One of the foundational skills children learn early on is how to read a clock.
What time is it?
It’s not simply a question of hours and minutes; there is something deeper to the question. If you know what time it is, you also know what to do. It’s morning, wake up and eat breakfast before school or work. It’s nighttime, time to wind down and go to sleep. The time of day, the time of year, the seasons, and the calendar all establish the boundaries and time frames upon which our world is built, with specific routines for morning, afternoon, evening, and night, summer, fall, winter, and spring.
Different cultures have established various systems and calendars to measure time. Today, most of the world uses the Gregorian calendar, a fixed calendar determined by how long the earth takes to make one complete orbit around the sun.
The Torah asks us to track time using the moon as a frame of reference; when people spot the new moon, they would report it to the highest court, which declares the beginning of a new month – Rosh Chodesh. It’s not Rosh Chodesh because there’s a new moon, but because the Jewish leaders say so. It’s the very first commandment in the Torah, given to the Jewish People still enslaved in Egypt:
הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה – This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. (12:1)
There are lots of mitzvos, so one of them has to come first. But why is establishing the lunar calendar through Rosh Chodesh the first mitzvah as opposed to any other?
The story of the birth of the Jewish People begins at a time of stuckness, with the Jewish People systematically subjugated and oppressed, powerless objects with no choice or control over their circumstances.
Although slavery is illegal in most of the world, it persists today. What’s more, slavery isn’t just an abstract legal status or even just a phenomenon that still occurs in some dark corner of the world; it’s also a state of mind, body, and soul that can happen to anyone. Thankfully, we don’t have much primary lived with the experience criminal aspect of actual human trafficking; but if you’ve ever felt helpless, powerless, or stuck, you have experienced an element of slavery.
When we internalize that forces of change exist and that we have the power to harness and steer them, the possibilities are limitless. This moment can be different to the moments that have come before; this newness is the beginning of all newness – הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה.
The Shem miShmuel explains that the power of the Exodus story is that its story of freedom on a national level offers us the opportunity to become free of the tendencies and troubles that hound us on a personal level. The sense of futility, powerlessness, and stuckness that come from being burnt out or overwhelmed is poison. With the power to change, hard times don’t need to be so scary anymore, and the world isn’t threatening; it can be full of exciting possibilities. It follows that the first mitzvah is the one that empowers us to change by giving us a symbol of change.
One preeminent historian has observed that the worst thing about history is that people try to correct the past. People try to save the past, which is impossible; you cannot go back to the past and save the people there or prevent past injuries. We only have the present circumstances and perhaps a hopeful look to the future.
But as much as stuckness can come from attachment to the past, R’ Nachman of Breslev teaches us to avoid dwelling too much on the future and focus on the present day and present moment. As R’ Hanoch Heinoch of Alexander teaches, we can attach ourselves to vitality by being present – וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם הַיּוֹם.
The Torah often speaks to us in terms of here and now – וְעַתָּה / הַיּוֹם. Our sages take these references to Teshuva, our capacity and power to change and repent – וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל מָה ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ כִּי אִם־לְיִרְאָה. Because in one day, everything can change – הַיּוֹם אִם־בְּקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ. As R’ Baruch of Mezhibozh teaches, forget the past; right now, be a Jew – וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל! The Chafetz Chaim takes this to be a reference to introspection – וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל מָה ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ – what does this moment require?
It follows that our sages wisely guide us to seize every moment; if not now, when? As the Chiddushei Harim observes, every “now” has a different duty, calling for some new, renewed, or entirely other choice or deed. As R’ Ahron of Karlin points out, each moment has its resolution; each moment of existence is incomparably unique, never existing before in the history of Creation, and never to be repeated before becoming irretrievably lost forever.
As the Vilna Gaon points out, Moshe speaks in the present tense to offer us all the power to choose – רְאֵה אָנכִי נתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה. Rashi quotes a Midrash that every day, we should perceive our experience of Judaism as brand new – הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ.
Even once a person has resolved to change, they can still be anchored by the weight of their wrongdoing. The Shinover Rav suggests that although the past can’t be undone, it can be creatively reinterpreted, in the way Yosef reframes a troubled past with his brothers to relieve them of their guilt – וְעַתָּה אַל־תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל־יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי־מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם. What happened then wasn’t so great, but that brought us to where we are, here and now, and you can only move forward from where you are!
The world tracks time using the sun; the Sfas Emes notes that the nations of world history rise and fall like the sun, lasting only when things are bright. The Jewish People track time using the moon, persisting in darkness, and even generating light among total blackness.
The very first mitzvah is the lunar calendar, the only calendar with a visual cue for changing times; and a powerful symbol of change, a natural metaphorical image of a spiritual reality. It’s not just an instruction to count the time but a commandment to rule over time and even natural phenomena. It is a mitzvah to live by and with the power of change and renewal. It is a mitzvah to live presently with this moment and make it count.
Every day, every week, and in truth, every moment, is brand new, brimming with freshness, vitality, and renewal.