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The Month of Nisan: Head Over Heels
The First of Nisan
The first mishnah of the tractate of Rosh Hashanah begins by enumerating four dates that are a new year for one or another matter. The first of these dates is the first day of Nisan, which the Torah explicitly describes as a new year: “This month [Nisan] will be counted by you as the first of the months.”1 The mishnah describes the first of Nisan as, “The new year for kings and festivals.”
The basic meaning of this statement is that the reign of a Jewish king was always counted from the first of Nisan. In other words, if the king had ascended to the throne on the first of the previous month (Adar), one month later it would be considered that he was entering his second year. The mishnah makes it a point that this is in contradistinction to the kings of all other nations, whose reign is counted from Tishrei (the beginning of the fall).2 The halachic (legal) ramification of counting the ruler’s reign from a particular date has to do with contracts that were signed with the date of the king’s reign.
The second role of the first of Nisan is that it is the new year of the festivals: Pesach (Passover), Shavu’ot, and Sukot. Pesach is of course in Nisan, so this makes it the first festival of the year. The halachic consequence in this case has to do with the fulfillment of a pledge to bring a sacrifice to the Temple. According to Rabbi Shimon (though the ruling does not follow his opinion), a person is considered to have tarried in fulfilling his pledge once the three festivals, in order, beginning with Pesach, have passed.
This is the basic explanation of the mishnah’s description of the first of Nisan. But we have to delve deeper in order to understand the connection between kings, the festivals, and this day.
The first connection that we find between the rectified and true leaders of the Jewish people and the festivals is one of joy. The festivals are described in the Torah as the time of our joy—“festivals for joy.” Additionally, in the Bible we find that the greatest joy is associated with the coronation of a king—the king’s New Year. For instance, regarding the coronation of King Solomon we read, “And they blew the shofar and all the people proclaimed long live king Solomon. And the people came up after him, and the people piped with pipes and rejoiced with great joy so that the earth was split with the sound of them.”3 For our people, the very fact that we have a true king, a real leader is a reason for rejoicing and having a festival. For this reason, the New Year of the kings is also the New Year of the festivals.
Three Roles in Internal Leadership
But, let us go another stage deeper. In Hebrew, the word for “festival” is the same as the word for “foot” (pronounced regel, or in the plural: regalim), as the highlight of every festival is the commandment to travel to Jerusalem and behold the Divine Presence in the Temple. Thus, that the New Year for kings and the New Year for the regalim—the feet—both occur on the first of Nisan indicates a deep connection between the head (the king) and the feet.
Clearly, the king is the head of the Jewish people, and as such, he coordinates the people’s efforts at a number of different levels. In the Zohar, it is noted that the human body has three primary controllers—the brain, the heart, and the liver. The brain controls the entire body. The heart is responsible for the proper flow of blood through the body, distributing life equally between the different organs and cells. The liver controls the body’s habitual functions, which is why the liver is considered made of coagulated blood, unlike the life giving liquid blood pumped by the heart).
The initials of these three primary controllers, brain, heart, and liver, in Hebrew spell the word for “king” (מח לב כבד ). This means that the model of the three primary controllers can be used to understand the three levels at which the king directs the Jewish people internally. First and foremost, the king is the brain, or head, of the people. He uses his keen sense of judgment to guide the people by promoting and demoting, raising and humbling, bringing nearer and distancing each individual based on what their true needs as part of the great complex picture of the Jewish people. As the heart, the king is responsible for providing every individual with life, disregarding the judgmental analysis of his mind. The liver represents the king’s role as the lawmaker, through which he maintains the stability of his kingdom.
Standing in relation to all three of these roles are the feet. Normally, the three festivals—the three “feet”—are modeled after the three patriarchs. Pesach corresponds to Abraham, Shavu’ot to Isaac, and Sukot to Jacob. It also follows from this correspondence that the three festivals correspond to the sefirot of loving-kindness, might, and beauty, respectively. In the human form, these three sefirot are usually represented by the right arm, the left arm, and the torso. But, it quite clear, that since the festivals are called “feet,” in Hebrew, they also correspond to the sefirot of the feet: victory, thanksgiving, and foundation. As we saw above, the rejoicing at Solomon’s coronation was expressed specifically in the people’s dancing, in the movement of their feet. Likewise, the highlight of each of the festivals is the joyful ascent by foot to the Temple. So, while the head represents a descending motion, the feet represent an ascending motion. The head guides the body based on rational considerations, while the feet of the rectified individual jump up and down for joy, free of rational considerations.
The King’s Lowliness
The true Jewish leaders identifies both with his role as the metaphoric head (and heart and liver) of the people and with their role as his feet, as it were. In Chassidut, lowliness is described as the individual’s recognition that he is still infinitely distant from the Almighty and that therefore, he is the least worthy of leading. Yet, paradoxically, lowliness, represented in the body by the feet, forms the bedrock of the true leader’s existential experience. His own existential lowliness causes the king to identify with the lowest and simplest of Jews, making it possible for him to act as the heart of the congregation—distributing life equally to all. His lowliness makes him experience the inherent similarity and equality of all Jews, regardless of stature.
In a famous statement,4 Moses identified the Jewish people as his feet, metaphorically of course. In the same statement, he also professed that were it not for “his feet,” God’s essence would not dwell in him. But, where Moses connected the head with the feet and explained the dependency of the head upon the feet, King David (and his worthy offspring) went so far as to identify the head and the feet as one. This occurred when he transported the Holy Ark to Jerusalem amid great rejoicing.
At that critical juncture in his leadership, King David revealed lowliness to be the essence of his reign. To his wife, Michal he said: “I will yet be lighter than this, and I hold myself to be lowly.”5 And as he continues, lowliness is expressed both through one’s affinity to the lowest classes of Jews, the feet of the people and through one’s joyful dancing before God’s holiness and the Temple. Later, the Bible describes that David passed out equal gifts of food—i.e., life, as above—to all the people, without discrepancy.
This experience is the hallmark of the Mashiach. Though he will be the head of the Jewish people he will also identify completely with the people of lowest stature—the people who are like the heels of the corpus of the nation. For this reason, the Mashiach’s generation is known as the “heels of the Mashiach” (ikveta demesheecha, in Aramaic). It is the task of the Mashiach to rebuild the Holy Temple. Indeed, it is the vision of the future Temple that makes the Mashiach a king, and imbued with this vision he himself becomes the feet that carry the entire Jewish nation to Jerusalem with great joy.
2. Even today, the fall still marks the beginning of the fiscal and educational year in most countries in the northern hemisphere.
4. “Six-hundred thousand feet are the people the I am in their midst” (Numbers 11:21). See also in our 11th of Second Adar lecture.