Judaism’s Main Purpose is to Complicate Life
In Devarim (16.1) we find a verse which requires our special attention due to its far reaching implications for Jewish life and the meaning of religion in general:
“Take care of the month of the early ripening (Nissan) and bring the Pesach offering unto the Lord your God, for in the month of the early ripening, the Lord your God took you out of Egypt at night-time”.
As is well known, this verse instructs the people of Israel to make sure that Pesach, which celebrates the most important event in Jewish history, will always be celebrated in the spring. Rabbi Obadiyah Sforno, the great Italian commentator of the 15-16th century, comments on this verse in a most original way:
“Take care, with ongoing attention, that Nissan will fall in the spring by means of the ibbur, the combination of the lunar months and sun years, so that you adjust it through the calculations of the lunar years with those of the sun”.
A careful reading of Sforno’s comment seems to reveal a most daring thesis. Since the lunar year has fewer days than the solar year and since the Jewish year is, to a great extent, based on the lunar year, there is a need, after a few lunar years, to add an extra month (Adar Sheni) to make sure that Nissan, and therefore Pesach, will fall in the spring.
Rabbi Sforno alludes here to a most important question: Why does the Jewish calendar not simply follow a solar year? If, in any case, we must make sure that Pesach falls in the spring (and Succoth in the autumn), what is the purpose of consistently following lunar years, if eventually one has to bring these years into accord with the solar year?
His answer is most telling: So as to make sure that you will constantly watch and take care of the month of ripening, Nissan and the festival of Pesach, the Torah complicated the Jewish year by modeling it on a lunar year, so that Nissan would not automatically fall in the spring, and thereby force the sages and astronomers to make complicated calculations to ensure that it does.
What R Obadiyah Sforno is alluding to is this: There really is no reason why the Jewish year has to be founded on a lunar year, but since Pesach, the great reminder that God governs every moment of man’s life, should be on the mind of the Jew throughout the whole of the year, God decided to complicate the life of the Jew to see to it that he would take notice with ongoing care of God’s providence in the world every day of his life! This was to be accomplished by making sure that the Jew, and thereby the sages, had to worry throughout the whole of the lunar year that Pesach would fall in the spring.
We may suggest that Sforno, knowingly or unknowingly, reveals here one of the most novel and astonishing concepts of the Jewish Tradition: Judaism’s main purpose is to turn human life into a constant encounter with God. As such, it needs to create challenges and this is only possible when it complicates life. Indeed, Judaism main purpose is to complicate life so as to create a psychological environment which makes the Jews constantly aware of living in the presence of God. This is in no way an eccentric observation, but consistent with the very purpose of religious life. Religion is a protest against taking life for granted and it is through its demands and constant far-reaching interference into our daily life, that it makes man aware that God is our daily Companion. No doubt God could have made life easy and straight forward, but this would have undermined the very purpose of creation, the search and discovery of God at every moment and on every level of man’s existence in this world.
This is clearly the meaning of the famous talmudic statement by Rabbi Chanania ben Akashia when he said: “The Holy One blessed be He desired to confer merit upon Israel, therefore He gave them Torah and mitzvoth in abundance, as it is said: God desires for the sake of its righteousness that the Torah be expanded and strengthened“. (Isa. 42:21) (Makkoth 23b).
“God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance”
Abraham Joshua Heschel