ויאמר ה’ אל משה ואהרן בארץ מצרים לאמר. החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים, ראשון הוא לכם לחדשי השנה. דברו אל כל עדת ישראל לאמר בעשור לחדש הזה ויקחו להם איש שה לבית אבות שה לבית.
(שמות י”ב, א’-ג’)
Just before leaving Egypt, the Torah stops the narrative of the plagues to talk about the Pessach sacrifice:
And the Lord spoke to Moshe and Aharon in the land of Egypt, saying: This month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.
(Shemot 12, 1-2)
Rashi says that God showed Moshe the moon and told him that every new moon means it is the first day of the month – rosh chodesh. This is the mitzvah of sanctifying the new month (קידוש החודש), which was fulfilled in the days of the Temple by witnessing the new moon and declaring the new month. Rashi, in his commentary on the first verse of the Torah, says that this was the first mitzvah that was given to the people of Israel.
The first mitzvah? Surely other mitzvot qualify more. How about “I am the Lord your God”, or “You shall love your neighbour as yourself?”. Why does the sanctification of the new month “deserve” to be the first mitzvah? And if it is so important, why was it given in Egypt, and not on Mount Sinai?
The simple answer is in the following verse:
Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying: In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household.
(Shemot 12, 3)
The people were told to pick a lamb on the tenth of the month of Nissan. In order to know when the tenth of Nissan is, they had to determine when the first of the month is. Therefore, they needed to be commanded about sanctifying the new month.
But we are looking for a deeper meaning to this mitzvah.
Every holiday we recite the verse from VaYikra: “These are the appointed seasons of the Lord, holy convocations, which you shall proclaim in their appointed season.” From this verse we learn that we were given the power to determine the holidays, though the mechanism of the new month. R. Akiva says that even if the Sanhedrin mistakenly, or even purposely, sanctify the new month on the wrong day, it is still the new month.
This control over time is illustrated in the Midrash Tanchuma. A king is in possession of a very valuable clock, and when his son comes of age, he hands it over to the son. (Not unlike the Patek Philippe ad: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely take care of it for the next generation.”) God does the same: he hands over the responsibility of keeping time to the people of Israel, now that they have come of age.
But why in Egypt? Because until now the people of Israel were slaves. They did not control their time; someone else did that for them. A man who is not in control of his time is not able to assume any responsibilities. Before receiving the Torah and the responsibility of mitzvot, the people of Israel needed realise they are switching to a new phase: being in control of their own time. The divine responsibility over time has become a human responsibility, to prepare them for the real responsibility of accepting the Torah and its commandments.
The lesson for us is obvious: do we let time control us, thus enslaving us, or do we control time and become free to assume our own responsibilities? As the medieval poet, R. Yehuda HaLevi, wrote: “The slaves of Time are the slaves of a slave; Only the slave of the Lord is free.”