A Matter of Time
Egypt reels under a barrage of plagues. Pharaoh’s stubborn resistance is
finally crumbling. The Jewish people sense the longawaited end of their
enslavement. Hashem is about to take them out of bondage and forge them
into His chosen people, the recipients of His holy Torah. Indeed, even
before the final plague is administered to the Egyptians, Hashem already
gives them their very first mitzvah as a nation.
So what is this first mitzvah that will cement the nascent relationship
between Hashem and our emancipated ancestors whom He has chosen as His own
special people? One might have expected an exalted ideal, such as the
mitzvah of emunah, faith in Hashem. Or perhaps a mitzvah of personal
refinement, such as loving other Jews as oneself. But no. It was the very
practical mitzvah of establishing a lunar calendar to regulate the annual
cycle of festivals and observances. This is really quite baffling. Why
this particular mitzvah? Would it not have been more appropriate perhaps
to initiate the Jewish people with a mitzvah that represents transcendent
Let us reflect for a moment on one of the more notorious features of our
society - the mad rush that characterizes our daily existence. The rhythm
of our lives is driven by the ticktocking of the clock. Our jobs, our
schedules, our appointments, rush hour traffic, all the aspects of our
contemporary lifestyles are measured and regulated by the inexorable
clock. But this is not really a new phenomenon. The accelerated pace of
society has simply highlighted one of the fundamental truths of the world -
that the most precious commodity by far is time.
“Time is money!” we are told, but a wise man once turned this adage on its
ear and said, “Money is time!” Time, not money, is the fundamental
currency by which the value of all things is measured.
Coming out of bondage, the Jewish people were presented with a sudden
wealth of time. As slaves, their time had been stripped away from them,
but now they got it back. What would they do with this great treasure that
was about to fall into their laps?
This crucial question was answered by the mitzvah of establishing the
calendar. When designating the new month, the Beth Din
declares, “Mekudash, mekudash! Sanctified, sanctified!” Hashem gave the
Jewish people the power to sanctify time by what they say and do, not only
to give it worth but to imbue it with holiness. Rosh Chodesh, the first
day of the new month, has the status of a minor festival, reminding us
that we can consecrate all the moments of our lives. By living in a way
consistent with Torah values and ideals, we consecrate our time and
preserve it for all eternity. This mitzvah, therefore, does indeed
represent some of the most transcendent spiritual concepts in the Torah.
This mitzvah, delivered with the gift of time, was indeed a most fitting
beginning for the special relationship between Hashem and the people He
had chosen as His own.
The mitzvah of establishing the calendar also highlights another aspect of
time - its cyclical nature. Life, as we know all too well, is an endless
procession of ups and downs, with no guarantees as to the outcome. But the
eternal existence of the Jewish nation is unconditionally guaranteed by
our Creator. The symbol of this guarantee is the lunar cycle which our
calendar follows. The Jewish people are compared to the moon. Just as the
moon wanes to the point of oblivion but always returns to its fullness, so
will the Jewish people always return to their greatness, no matter how far
they are driven down by the pressures of exile.
Therefore, the mitzvah of the calendar was doubly appropriate for the time
it was given. The Jews were slaves deprived of spirituality and even basic
human dignity, a people on the verge of extinction, yet they would once
again glow with the brightness of the full moon. They had been mired for
centuries at the nadir of human existence, but now Hashem had lifted them
up and placed them on the pinnacle of Creation.
A man once visited a great sage.
“How is your life going?” asked the sage, “Spiritually? Materially?”
“Splendid!” said the man. “Everything is excellent. It’s been great for
years and years. Couldn’t be better.”
“Life without ups and downs? You are living in a dream world. If you do
not know you are down, how do you expect to get up?”
In our own lives, we can also take comfort in the metaphor of the lunar
cycle. The flow of time is a harbinger of hope, both for ourselves as
individuals and for all of us as a people. But even as we wait for the
future, it is within our power to sanctify the present, to give meaning
and value to our time by the manner in which we live. We can mold our time
into a bridge to an illuminated future.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.