In the middle of this week’s Parsha, Hashem presents Bnai Yisrael with their first Mitzva, החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים ראשון הוא לכם לחדשי השנה, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months, the first shall it be to you of the months of the year” (12:2). Essentially, Hashem is commanding the Jewish people to establish a proper calendar starting with the month of Nissan.
Imagine for a moment that you are God. You are about to redeem a nation of slaves and provide them with a system of laws that will transform them into a holy nation. The time has come to give them their first commandment. Certainly it should be something fundamental, a commandment that can serve as the foundation or basis for the entire Torah way of life. Which commandment would you choose? Perhaps to believe that there is only one God. Maybe to observe Shabbat or to keep the dietary laws. Maybe the importance of loving your neighbor as you love yourself.
Hashem chose a commandment that did not make our list. The first commandment He gives is to establish a calendar. What makes this Mitzva so important? How does a calendar serve as a foundation for the rest of Torah way of life?
I believe the answer to this question can be found in the commentary of Rav Ovadia Seforno. On the words “it shall be for you the beginning of months,” Seforno explains:
Henceforth, months of the year shall be yours, to do with them as you will. During the period of the bondage, your time did not belong to you it was used to work for others and to fulfill their will. Therefore, “this shall be the first month of the year to you,” for in this month your existence as a people of free choice began.
In other words, a slave’s time is not his own. He is always on call awaiting the master’s next command. In this setting it is impossible for a slave to decide for himself how he will spend his time. The decision is not his own.
As the Jewish People prepare for redemption, freedom, and ultimately receiving the Torah, they must first internalize the message of Rosh Chodesh, the idea that along with their freedom comes responsibility. As free people they will be held accountable for how they spend their time. Indeed, as free people they will have the wonderful opportunity to fill their time with positive and productive activities. Alternatively they can choose to sit back and squander away their time or to spend it inappropriately. The decision will be theirs.
This Shabbat, as we study this Mitzva, we can each take advantage of the opportunity to reflect on our own use of time, to make sure that with the arrival of each new month on the calendar we can look back with pride and say we have used our time well, that we are one step ahead of where we had been the month before. We are one step purer. We are one step holier. We are one step closer to achieving our utmost potential.