Nearly an entire chapter of the Babylonian Talmud is dedicated to deciding whether the new Jewish year should begin on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei or Nissan. The Torah itself makes no direct reference to Tishrei as the beginning of the new year, and on multiple occasions refers to the first day of Nissan as being the “new year.”
Rabbis who argued in favor of Tishrei believed it was the creation of the world that marked our new year. Yet the other side would argue — quite convincingly at times — that it was the very fact that the Hebrew month of Nissan, which contained the upcoming holiday of Passover and its story of the freedom of our people, that made it more appropriate for a new year. For without the birth of our freedom as a Jewish people, our existence in the world would be without meaning.
Today, the Jewish people celebrate the world’s birthday at the beginning of the month of Tishrei, and not on the first day of Nissan. However, what emerged from this debate was the Jewish value of cherut: the sense that living in our world without breathing freely is hardly a worthwhile existence. Each year, at the beginning of the month of Nissan, with Passover around the corner, we remember what it was like to be slaves and we are presented with an opportunity to reflect on how freedom shapes our very existence.
And so we may ask ourselves this Nissan: How free are Jews around the world, and how much freer is our world in comparison to how free it was last year?
Fortunately, as Jews, we must be thankful that we live around the world largely in free societies. We not only have a democratic and free State of Israel, but most of us reside in countries around the world where we are free to practice our religion and engage as active members of civil society. However, we must not forget that there remain Jews who live in places that are not free, for an estimated twenty thousand Jews continue to live in Iran as an oppressed minority. This Nissan, we hope that next year brings them the same freedom that so many other Jews enjoy.
For whether or not our world has become “freer” in comparison to last Passover remains unclear. It has been inspiring to watch as people all over the world in recent weeks have joined together to campaign against the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, who during his career of brutality forcibly enslaved over thirty thousand child soldiers for his campaign of terror. Yet, we also cannot forget that last Passover, when the Jewish people celebrated their spring, the world watched as the Arab nations began celebrating what was being heralded as their spring; an opportunity for those countries to finally enter the modern, free world.
Unfortunately, initial indicators are that those revolutions may have failed, as a report by the non-profit organization, “Freedom in the World”, notes that very few of Arab countries to date have managed to make the transition to democratic rule, or are guaranteeing political rights and civil liberties for their citizens.
Today, as the world continues to watch, unchecked brutality by the Syrian regime against its own people further emboldens other undemocratic regimes. As such, Freedom House’s current map of free countries shows minimal progress since last year: a Middle East with Israel, a small beacon of freedom, surrounded by larger countries that are “not free,” and that fail to award its residents the same political rights or civil liberties that Israeli citizens continue to enjoy.
As Jews who were once slaves, we must never forget that while we may be free, it is our responsibility to work to bring freedom to our world. While last “new year” began with optimism, current events demonstrate that there is a lot more work to be done. It is in this sense that during Nissan this year, we Jews can only hope that all peoples of the world will soon be able to rejoice with us with the words we say every Seder: “Last year, we were slaves. This year, we are free.”
Rabbi Daniel Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey.
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