The first mitzvah given to the people of Israel occurs in this sidra just before the cataclysmic tenth plague, and the people are finally freed from slavery. Moses is instructed to tell the people “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you” (12:2) from which the mitzvah of Kiddush haChodesh, the determination of the New Moon, is derived.
Of all the possible choices to be the very first commandment to the new people being formed, the declaration of the new month seems at first glance to be a surprising one. And coming as it does just before the final act that leads to their redemption, the context makes it all the more critical. So why is the very first shaper of the people Israel the requirement to notice the phases of the moon and to declare the new month?
There are, of course, any number of commentaries on this mitzvah. That as the moon does not have light of its own, but reflects the glory of the sunshine, so do Israel reflect the glory of God. That in counting the phases of the moon the people return to the awareness of the God of creation, and as the moon appears to travel with the traveller, so God too travels with us and appears wherever we are. That the moon is sometimes hidden and sometimes revealed, like the God we constantly seek. That the phases of the moon, which waxes and wanes, remind us that ‘this too will pass’, that our own fortunes come and go, but nothing is forever. That by watching the phases of the moon in order to declare the new month, we are looking up and away from our own situations. That by declaring the new month we are moving away from the Egyptian system whereby the movement of the heavenly bodies is predicated on the actions and the kingship of the Pharaoh. That declaring the new month will be a human initiative, not a divine one….
They are all good glosses as to why this mitzvah is the first given to the people, and timed just before they leave Egypt for an uncertain future, but I think there is another more powerful reason for why this is the first mitzvah for the people to learn to do.
Structuring our time is one of the most powerful ways we take control of our lives. For the Israelites leaving slavery, the idea of structuring their own time must have been both difficult to imagine and frightening to think about actually doing. The bottom line of slavery is that one is not in control of one’s own time, and the parallel bottom line of freedom is that one has to learn to use time in the best way. Having recently changed my work practise after 28 years of being a community rabbi always chasing my tail and trying to catch up with the work, with never enough time to do everything I wanted to do, I find that managing my own time is even harder when there isn’t the pattern imposed externally by ‘work’. So I may continue to write ‘to – do’ lists and doggedly work my way through them but somehow I am still chasing my tail, still trying to catch up on the day’s expected tasks, still frustrated at the amount of things to do in the time available.
Cyril Northcote Parkinson observed that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” (known as Parkinson ’s Law) and this is certainly borne out by experience – both as an individual and as a society. Everyone who has worked in a pressured organisation is aware of the issue of ‘presenteeism’ – the need to look efficient to others by working many more hours than one is contracted to do. Indeed I remember being told by a congregant who worked for one of the big consultancy firms that while normally when buying a suit one would buy one jacket and two pairs of trousers (which show signs of wear more quickly), in his world it was normal to buy one pair of trousers and two jackets, one to be left on the desk chair so that it would look like you were still in the building and working.
Structuring time so as to work with efficiency and still have the opportunity to have a life outside it is one of the hardest things to do – the pressures imposed upon us by our employers or clients or congregants alongside our own needs to look busy and important and necessary mean that we are generally very bad at this skill. And when one works at home or for oneself, or when we are connected through various devices to the rest of the world almost continually, it is even harder to disconnect, to put the boundaries in place and then to keep them.
Looked at in this light, it is very clear that the one thing the people of Israel needed to become aware of is the rhythmic passing of time and that it is we who count and notice and determine the time, not some external power or internal need. Control of time is the paradigm of real freedom and it is hard to do well. But the moon, the gentle moon with its renewal and growth, with its regular phases and reminders during dark times that light will come again, and most of all with its nightly appearance that gives us hope, that helps us to keep count of the passing of time, that means we look up an out of ourselves when we might be tempted only to keep our eyes focussed on the task to be completed – the moon is the most wonderful object to follow and to see. And add to that the requirement upon us to pay attention to its monthly cycle, to requirement to make of each new moon a moment to renew ourselves and refresh ourselves, to sanctify the time we are living in – this is so obviously the most powerful commandment to give to a people embarking on freedom who will find the structuring and controlling of their time the most difficult thing to do, and possibly even a terrible burden. As we see the time pass in this most powerful and beautiful changing image in the sky each night, we can both be aware of what is not done and be refreshed and renewed to work differently in the coming days, both mark the passage of time and join its flow. The word ‘Bo’ is the command to both ‘come’ and to ‘go’. The moon is its visual representation as it comes and goes each month. And we too are able to leave behind and travel towards as we learn to use our time to best advantage.