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by Ranon Cortell    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Why was Rosh Chodesh the first mitzvah?



WHY WAS ROSH CHODESH THE FIRST MITZVAH?:  In this week's Torah portion, Parshat Bo, the plight of the Jews in Egypt finally comes to a glorious close. Pharaoh and his minions have been thoroughly vanquished, Hashem's unceasing devotion to His people has been demonstrated in an unprecedented fashion, and the Jews are finally prepared to begin their journey into the desert where, through the giving of the Torah, they will be forged into G-d's holy nation. To begin their new-found status, Hashem commands them in several mitzvot, the first of which is the command that "this month shall be for you the first of the months, the head of the months of the year" (Exodus 12:2). Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, explains this directive as referring to the monthly proclamation of the new moon by the Sanhedrin (the Jewish head court in Jerusalem) which sets the beginning of each new lunar month and determines the Jewish calendar.

One cannot help wondering why, out of the myriad of laws that Hashem could have commanded His people first, did He choose this mitzvah? Why, out of all of the Torah's seemingly more grandiose statutes, was the declaring of the new moon chosen as a preamble or introduction to the laws of the Torah which would soon be bestowed on the Children of Israel? In a similar vein, why are the Children of Israel often compared to the moon, to the extent that the Talmud states that lunar activity relates to the Jewish people's doings, and we say every month in the blessing of the new moon that the Jewish people will eventually be renewed and rejuvenated like the moon? How are we like the moon?

WHAT LIFE IS ALL ABOUT:  In nature there is a constant interplay of two very opposite forces. On one hand, everything in nature is in an invariable state of deterioration and dying. In science this process is referred to as entropy, a theory which basically posits that all energy is in a constant state of disintegration. Atomic energy can be converted into electric energy, which can be turned into mechanical energy, but at last this energy is dispersed into useless heat. All of natural history consists of a constant state of deterioration and death. On the other hand, life - the miracle of positive existence - seems to counteract this process, and instead of disintegration and death, it forges ahead and ekes its sustenance out of the dying matter surrounding it. In fact, a live creature is involved in a constant process of renewing its basic cells, and it is this constant regeneration that maintains life. To explain the melding of these very opposite forces, one must first understand the basic relationship of Hashem to this earth.

When Hashem created this world, He had to remove His essence to a certain inexplicable degree to allow for Man's free choice. However, since the only true existence in this universe emanates from Hashem, there can be no true life or existence outside of Him. Therefore nature, which from Man's perspective represents the removal of Hashem from this world, is in a constant state of decay, because it can have no lasting existence if separated from Hashem. Even though G-d is constantly recreating nature - as is evidenced by the first blessing preceding the Shema in our morning prayers, "the One who rejuvenates the act of creation constantly" (this is necessary because even a moment's existence is impossible if not charged by Hashem) - He nevertheless made nature appear to be in a state of decay to impart this concept; that all things lacking in spirituality and godliness have no true existence. Conversely, Hashem implanted a kernel of the Divine into the living creatures of this earth, which we refer to as the "soul". It is through this glimmer of Hashem that we live and that life continues without instantaneous deterioration. Only we as spiritual beings on this earth continue the trek of existence because we contain the tiniest bit of Hashem, the only true source of life.

Subsequently, Hashem desires that we come to recognize Him even in the forces of nature, in all the spheres of our natural lives, and through our efforts to discover Him, be deserving of basking in His eternal light. By proclaiming and releasing the spirituality dispersed in the physical things on this earth and reuniting them with Hashem, we show that all things are only a part of Hashem, and that ultimately all things come from Him alone. By making this unequivocal declaration, we were to merit becoming intrinsically connected to His everlastingness.

Nonetheless, since Man proved incapable of doing this on his own, Hashem had to deliver the Torah to the world, to be disseminated by the Jewish people. It declared in both obvious and unbelievably subtle ways, how all physical things could be used to serve Hashem, to become elevated above their physical state of decay and brought into the realm of Hashem's eternity. By tying a few woolen strings together and attaching them to a piece of cloth (the mitzvah of tzitzit), one can create a certain spiritual existence which remains for all of eternity, and subsequently, the proteins of that sheep's hairs have become part of the unceasing light of Hashem. By connecting the physical to its true spiritual purpose, one fulfills the desire of Hashem - that Man spiritually elevate his surroundings and come closer to His everlastingness. Instead of acting for the pleasure of one instantly dead moment, we can convert our actions into a perpetual existence to be enjoyed eternally.

For this reason, Hashem commanded us first in the declaration of the new moon, for it hints at this most basic underlying theme in creation. Just as the moon is constantly renewing itself and is never in a state of decay, so too we have the ability to make ourselves to a certain degree eternal by discovering spirituality in the world around us and subsequently, through the performance of mitzvot with those things, to release that spirituality. This spirituality, which is a spark of the Divine, is eternal and makes us eternal, because it is a connection to the eternal Master. Hence, by declaring the new moon, which is relegated to the power of Mankind to determine, we declare our readiness to find Hashem in this world, through the Torah, and thereby link ourselves to the eternal Creator. Hence, we become like the constantly regenerated moon.

THE EVERLASTING NATION:  History is guided by this same basic theme. For nearly all of recorded history, various nations have flared in tremendous power, might, and incredible achievements, only to dim in a series of various tragic events and be extinguished from the hearts of Man and world power. Rome, Greece, the Muslim Empire, the Byzantines, are all distant flames recorded in the cold annals of history. The Jews are the only nation that has survived through so many centuries of wonder and misfortune, and yet always with a constant effect on the world around them.

The same cause that dominates the scientific world explains this historical phenomena. Since all other nations divorced themselves in their most basic dogmas from the one and only G-d, they failed to link themselves to the only true source of existence and eternity. Since they lack this fundamental link, they are prey to the basic law of disintegration. Anything not connected to the only true source of existence automatically has no long term reality. The Jews, on the other hand, by linking themselves in essence with Hashem, have given themselves the spark of true long-lasting existence. Therefore, as long as there are Jews who are devoted to the search for Hashem and the maintaining of His Torah, the Jewish people will be, in essence, eternal. Just like Hashem is never ending, so too His people who have tied their very existence with Him will be everlasting.

These basic concepts were vividly imparted by Hashem to the Jewish people on this most crucial threshold of nationhood. By uniting themselves to Him and by performing His mitzvot, the Jews would not be subject to the laws of nature and history, and could instead connect themselves to the constantly renewing being of Hashem. This idea was presented to them most poignantly by Hashem's redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt. For the first time in history, Hashem broke the laws of nature on behalf of an entire nation. He openly demonstrated that the constant and repetitive axioms of nature are not to be taken for granted and that they can be overturned at any moment by their Creator. By connecting themselves with Hashem, the Jews were deserving of a renewal of nature, as opposed to the constant decaying format, and therefore Hashem smashed its boundaries. By joining nature back to Hashem with the acceptance of His first few mitzvot, theJewish people caused nature to shed its constancy and, instead, it was renewed at every moment by the instantaneous commands of Hashem, for the benefit of His faithful servants.

With the wondrous plagues of Egypt, Hashem assured us that we would not be bound by the hindrances of nature. By destroying Egypt in sudden and utter decimation, while liberating the Children of Israel from a country famed for not allowing the escape of even one slave, Hashem demonstrated that we would not be subject to the same laws of history that fetter other nations. We would never be swallowed up by our enemies, and even from the clutches of the most perilous nations we would escape, with G-d's help, alive and well. Just like the moon is constantly resurging to its fullness, the Jewish people - by attaching themselves to Hashem through His mitzvot - would achieve an everlasting state of newness, unbound by the constant decline of nature and history.

FROM SLIVER TO SHINE:  Besides representing the ability of making ourselves eternal, the renewal and sanctification of the moon also signifies for us the ability to constantly rejuvenate ourselves. No matter how deep we have sunk in sin, every day is a new day and is not bound by the faulty decisions of yesterday. Just like the moon is able to bring itself to a full and glorious shine immediately after having completely waned, we too can bring ourselves to ascend from the very chasms of falsity. Hashem, by commanding the law of sanctifying the moon before any other law, gave us a clear enjoinder never to give up hope in our pursuit of goodness in the mitzvot He would soon give us. Even the most insignificant sliver can, with perseverance and trust in Hashem's loving kindness, beam regally. Even though one feels the powerful pull of past misdeeds guiding one to further wrongdoings, Hashem assures us that we can overcome our urges and, with His help, achieve greatness.

Last week we sanctified the moon for the month of Shevat. In conjunction with the mentioning of this incredibly significant mitzvah in the Torah, it is worthwhile to focus on its messages and use them as an inspiration to continue our quest for spirituality. Instead of viewing the mitzvot as only a responsibility, or worse yet, a burden, we should instead rejoice in the tremendous opportunity that they create for us. Only through the mitzvot do we have the chance to take this transient, here today gone tomorrow, world and literally transform it into an eternal subsistence to fuel us for all of eternity. By unleashing the spiritual potential in the physical world, we create for ourselves an eternal inheritance in the World to Come, and just as the moon is constantly refreshed, our spiritual existence will be everlastingly reinvigorated. Also, we must keep in mind that just as the moon never fails to reach its full shine, despite its decline into the depths of darkness, so too we must never feel that we are too far gone from achieving the potential that Hashem has given us. May we merit to constantly renew ourselves, both in this world and the next, as we reflect the glorious shine of Hashem.


Ranon Cortell, an honors graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington while attending the University of Maryland.

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