This Shabbat is the fourth special Shabbat preceding Pesach, on which we read the final special Torah reading, Parshat HaChodesh. Only Shabbat HaGadol remains now between us and the bringing of the Korban Pesach in a little more than two weeks. Or if, chas v’shalom, we are not able to bring our korbanot in the Beit HaMikdash, then we will learn about the mitzvah and also commemorate it in our Sedarim wherever we are.
Shabbat HaChodesh marks the advent of the month of Nissan, the first month of the Jewish calendar and the beginning of the season of our redemption. There is a widespread custom to begin reading Shir HaShirim on the first of Nissan, in part because “the first shoots are seen in the land, the time of pruning has arrived, and the voice of the turtle dove can be heard in our land” (Shir HaShirim 2:12). We also read of the offerings of the chiefs of the shevatim on the occasion of the dedication of the Mishkan because this celebration began on the first of Nissan, and each of the first twelve days of the month is an anniversary of the bringing of one of these gifts.
Rabbi Yaakov Abuchatzera, the patriarch of the Abuchatzera family of noted Torah scholars, is perhaps best known to modern readers as the grandfather of the Baba Sali. He was a prolific writer of commentaries on Torah, a master of Jewish mysticism, and a leading posek for the Sefardi communities of Morocco, Egypt, and Eretz Yisrael in the nineteenth century. He notes that Parshat HaChodesh often coincides, as it does this year, with Parshat Pekudei, connecting the month of Nissan with the completion of the construction of the Mishkan.
The Torah tells us that Moshe erected the Mishkan, placing the beams in their sockets and so on (Shemot 40:18), and following the Gemara in Shabbat (28a) and Seforno on this pasuk, Rabbi Abuchatzera explains that the lower canopy of animal skins is the essence of the Mishkan, meaning that Moshe raised up this canopy first – before assembling the supporting structure of beams. Whether this was done miraculously or through some clever array of ropes, it seems odd to deviate from sound principles of construction in this way. It would be much simpler to raise up the structure as we are accustomed to do, and probably wouldn’t detract from the experience of the nation in their celebration of the newly built Mishkan.
However, Rabbi Abuchatzera explains that the Mishkan was built in the time and place it was built in part to make up for the debacle of the golden calf that had been erected previously in the same location. He says that Hashem wanted Israel to know not only that He had forgiven us but that He was going to support and sustain us in every way necessary, even if it required upending the laws of nature. He says that Hashem wanted to make sure that the Mishkan rose – that His protection and His inspiration would be spread above us – even and especially before we were prepared to accept it.
Rabbi Abuchatzera compares this to the state we were in before leaving Mitzrayim: Chazal say we had reached the 49th level of spiritual impurity. Hashem might have waited for Moshe to teach us and for us to begin to follow His mitzvot and to do the work of redeeming ourselves so that we’d be worthy to come out of slavery. But realistically, this would have never come about through natural means. However, Hashem was committed to our redemption, so He took us as we were and brought us out miraculously, on the understanding that we would come to accept His Torah later and perform the mitzvot.
This, says Rabbi Abuchatzera, is the message of Shabbat HaChodesh: On every Shabbat we say, “In memory of the exodus from Mitzrayim.” But on this Shabbat, uniquely, we celebrate Shabbat and have a mitzvah to explicitly recall the exodus. Every year at this time, just before the beginning of Nissan, Hashem spreads His sheltering “wings” above us, rebuilding the Mishkan. He does this in spite of the fact that we have not yet constructed the wooden frame – that we ourselves are not worthy of the redemption that will come on Pesach. Every year at this time Hashem is telling us He doesn’t care if we are ready. He frees us and redeems us just as we are, as He always has and as He promised our ancestors and us that He would one day do.