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Toward Shabbat: Vayikra

I was seven years old when my youngest brother was born, old enough to participate in marking his many milestones on his “Baby’s First Year” calendar: first smile, first tooth, first step. Some 30 years later, I delighted in the joy of placing the same appropriate stickers on my own children’s “Baby’s First Year” calendars. Notably, there were no “second tooth” or “fifth car ride” stickers, forecasting the human tendency to mark beginnings, and sometimes ends, but less so our interim days and experiences.

I thought about that baby calendar yesterday as we turned the page of our own Jewish calendar to begin the new month of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish year. (Although Rosh Hashanah is the start of a new year, it actually comes in the seventh month. Ponder that for a bit.) While Nisan is of course most famous for being the month of the Exodus from Egypt, and the birth of the Jewish people as a national entity, the first day of this first month is celebrated for a host of its own firsts. Our Sages teach that the first day of Nisan in the year following the Exodus was a day that “took ten crowns,” meaning that it was a day of 10 different “firsts” in the life of the nascent nation:

It was the first day of creation [ie: it was a Sunday, which had been the first day of the creation of the world], the first day of the offerings brought by the princes, the first day of the priesthood, the first day of sacrificial service in the Tabernacle, the first time for the descent of fire onto the altar, the first time that consecrated foods were eaten, the first day of the resting of the Divine Presence upon the Jewish people, the first day that the Jewish people were blessed by the priests, and the first day of the prohibition to bring offerings on improvised altars. [Once the Tabernacle was built, it was prohibited to offer sacrifices elsewhere.] And it was the first of the months. (Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 87b.)

That’s a lot of stickers on just one day of the “Baby Israelite Nation’s First Year” calendar! Clearly this was a day of novelty: a new relationship with God, a new center for worship, a new stage of holiness, a new way to gather as a nation. Yet in an address to his students at Yeshivat Har Etzion in 1995, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein observed that, for all that it ushered in the new, the first day of Nisan on the second year after the Exodus also marked the beginning of a routine: the daily sacrifices, the repeated breaking down and setting up of the Tabernacle as the people journeyed through the desert, the start of a day-in-day-out kind of spiritual life in which the new becomes the familiar, and the familiar becomes less stimulating and compelling.

I know you think I’m going to take us into an exploration of how we can make the familiar more special, how we might cultivate a higher spiritual state by seeing each moment as being absolutely new and worthy of celebration. There is value in that project, no doubt. But in his address, Rav Lichtenstein charged his students with a challenge that intrigues me: to embrace the daily, routine, and technical aspects of the religious life for what they are, and not to abandon them even if we don’t always (or ever) experience them as new and exciting, uplifting or meaningful. The routine aspects of Jewish practice, which can feel uninspiring, are, he said, an essential component of a religious life. They are like brushing your teeth or taking your vitamins (my words, not his): regular, repetitive, mundane steps we take each day to stay healthy—and we do this whether or not we ever have an ecstatic experience with a toothbrush in our hand.

Nisan is a month of many firsts. It was historically so for our ancestors, and it often is for us, as we breathe in the freshness of spring and renewal of life. It is the month when we recite a special blessing for seeing a fruit tree budding for the first time, and take in the promise of its new blossoms. It is the first time in a year that we will sit down to the seder table. It is the month when we clear away our spiritual hametz and create space for new possibilities. And Nisan is also a reminder that firsts are generally followed by the seconds and thirds and fourths and fifths and so on…and that each of these, dryly repetitive as it may be, is what ultimately creates a life.

Part of Nisan’s message to us is that while liberation may come through the rare, the new, and the miraculous, it also can also come from releasing ourselves of the expectation that every moment be an experience of novelty and its attendant spiritual high. It’s true that baby’s 137th bath is simply not as enrapturing as the first.

And yet, it is just as essential.

Wishing us a month of liberation, in all the ways it may be found.