After reading this week’s Parashah, we will listen to Parashat HaChodesh. As Rosh Chodesh Nissan will take place next week, we commemorate the giving of the first Mitzvah, “HaChodesh HaZeh Lachem Rosh Chodashim Rishon Hu Lachem LeChodshei HaShanah,” “This month [Nissan] shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year” (Shemot 12:2). At first glance, this Mitzvah does not seem particularly unique. Interestingly, however, many nations that sought to obliterate Judaism saw much value in the Mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh. During the time of the Second Beit HaMikdash, before the Chanukah miracle, the Syrian-Greeks (Yevanim) attempted to nullify three Mitzvot by force: Shabbat observance, Berit Milah, and Rosh Chodesh. As Shabbat and Brit Millah are integral Mitzvot in Jewish faith, the Mitzvah of declaring the new moon, which the Yevanim grouped with the previous two Mitzvot, must also be an essential part of our religion. Why is Rosh Chodesh valued so highly? Furthermore, why is Rosh Chodesh, of all the 613 Mitzvot, the first to be Hashem commands after liberating Bnei Yisrael from Mitzrayim?
Seforno (Shemot 12:2 s.v. HaChodesh HaZeh Lachem Rosh Chodashim) comments that Rosh Chodesh indicates Bnei Yisrael’s freedom. In Egypt, the “months” were not Bnei Yisrael’s to control; rather, every day was one of slavery and work. As Hashem freed His nation in the month of Nissan, Rosh Chodesh, with Nissan as the first month, reminds us that we were freed from servitude. Additionally, Ramban (ad loc. s.v. HaChodesh HaZeh Lachem Rosh Chodashim) notes that throughout the Torah, months are not called by specific names (Nissan, Iyar, etc.) but are referred to by number (Chodesh HaRishon, Chodesh HaSheini, etc.). Ramban explains that this change ensures a remembrance of the “great miracle” that occurred in Nissan, as the month’s number will be a reminder of how far away Nissan is. This practice is similar to our practice in introducing the daily prayer Shir Shel Yom. We refer to the day of the week by number in order to remind oureselves how close Shabbat is.
The Mishnah (Rosh HaShanah 1:1) refers to four separate dates as “Rosh HaShanah,” “the beginning of the year.” Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the first of the four, is the beginning of the year for the kings of Israel, for the holidays, and, as the Pasuk implies, for the months of the year. Rav Shimson Raphael Hirsch explains that every new month symbolizes a cleansing of our souls. Since the day before any Rosh Chodesh is considered a Yom Kippur Katan, a miniature Yom Kippur, Hashem listens to our prayers and wipes our slate clean of sins. Rav Hirsch explains that this idea of self-renewal can be experienced only by a free people, who control their own destiny. In Mitzrayim, the Jews could never experience this kind of renewal on Rosh Chodesh. But, as the light of the new moon stood out against the dark sky on that first Rosh Chodesh Nissan after the Jews’ emancipation, Hashem explained an important message to His nation: just as the moon can shine from the darkness, so too He would take them – His chosen people – out of the darkness of Egypt. As a free people, they would be able to start fresh.
Rav Hirsch further explains that since Bnei Yisrael’s freedom began with Rosh Chodesh Nissan, it is fitting for Rosh Chodesh Nissan to be considered the Rosh HaShanah for the months of the year. Since the Jewish people could begin to keep the Mitzvot only once they were a free people, it is also very fitting that this Mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh Nissan should be the first Mitzvah given to the Jewish nation. With this explanation, we can now understand why the Yevanim attempted to abolish the observance of Rosh Chodesh: without Rosh Chodesh and its symbolism, Bnei Yisrael cannot keep any of the other Mitzvot.
Nevertheless, if Rosh Chodesh has such a potent meaning in Judaism, why does the Torah begin with the stories of Sefer BeReishit and not with “HaChodesh HaZeh,” the first Mitzvah? Rashi (BeReishit 1:1 s.v. BeReishit), quoting Rav Yitzchak, explains that Sefer BeReishit is very necessary. If any of the nations of the world will claim that the Jewish people stole the Land of Israel, we can bring forth Sefer BeReishit to show them that Hashem created the world, so He can give the chosen land to His chosen people.
With Pesach quickly approaching, we must keep the Mitzvah of “HaChodesh HaZeh” in mind. The Mitzrim, the Yevanim, and countless other nations have attempted to thwart our observance, and we have always prevailed. Upon looking at the new moon this Rosh Chodesh Nissan, we should all keep in mind the greatness of our Jewish nation, its constant strength, and its boundless survival, both as a free people and as the rightful owners of the Land of Israel.