Rebbe Yeshaya Steiner of Kerestir, zt’l, “Reb Shayaleh,” was beloved and respected as a tzadik, rebbe, and miracle worker who dedicated his life to the well-being of Jews. A Gaon in Torah and paradigm of mesirus nefesh and ahavas Yisrael, Reb Shayaleh referred to himself as the Aibishter’s Kecher, ‘G-d’s Cook’. This was because he was continuously welcoming and feeding all who came, from talmidei chachamim to the simplest of Jews from across Hungary and Europe. Reb Shayaleh provided them with a place to stay, hachnasat orchim, and care for their material and spiritual needs.
Pinchas’l, an unfortunate vagabond who suffered from emotional instability, was a regular guest. He was rude and unkempt, and would spend much of his time sitting on the Rebbe’s balcony smoking cigarettes, even on Shabbos. The flagrant disregard for kedushas Shabbos was just too much for the gabbaim, who were concerned not only for the honor of Shabbos and the kavod of their Rebbe, but for the fact that he was negatively influencing others. They suggested Pinchas’l find other arrangements away from the home and beis medrash of the tzadik.
Reb Shayaleh looked at them in astonishment. “Should I send a Jew away from my home?! I will be ois rebbe, I’ll close my kremel, I’ll give it all up… but a Yid will never be sent away from Kerestir!”
This Shabbos we relive the first mitzvah given to Am Yisrael as a Nation, kiddush ha-chodesh, “This month shall be for you the first of the months.” Earlier commandments were not addressed to the Nation, but were individual in nature, and whatever pertains to our journey as an entire people pertains to each one of us, even today. This mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh was given on the First of the Month of Nisan, two weeks before Yetzias Mitzrayim. It was given amid darkness and suffering, while Pharaoh was bathing in Jewish blood, and Am Yisrael was teetering on the 49th level of tumah, almost at the point of no return.
One of the most essential aspects of this first communal mitzvah is its instruction in Divine partnership; a day of Rosh Chodesh was to be established in collaboration with Hashem. Two witnesses were to come to the Beis Din in Yerushalayim, whoever they might be—perhaps two common Jews who had looked well and recognized the first, tiny luminous curve of the moon as it was still covered in darkness. Their testimony to the Beis Din, when accepted, would set the Divine calendar of that month, including the date of its yom tov or festival. The mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh thus included a vast empowerment of the ‘every man’ of Klal Yisrael, a demonstration that HaKadosh Baruch Hu believes in each of us, and counts on all of us.
The system of establishing chagim and moadim depends on our identifying and sanctifying the new moon: “These are Hashem’s appointed, holy occasions, which you shall designate in their appointed times” (Vayikra, 23:4). In this verse, osam, “them,” meaning the holy occasions, is spelled without a letter vav, and so the letters also spell the word atem, ‘you’, plural. A seemingly insignificant word with an almost unnoticeable lack of a letter, therefore teaches us that the new month must be proclaimed not only by ‘you’, singular, the head of the court—but also by atem, ‘each of you’, the entire people (Rosh Hashanah, 24a).
The Gemara discusses the possibility of mistaken testimony or of false witnesses intentionally misleading the court regarding a sighting of the new moon. Hashem says, “Whether you have proclaimed them at their proper time or whether you have declared them not at their proper time, I have only these Festivals as established by the representatives of the Jewish People….”, “You (atem) are authorized to determine the date of the new month even if you unwittingly establish the new moon on the wrong day; you, even if you do so intentionally; you, even if you are misled by false witnesses. In all cases, once the court establishes a day as the new moon, it is sanctified, and G-d grants His consent” (Rosh Hashanah, 25b).
Even if the declaration of Rosh Chodesh is scientifically inaccurate, the calendar remains as it stands, with all its halachos, and observances. This is no small fact: it will mean that Jews will eat chametz on days that scientifically ‘should have been’ Pesach. We will fast on a day that ‘technically’ wasn’t supposed to be Yom Kippur. HaKadosh Baruch Hu humbly ‘changes’ the day to the one we decide it should be, as it were. The Creator of time takes into account humanity’s flaws and mistakes and makes them holy.
Rebbe Yitzchak Meir Alter, the Chidushei haRim, comments on the Gemara, above and says that reading otam, ‘them’ as atem, ‘you’, relates to another pasuk in which atem appears, “You (atem) are all children of Hashem, your Divinity.” And this is precisely why the Gemara says, “You are authorized to establish the time in which the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh will apply, even when mistaken, even when malicious, even when misguided.” No matter how imperfect, flawed, or corrupt, a Jew remains a Jew—a child of Hashem—invited by his or her Divine Parent to collaborate on establishing the mitzvos of the Torah.
During our enslavement, in terms of behavior, we were not all that different from Egyptians. Not only had we fallen into the darkness of idol worship, we did not yet have the Divine support, life-instruction, and mission statement of the Torah. But then came the first mitzvah, Kidush haChodesh. Rosh Chodesh becomes a special time, place and process, in which our intimacy is expressed in the mitzvah of Ha-chodesh ha-zeh lachem. It is the beginning of our intimate relationship and partnership with Hashem; the unconditional kesher of every Jew with Hashem.
May we follow, in our own way, the derech of Reb Shayaleh—the path of the true tzadikim and strive to identify and honor the unconditional holiness and Divine kesher of every person we meet.
Ben Zoma says: Who is honored? The one who gives honor to others…. (Avos, 4:1)
Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpia of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi, and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife, Ora, and their family.