The first mitzvah that the Children of Israel are given is that of sanctifying the new moon. “HaChodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim,” “this month, the month of Nissan, shall be for you the first of the months.” Why of all mitzvot was this one given first? What is it about this mitzvah that embodies the message of redemption and signifies what it means to be a free people?
Identifying Nissan as the first month makes a profound theological statement. From the perspective of the natural agricultural cycle, the year begins in Tishrei, the month that marks the beginning of fall and the onset of tilling and planting. It is for this reason that Rosh HaShana occurs on Tishrei and that the Torah constantly refers to Tishrei as the end and beginning of the yearly cycle. To live a life defined by the agricultural calendar, however, is to live a life dictated by the laws of nature and nothing more. It is to live a cyclical existence: people are born, reproduce, and die; the world keeps spinning; and the cycle goes round and round. “One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides forever.” Any change is non-disruptive and predictable. Such a world, then, is ultimately unchanging and static. Such a world does not progress, and such a life serves no higher purpose. In such a world, slaves are never freed and miracles never occur.
To declare that Nissan – the month of redemption – shall be the first month is to assert that we do not live in a world governed only by nature. With the exodus comes a reordering of our time and a reorienting of our view of the world and our outlook on existence. Yes, this is a natural world with seasonal cycles, but it is also a world of history. It is a world in which radical, disruptive change can occur. It is world where God plays a role, breaking through the natural order, wreaking plagues, creating miracles, freeing an enslaved people, and bringing them to Mount Sinai and the Promised Land. To live in such a world is to live a life of messianic promise; it is to live a life of purpose and meaning.
But this first mitzvah goes even further: according to Hazal’s understanding, it not only demands that Nissan to be identified as the first of the months, but that we be partners in the process. It tasks us with establishing when the month begins on the basis of observing the new moon. “This month is for you,” says the verse. “Kazeh re’eh vi’kadesh,” explains the Talmud, “you must see the new moon, and you must sanctify it.” This mitzvah, then, presents a world in which we as a people are masters of our own destiny.
While we cannot violate the laws of nature, we do not have to live under their tyranny. The moon waxes and wanes every month, but we decide how to relate to it. The beginning of the month is not defined by the cosmological reality of the position of the moon but by our observation and recognition of it, by the significance we give it. And if we declare the month to begin on a day other than when the new moon appears, that day will nevertheless be recognized as the first of the month.
We create the sanctity of the month and the holidays that occur in it. We see; we sanctify. Through this, we reject determinism. We declare that we are free agents. We declare that we shape our existence and define our world. This is what freedom is all about. We leave a world where others define our existence – dictating what we do, where we eat, and where we sleep – and we enter a world in which we are the masters of our time, a world in which we have the opportunity – but also the weighty responsibility – to dream and plan, to decide what we will do today, and to determine the future direction of our lives.
The exodus from Egypt came from God and through miracles, but to live a free life, our ongoing exodus must come from within. With this mitzvah God is handing the responsibility over to us. God is saying, from here on in, kazeh re’eh vi’kadesh, when you see the natural world you must sanctify it. It is upon you to give it significance. It is up to you to break through the repetitious sameness of existence, to give your life direction and purpose, and to make it holy.
According to Sefat Emet:
For at the time of redemption it was made evident that God was the life-force of all, and … that this is the source of the ongoing renewal of the natural order, as it is written: “God renews every day, constantly, the acts of creation.” However, one who forgets this is defined by the natural order, as it is written: “There is nothing new under the sun.” But one who cleaves to the inner reality, to the life-force of God, constantly experiences renewal. This is what is meant, “This month,” this renewal [chodesh/chadash], is yours. For each person of Israel can stir up this power of renewal through faith, by it being clear in his heart that all is from God
(Sefat Emet, Bo, 5631).
Do we live in a world of nature, where nothing is new and God is nowhere to be found? Or do we live in a world suffused with God’s presence, filled with dynamism, life-force, and possibility? The choice, says Sefat Emet, is ours. If we choose to see God in the world, we will find it filled with opportunity and possibility, and this vision will be nurtured and reinforced, becoming our reality. To truly achieve this, however, it is not just a question of how we see but also how we speak.
This parashat Bo begins and ends by stressing the importance of the stories that we tell and their role in shaping our reality. “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart … so that I may perform these signs of mine among them that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed My signs among them, and that you may know that I am the Lord” (10:1-2). The miracles, at least according to these verses, serve no other purpose than for us to relate them in stories that will shape the way we look at the world and the way we see God’s presence therein.
And so it is at the end of the parasha: “On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt'” (13:8). And similarly, “In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery'” (13:14). Returning to Sefat Emet:
For behold, this is the power of speech that was given to the Children of Israel, and it is through this that they sanctify the months and the holidays, when the court says: mekudash haChodesh, the new month is sanctified. It was at the time of the exodus that the Children of Israel merited the covenant of speech. And this is the mitzvah of pesach:peh (a mouth) sach (that speaks). And “In order that you may tell” (10:1) … For the power of the mouth is to bring renewal … and this is what is meant by haChodesh hazeh lachem, this month-this making new – is yours
(Sefat Emet, Bo, 5656).
After all the miracles are done we will return to living in a world in which miracles are not evident, where what we see most obviously before our eyes is nature, not God. It will be our responsibility to look at this world, at our present and past, and see possibility, to see purpose, to see God. Kazeh re’eh vi’kadesh. Through our words we sanctify the month, and through our words and the stories we tell, we can and we must shape and sanctify our world.