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MOONSTRUCK

by Mitchell Scher    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

The first mitzvah commanded to the Jewish people as a nation was kiddush hachodesh, the sanctification of the new moon. The Jewish calendar is lunar. Each month starts with the new moon, which could occur either on the 30th or 31st day of the previous month.

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The first mitzvah commanded to the Jewish people as a nation was kiddush hachodesh, the sanctification of the new moon. The Jewish calendar is lunar. Each month starts with the new moon, which could occur either on the 30th or 31st day of the previous month. Therefore, this mitzvah entails that witnesses come monthly to the sanhedrin, the high court, and testify that they saw the new moon. If, after interrogation, the court accepts this testimony, they declare the new month to be official and everyone adjusts their calendars appropriately for upcoming festivals and the like. (Nowadays, without a sanhedrin, the calendar is predetermined through calculations of when the new moon will appear, which were made many centuries ago by Hillel.)

At first glance, it is strange that this is the first mitzvah that the Jews were commanded as a people. One could think of many other mitzvot that would seem more suitable to be the first. For instance, the observance of Shabbat, which testifies to the fact that G-d created the world, seems to be much more fundamental then kiddush hachodesh. Additionally, why must this mitzvah be commanded before the Jews left Egypt? The only other commandments that the Jews were given before leaving Egypt were ones directly related to the exodus, such as offering the Passover sacrifice and eating matzah. This mitzvah seems entirely unrelated to the exodus from Egypt and out of place. Why could this mitzvah not be given with the rest of the Torah at Mt. Sinai?

Rabbi Shmuel Zucker, a contemporary teacher and author in Israel, offers an answer to the above difficulties. When G-d took us out of Egypt, He did so on one condition—that we become his servants and perform his mitzvot faithfully. Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator, explains this concept in Deuteronomy 5:15. Hashem chose us as his people. Along with this selection came the responsibility to follow G-d’s will, namely, the Torah. From this we see that the Jewish people never really had any freedom from slavery, rather just a change of masters. Instead of serving Pharaoh in Egypt, now the Jews serve Hashem.

However, not only was there a change in masters, but also a change in the nature of the work demanded by the masters. In Egypt, the Jews were forced to do physical, backbreaking labor. The Egyptians placed this upon the Jews against their will. They only worked out of fear of the slave drivers’ whips and the wrath of Pharaoh. The Egyptians would kill the slaves who were not working up to par. Accordingly, the Jews did not have any sense of willingness, happiness, or enthusiasm toward their masters or their work. The work was done with no feeling.

In contrast, the service of G-d is an entirely different pursuit. The ideal way for mitzvot to be done is with love, joy, and determination to fulfill the will of the Creator. If one does a mitzvah only out of fear of punishment, it is on a lower level and lacking completeness. This is made evident from the fundamental shema prayer. The first line of this declaration that a Jew makes twice daily, is the Jewish people’s acceptance of Hashem’s dominion, "Hear O’ Israel, Hashem is G-d, Hashem is one"; the Torah immediately continues "and you shall love Hashem your G-d with all you heart." The Torah’s juxtaposition of the love of G-d to the acceptance of G-d’s kingdom conveys the message that the our main service of G-d is through love. The Mishnah (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:3) tells us "do not be as a servant that works only in order to receive payment." The Mishnah is teaching us to serve G-d out of our love for Him. Someone who loves another will perform tasks for him or her without even thinking about payment. A husband would never ask his wife for payment for doing something for her! This is the same way that one should ideally serve Hashem.

However, there is only one way in which one can continually serve G-d with love and fervor. This is hinted to in the next verse of the shema, "and these words which I command you today shall be on your heart." Rashi explains that mitzvot must always be to a Jew as if they were new, commanded on that very day. Every day a Jew must feel that the mitzvot are something fresh and exciting, which everyone runs to greet. The only way to love the service of Hashem to the fullest is to feel a newness and novelty in His service constantly. The nature of man is to rejoice in things that have a spark of freshness to them. Something that is old and repetitive does not have the same appeal as does something new. People do not become excited about things that are routine. For example, a teenager receiving his driver’s license for the first time is extremely enthusiastic about driving, which is not the case after the original thrill has worn off and driving becomes habitual and normal. If one feels that the mitzvot are something exciting and new each day, then he will be assured that his performance of them is with a passion. However, if one allows his service of G-d and fulfillment of mitzvot to become routine and boring, it is almost inevitable that he will not rejoice in their performance, thereby turning his efforts into hollow actions with no feeling of love toward Hashem.

It is a fair assumption that the first mitzvah Hashem gives to the Jewish people would have a fundamental message in it pertaining to the performance of all mitzvot. Kiddush hachodesh indicates the basic method in which mitzvot must be executed. The moon hints to the element of renewal that must be present at all times in a Jew’s service of G-d. The moon waxes and wanes every month. It renews itself constantly.

Hashem, in His kindness, established in nature a sign for the Jewish people to understand the feeling they should have towards His commandments. Each month every Jew should be inspired to renew himself and be reinvigorated to perform Hashem’s will with zest. This is also a reason why this mitzvah is given just before the Jews leave Egypt. At the time of the Jews release from Pharaoh’s slavery and entrance into Hashem’s directive, Hashem stresses to the Jewish people the difference between their service of Pharaoh to their service of Him through the giving of this mitzvah. He indicates to the Jewish people that they should serve him with love and devotion, rather than fear and apathy.

May we all merit to take joy in fulfilling Hashem’s will and renew our desire to do His mitzvot.

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Mitchell Scher, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington.

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