Some people, apparently, dance when the new moon of Nissan approaches because we are about to enter a month of not saying tahanun - the part of the prayer service in which we confess that we have done wrong, take responsibility, experience regret, and ask for forgiveness.
Another time I’d like to explore why I think tahanun is one of the highlights of the prayer service. In the meantime, though, it is interesting to note the reason why we don’t say tahanun during the month of Nissan. This is from the Magen Avraham, one of the primary commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch:
ג) בכל חדש ניסן. מפני שי"ב נשיאים הקריבו י"ב ימים וכל יום הקרבן היה י"ט שלו ואח"כ ע"פ ופסח ואסרו חג א"כ יצא רוב החדש בקדושה לפיכך עושין כלו קדש :
For the whole month of Nissan - since the twelve leaders of the tribes brought offerings on the twelve days and on each day of the offering was a festival day for that leader, and then the eve of Pesach, and Pesach, and isru chag - with that, most of the month is in holiness, therefore we make it entirely holy
This is not the only instance in which we desist from saying tahanun because of someone else’s joy. This, from the Shulchan Aruch, OC 131:7:
נהגו שלא ליפול על פניהם לא בבית האבל, ולא בבית החתן, ולא בבהכ"נ ביום מילה, ולא כשיש שם חתן:
We have a custom not to ‘fall on the face’ (another name for tachanun - ed.) in a house of mourning, nor in the house of a bridegroom, nor in a shul on the day of a bris, nor in a shul when a bridegroom is present
At all times that we do not say tahanun, it is not that we do not have what to confess, take responsibility for, feel regret about, etc. It is that the need to do so is overshadowed by another consideration - be it a holiday, or someone else’s joy.
This is an incredible move. And it is not unique to the Jewish - or for that matter the general human - approach to the experience of multiple and conflicting priorities or emotions. Sometimes we mix them all together and average them out, and that is our mood. At other times, we emphasize some components of our experience and suppress others because of some overriding purpose. The month of Nissan is one of them.
But the month of Nissan seems extreme because of the length of time over which we emphasize and deemphasize. It is notable as an experience - a month when we downplay our sins and regrets in favor of other sentiments.
L’ma’aseh, functionally, if we use this forgoing of tahanun not simply as a way to save us 90 seconds on Sunday Tuesday Wednesday Friday and maybe 5 minutes on Monday and Thursday, but as presenting a series of opportunities to actively downplay our sins and regrets so that we can play up something else, then Nissan becomes very rich, and a path to Pesach and its exodus becomes clear.
What is it that we play up when we downplay our flaws and faults? I’d suggest that we’d be playing up our good points, so we could be happy, so we could be redeemed. Here’s how I’d frame it:
כִּי בְשִׂמְחָה תצאו
In joy, you shall go out
וְזֶה הוּא כְּשֶׁיֵּצְאוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵהַגָּלוּת, כְּתִיב (יְשַׁעְיָה נ"ה): "כִּי בְּשִׂמְחָה תֵצֵאוּ"
And thus, when the Jewish people left exile, it is written “In joy, you shall go out.”
Likutei Moharan I:24
How do you get happy?
כִּי זֶה יָדוּעַ שֶׁצָּרִיךְ הָאָדָם לִזָּהֵר מְאֹד לִהְיוֹת בְּשִׂמְחָה תָּמִיד, וּלְהַרְחִיק הָעַצְבוּת מְאֹד מְאֹד (כַּמְבֹאָר אֶצְלֵנוּ כַּמָּה פְּעָמִים). וַאֲפִלּוּ כְּשֶׁמַּתְחִיל לְהִסְתַּכֵּל בְּעַצְמוֹ וְרוֹאֶה שֶׁאֵין בּוֹ שׁוּם טוֹב, וְהוּא מָלֵא חֲטָאִים, וְרוֹצֶה הַבַּעַל דָּבָר לְהַפִּילוֹ עַל יְדֵי זֶה בְּעַצְבוּת וּמָרָה שְׁחוֹרָה, חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, אַף - עַל - פִּי - כֵן אָסוּר לוֹ לִפֹּל מִזֶּה, רַק צָרִיךְ לְחַפֵּשׂ וְלִמְצֹא בְּעַצְמוֹ אֵיזֶה מְעַט טוֹב, כִּי אֵיךְ אֶפְשָׁר שֶׁלֹּא עָשָׂה מִיָּמָיו אֵיזֶה מִצְוָה אוֹ דָּבָר טוֹב, וְאַף שֶׁכְּשֶׁמַּתְחִיל לְהִסְתַּכֵּל בְּאוֹתוֹ הַדָּבָר הַטּוֹב, הוּא רוֹאֶה שֶׁהוּא גַּם כֵּן מָלֵא פְּצָעִים וְאֵין בּוֹ מְתֹם, הַיְנוּ שֶׁרוֹאֶה שֶׁגַּם הַמִּצְוָה וְהַדָּבָר שֶׁבִּקְדֻשָּׁה שֶׁזָּכָה לַעֲשׂוֹת, הוּא גַּם כֵּן מָלֵא פְּנִיּוֹת וּמַחֲשָׁבוֹת זָרוֹת וּפְגָמִים הַרְבֵּה, עִם כָּל זֶה אֵיךְ אֶפְשָׁר שֶׁלֹּא יִהְיֶה בְּאוֹתָהּ הַמִּצְוָה וְהַדָּבָר שֶׁבִּקְדֻשָּׁה אֵיזֶה מְעַט טוֹב, כִּי עַל כָּל פָּנִים אֵיךְ שֶׁהוּא, עַל - כָּל - פָּנִים הָיָה אֵיזֶה נְקֻדָּה טוֹבָה בְּהַמִּצְוָה וְהַדָּבָר טוֹב שֶׁעָשָׂה, כִּי צָרִיךְ הָאָדָם לְחַפֵּשׂ וּלְבַקֵּשׁ לִמְצֹא בְּעַצְמוֹ אֵיזֶה מְעַט טוֹב, כְּדֵי לְהַחֲיוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ, וְלָבוֹא לִידֵי שִׂמְחָה כַּנַּ”ל,
And so, too, a person must find in himself, for it is known that a person must be very careful to be joyous always, and to be very far away from depression (as we have explained several times). And even when a person begins to look at themselves and sees that there is no good at all, and he is full of sins, and the Other Side wishes to make him fall because of that into depression and melancholy, God forbid, even so, it is forbidden to fall because of this. Rather a person must seek and find within himself some bit of good. For how is it possible that he did not, in all his days, do some mitzvah or good thing. And even when he starts to look at that good thing, he sees that it is full of flaws, and there is no respite. Meaning, he sees that even in that mitzvah or holy thing that he merited to do, it is also full of ulterior motives and strange thoughts and many flaws. Despite this, how is it possible that there wouldn’t be, within that mitzvah or holy thing some bit of good. For anyway, however it may be, anyway there was some good point in that mitzvah or good thing that he did. For a person must search and seek and find in himself some bit of good, to give himself life, in order to come to joy.
So, it was essential that the Israelites be worthy of being redeemed from Egypt. Here’s Rashi on Shemot 12:6:
(ו) והיה לכם למשמרת - זה לשון בקור שטעון בקור ממום ארבעה ימים קודם שחיטה ומפני מה הקדים לקיחתו לשחיטתו ארבעה ימים מה שלא צוה כן בפסח דורות הי' ר' מתיא בן חרש אומר הרי הוא אומר (יחזקאל טז) ואעבור עליך ואראך והנה עתך עת דודים הגיעה שבועה שנשבעתי לאברהם שאגאל את בניו ולא היו בידם מצות להתעסק בהם כדי שיגאלו שנא' (שם) ואת ערום ועריה ונתן להם שתי מצות דם פסח ודם מילה שמלו באותו הלילה
And it shall be for you a safekeeping - this is a language of checking, that the sheep would require checking for flaws for four days before it would be slaughtered. And why did the taking of the sheep precede its slaughter by four days, that which was not commanded for the Pesach offering of future generations? R’ Matia b. Cheresh says: “It is written (Yechezkiel 16) ‘I have passed by you, and I have seen you, and behold your time is a time of companionship’ - the promise that I promised to Avraham that I would redeem his children has come about, and they had no mitzvot in hand with which to involve themselves such that they would be redeemed, as is written, ‘and you are naked’,’ and He gave them two mitzvot - the blood of Pesach and the blood of milah, for they were circumcised that night.
In this reading, God gave them mitzvot, so they could be happy, so they could feel worthy of being redeemed. But does that work? If you do one good thing, but the rest of you is still so identified with all the lousy things you’ve done? Would you feel redeemable?
That would be the trick. Your ability to identify with that little bit of good would be your ticket to redemption.
Consider this Midrash:
וחמשים עלו בני ישראל אחד מחמשה ויש אומרים אחד מחמשים ויש אומרים אחד מחמש מאות
And the Jewish people went up from Egypt chamushim - one in five; and some say, one in fifty; and some say, one in five hundred
The simple meaning of the Midrash discusses how many of the Jews left Egypt. The deeper level of the Midrash, as explained by Rabbi Henoch Dov Hoffman (among others?) is ‘how much of each Jew left Egypt?’
Said another way, how representative of me or you would that good point have to be in order for us to feel redeemable? The first answer is one in five - it would have to seem like that was a decent amount of who we are. The second answer - one in fifty. Even less. The third answer - one in five hundred. Even if most of me feels so far from that point, it is still enough. It is still in me, and certainly that part of me could be nurtured and grown.
So I’m looking at it in reverse: let me find all the subtlest, tiniest bits of good in myself and others, even if it don’t feel representative of who we are at present, and let me consider those worthy of redeeming, too. And in order to do that, we’ve got to not say tahanun for a month, so we can give ourselves maximum permission to find all the goodness inside of us and inside of others, so it can all be redeemed, expanded, expanded upon, grown, and given the chance to have maximum impact.