This week's Torah portion is its 15th out of 53, and describes the final three plagues to befall the Egyptians before Pharaoh lets the fledgling Israelites free. It begins and ends smack dab in the middle of the Passover narrative, leaving off the splitting of the Sea of Reeds for next week.
But for all intents and purposes, the Torah could have begun here, a point made by Rashi at the very beginning of his massive commentary. Buried deep inside of this week's portion is the very first of the Torah's 613 commandments.
Before commanding Moses to instruct the Jewish people on the details of the Passover sacrifice, the Almighty declares: "This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you."
This single verse refers to the setting of the lunar calendar and the declaration of the New Moon, known in Hebrew as Rosh Chodesh. In practice, the setting of the months was not a simple matter, and in ancient days, rather arcane.
In Temple times, the Supreme Court ruled on the sighting of each new moon according to the testimony of witnesses, and messengers would broadcast the judgment through the use of hilltop bonfires. That way, Jewish communities throughout the world would celebrate the various date-specific holidays at the same time.
At first glance, it all seems to be rather precise and limited. All of the more general, and arguably more relevant, commands — such as the prohibitions on murder and kidnapping, and the foundations of kosher and family laws — come later. So why choose the setting of the calendar to be the first directive issued to the newly constituted Jewish nation, and why do it in passing?
A Fundamental Practice
According to the 12th-century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra, this mitzvah highlights a fundamental characteristic of Jewish practice. As it's written in the Torah, the command lacks specifics: We don't know yet that the month is Nissan, and no mention is made of a Jewish court being necessary to determine a month's beginning. What emerges is the central understanding that the Torah cannot be understood without the Oral Law, a compendium of explanations, interpolations and extrapolations studied today in the form of the Mishnah and Talmud.
A greater truth, however, can be found in the fact the very first biblical commandment, far from relating to a specific time or place, deals with the sanctification of time itself.
The Jewish people emerged from Egypt spiritually and physically distinct. They had their own faith, and carried with them a promise that they would inhabit their own land.
But separateness is not solely a Jewish trait. A person can keep to himself and yet still play by the world's rules.
What the Torah describes is an altogether different system — a sort of macro-understanding of King Solomon's oft-quoted line in Proverbs that there "is a time to every purpose under heaven."
In order to be holy, in order to impart holiness to your surroundings, you must make time itself holy.
"The day is short," Rabbi Tarfon says in Pirkei Avot, "the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward in great, and the Master is pressing."
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected] chabad.org.