"Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman gives birth...."
"This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months;
it shall be the first of the months of the year for you."
This week's Torah readings, including the weekly one and the special one to mark the beginning of the month of Nisan this coming week, the month of Passover, focus on beginnings - the beginning of a new life, and the beginning of the calendar and the Jewish people. What do beginnings mean for us?
Our first thought may be joy and anticipation for what is to come. Certainly, the celebrations surrounding the secular New Year bespeak that. The Jewish New Year ceremonies are much more serious, asking us to reexamine the old year in preparation for the new one. Even so, we customarily wear white on Rosh Hashanah, symbolic of our optimism that our misdeeds and sins of the past year will indeed be forgiven so that we can begin the new year with a clean slate. The birth of a baby is similarly a joyous time in a family's life, one filled with thankfulness for the safe birth of the child and happy dreams about what he or she will be like and achieve in life. Mazal Tov!
At the same time, beginnings come with fear and worry. Part of this aspect of beginnings is that we do not know what is to come, and we fear that it may not be good. Moreover, we are used to the old and familiar but not the new and unknown, and so we are not prepared emotionally for what may come. Even on a practical level we are worried that we may not have the skills to cope with the new realities of the future. As the Rabbis say, kol hathalot kashot, "All beginnings are hard" (Mekhilta, BaHodesh 2 on Exodus 19:5).
The rituals accompanying the birth of a baby and the arrival of the month of Nisan articulate these conflicting feelings. On the one hand, we welcome the new child into the Jewish people with a brit milah or a simhat bat, and the traditional liturgy of the former expresses the hope that the new baby boy might be none other than the Messiah, heralded by Elijah, on whose chair the baby is placed before being circumcised. At such ceremonies we give children their name, thereby connecting them to their ancestors and to the Jewish people as a whole. We also express the wish that the child will "enter a life of Torah, the wedding canopy, and good deeds."
On the other hand, this week's Torah reading requires that a woman who has just given birth observe fairly long periods of impurity, separating her from the community and her husband in certain ways. There are many different understandings of the laws of impurity, but one plausible one is that impurity comes with danger and with a loss of life. Although birth is a perfectly natural phenomenon, before the advent of safe Caesarian sections in the late 1940s, it was a dangerous one. My own great-grandfather had three wives because his first two died in childbirth. Moreover, in childbirth the woman loses blood, the paradigmatic sign of life in the Torah and the later Jewish tradition. In the ancient world, this phenomenon, although natural, was experienced as frightening, for she might, as we say in medicine today, "bleed out" - that is, she might die as a result of losing so much blood. (My guess is that the period of impurity for a boy was half that of a girl not only because ancient society was patriarchal, but also because a girl would grow to a woman who would, like all women before her, lose blood each month in her menstrual cycle and even more in birth.) So the woman who just gave birth is impure because she came close to death, the ultimate source of impurity.
Similarly, the new month of Nisan brings with it Passover, the joyous celebration of our liberation from bondage, our march to Mount Sinai to make a Covenant with God, and ultimately our occupation of the Promised Land. At the same time, against all odds, we would have to rebel against Pharaoh, go through a sea that usually does not part, walk through a desert, and then face the Canaanites who occupied the land God promised us. None of these parts of the creation of the Jewish people was going to be easy, even if we ultimately triumphed. So, as the Rabbis said, all beginnings, while joyful, are hard too.
It is precisely this combination of factors that make beginnings so fraught with meaning for us. Our birthday, after all, marks the beginning of our lives, and we appreciate someone who remembers our birthday because in doing so they acknowledge our significance for them. The same is true for the birth of a nation, which every nation marks with celebration. It is not only that the birth brings us onto the world stage, which, of course, it does; it is also that the manner of our birth and who we are at birth signals and symbolizes who we are through the rest of our lives, both as individuals and as nations.
So as we mark our beginnings as individuals and as a people, may we enjoy the lives that we have been given, may we learn to overcome or at least cope with its difficulties, and may we achieve the fondest expectations that other people and we ourselves have for us.