This week’s Torah portion is Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26. The reading for Shabbat Hachodesh is Exodus 12:1-20.
Time moves differently after trauma. We know this collectively (think of the days following Sept. 11, 2001), and we know this individually. As Rabbi Kerri Olitzsky writes about his personal trauma in “Facing Cancer as a Family”:
“I was ushered into the doctor’s office. There were no smiles, no polite exchanges, nothing that softened the numbing reality that I was about to face. Only these four words of welcome: ‘Your wife has cancer.’ To say that the life of our entire family changed in those few seconds may seem like a hackneyed phrase, but that day in the surgeon’s office and the journey of the spirit that followed were the greatest challenges of my personal faith in God — and that of my family — that we ever experienced.”
The relationship of time and trauma is a relationship of which our Torah is well aware.
“This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Exodus 12:2).
These words are the opening of the maftir or additional Torah reading on this Shabbat, known as Shabbat Hachodesh, at the beginning of the month of Nisan. They are an instruction given to Moses and Aaron in Egypt. “When you leave Egypt,” God says, “mark time anew.” Restart your calendar. The month of Nisan, of liberation, will be the first of the months.
Why the need for a restart? Simply, slavery was trauma. Freedom demands a new counting of time, for time now has purpose. We are no longer biding time as slaves of Pharaoh, but celebrating time as a free people, free to become servants of God.
It’s critical to note the timing of this instruction. God speaks to Moses and Aaron while they are still in Egypt (Exodus 12:1). The people of Israel were still physically enslaved. Indeed, the Exodus has not yet happened but the liberation had already begun. The instruction to mark time anew was the first step in the process of redemption.
This important lesson serves as a valuable reminder in our individual stories of redemption. Redemption, recovery from disease, divorce, personal setback, can begin whenever we are ready to mark a new day. A disease may not be cured, a divorce may not be final, a death may not be fully grieved, but recovery begins when we are ready to see time anew.
In “Living with Cancer, One Day at a Time,” Roxanne Dinkin, a clinical psychologist, writes: “Living with cancer, even terminal cancer, can lead to a deep sense of self- acceptance and peace. A friend facing death from metastatic colon cancer told me that the year since her diagnosis of inoperable cancer had been the happiest of her life. I understood what she meant. The reality of facing life and death issues allows you to live fully in the present moment…The present moment is all we have, no matter how much time is left, and living with cancer lets us deeply appreciate that moment. According to Psalm 118: “Zeh hayom…” — “This is the day that God has made, let us be joyful and glad in it.”
How do we come to this view of time? Jewish ritual can help. Again Roxanne Dinkin: “Jewish ritual can provide you with ways to set boundaries in time around your illness and healing experiences. Saying a blessing before treatment, immersing in mikvah to mark the end of aggressive treatment.”
Marking time anew, setting one moment apart from the next allows us to leave the confining places of our own personal and collective Mitzrayim (Hebrew for Egypt, meaning “narrow place”) and pushes us along the road of healing and redemption.
Rabbi Benjamin Shull is rabbi of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville.