individuals who, despite extraordinary faith and fidelity to G-d, were not given an abundance of blessing automatically. In the religious and political arena, G-d’s splendor to the outside world is manifest among other ways through the strength of Bnei Yisrael as a nation, through our surviving and thriving through difficult times. But in the much more intimate arena of personal character, G-d’s profound strength is reflected in an equally potent fashion in members of our community who struggle to build family–at any stage in the process, whether those who struggle to find a spouse, those who struggle to conceive, or those parents who struggle while observing the difficult challenges of their children.
On this Shabbos of parashat HaChodesh, when the planning for Pesach has officially begun, Yesh Tikva, an organization committed to raising awareness of infertility in Jewish communities and providing resources for those struggling, created the 100 shuls project. One hundred shuls across the United States have agreed to dedicate the sermon this Shabbat to the topic of infertility. There are three shuls in the Five Towns participating this year and I hope that more shuls will join in the future.
We start our Pesach Seder by reciting the famous Ha Lachma Anya, in which we refer to the matzah as the “bread of affliction,” and invite “anyone who needs” to join us and “partake in our Pesach.” But the same term lechem oni is interpreted by Shmuel in the Gemara (Pesachim 115b) to mean “bread of edification–lechem she’onim alav devarim harbeh.” But often affliction and edification go hand in hand.
By way of Midrashic reading, we might read the opening recitation that “this is the bread of affliction/edification” as a reminder of precisely that. “Kol ditzrich yesei v’yifsach–those who know what it means to struggle profoundly are in a particularly strong position to teach us; let them come and lead our Pesach learning.” Thus we invite them to do so by either extending an invitation literally or being aware of all they have to teach us–by example if not by education. If Israel is the nation best positioned to model a relationship with G-d amidst adversity, they are the individuals best positioned to do so. They are the patriarchs and matriarchs of our day.
This Pesach, may all of us find the fortitude to endure and grow from whatever challenges afflict us, the wisdom to learn from the fiercer challenges faced by others, and the strength to celebrate the birth of our nation even amidst those challenges.
Lisa Septimus is the yoetzet halachah of the Five Towns and can be reached at email@example.com or 516-900-2109.