Rabbi Hillel Goldberg’s Torah column is this week written by guest columnist Chaim M. Goldberg, a sophomore at Yeshiva University.
IN this week’s Torah portion, “Bo,” the ancient Israelites are given their first mitzvah as a nation, that of rosh chodesh, the determination of the new month (three mitzvot were given to individuals in the book of Genesis).
The date of the new month is not merely looked up on a calendar; it is determined through human initiative, as two witnesses must testify they’ve spotted the first sliver of the moon in the sky and report their findings to the Sanhedrin, which then proceeds to “sanctify,” that is, to determine, the first date of the new month.
There are a number of questions here. I’d like to focus on two.
First, why is rosh chodesh the first mitzvah?
Second, this mitzvah is placed in the Torah immediately prior to the death of the firstborn Egyptians and the redemption of our people from Egypt. This seems peculiar. Presumably, there is a connection between the mitzvah of rosh chodesh and the redemption from Egypt. What is that connection?
LET’S answer the second question first, and through that answer come to an understanding of the first question as well.
Seforno (1470-1550; Italy) emphasizes the fact the slaves in Egypt had absolutely no control over their time and, consequently, over their lives.
They were worked to the point of exhaustion, and always subject to having still more demands made on their time.
As such, the central benefit of achieving freedom and independence would be the slaves’ ability to do what they wanted to do, namely, to live a life of service to G-d. The mitzvah of rosh chodesh came first because it represented the freedom to control one’s life.
In essence, Seforno sees the mitzvah of rosh chodesh — the opportunity to control time — as rep- resenting the ancient Israelites’ status change.
Fortunately, we too live in a world where the choice is ours to do what we want with our time. This demands a great deal of responsibility to identify what is most important to us, what our values are, and to commit our time to fulfilling those goals and actualizing our values.
ANOTHER commentator, the Netziv (1816-1892; Lithuania), views rosh chodesh as being integral to the transition from pre-slavery to post-slavery. He says that the mitzvah of rosh chodesh distinguishes the Jewish people from the rest of the world. After having been in Egypt for hundreds of years, our ancestors, inevitably, had been highly influenced by its culture. As they left Egypt, they needed a constant reminder that they were no longer to identify with that culture.
How so? The rest of the world, as well as nature itself, are highly focused on the solar system, but with the mitzvah of rosh chodesh our ancestors were to follow the lunar calendar.
The idea is not that there is something inherently special about the moon, but simply that it instills the realization that Jews have a higher calling than to imitate the rest of the world.
In case anyone is thinking about Islam right now — which also follows the lunar calendar — Jews were the first to follow the lunar calendar. But even after Islam the Jews remain unique, as we actually employ a hybrid of both the lunar and solar calenders.
This also derives from the Exodus, when we were given a separate mitzvah to remember the liberation from Egypt in the springtime. This timing can only recur by incorporating elements of the solar calender into the lunar calender, preventing our holidays from floating through all the seasons, as Ramadan does.
BOTH Seforno and the Netziv attach significance to the timing of the mitzvah of rosh chodesh right before the redemption from Egypt.
As one of my Torah teachers, Rav Nechemia Raanan, explained, the timing enables us to answer both the first question — why rosh chodesh is the first mitzvah — according to both Seforno and the Netziv. The moment of redemption was the first opportunity for our ancestors to be commanded as a nation, and the actual commandment of rosh chodesh addressed their most pressing need: control over their own time, that is, over their very lives.
Personally, I remain a bit unsatisfied with the technicality of this answer. I would like to suggest a more fundamental possibility.
Perhaps, in light of the Netziv’s explanation that rosh chodesh enables us not to imitate the cultures around us, rosh chodesh became the first mitzvah because it is only with a unique identity that our people could move forward. Only as a unique nation could we receive the Torah and everything that goes along with that.
Similarly, in light of Seforno’s explanation that rosh chodesh grants us control over time, rosh chodesh provides the foundation for all the mitzvot to come.
Without independently controlling our own time, how can we be expected to follow the Torah?
How can we identify our values?
How can we possibly commit to doing what is most important to us if some Egyptian is torturing us indiscriminately?
INTERESTINGLY enough, I feel that nowadays we are in the process of losing control of our time for the first time in thousands of years. While no one is beating us up, we silently submit to the dings and chimes of our iTouch, iPhone, iPad, and other devices we let control us.
How can we possibly identify our values if we don’t take time to think for ourselves?
And let’s say we do identify those values, how can we properly live in accordance with them if we can’t shake ourselves of our constant connection to a world that probably conflicts with many of those values?
The late Rav Yehuda Amital would often speak about how we should view Passover. When we attempt to figure out what the Exodus freed us from, if all we think about is pyramids and Egyptian taskmasters we don’t have the full picture. It is crucial that we understand what we are enslaved to today and then to free ourselves from that.
One of our main taskmasters today is technology. Passover is the opportunity to take a break, recalibrate, redeem ourselves from the constraints of Facebook’s demands, and to reconnect with the mission of Hashem and His Torah.
Though it is not yet Passover, it certainly can’t hurt to undertake this recalibration as we read about the redemption — the Exodus from Egypt — in this week’s parshah.
Have a great Shabbos!
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