In this new column, we will try to uncover some of the inspiring messages hidden within Hebrew words, names and numbers related to the Torah portion or the time of year.
In the biggest blockbuster story until its time, God takes the Jews out of Egypt in this week's Torah portion. But the story suddenly screeches to a halt as God pauses to teach the Jews a commandment: "This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year" (Exodus 12:2).
The placement of this commandment is peculiar. Why did God choose to interrupt a sensational story with an uninspiring law? This could have been an Academy Award winning film script, or at least a Pulitzer Prize winning book, but God decided to momentarily step aside from the story to give the Jews a commandment?
God chose this commandment to be the first one given to the entire nation. Wouldn't you have thought that God should have picked something more important? Why not pick the laws of keeping Kosher? Or Shabbat? Why did He teach us how to identify the new moon?
The answers to all these questions can be found if we look closely at the words in the verse. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (the leader of German Neo-Orthodoxy in the 19th century) translates "HaChodesh Hazeh" not as "this month" as is traditionally seen, but "this renewal of the month." He points out that 'Chodesh' does not mean 'month,' but it means 'the beginning of the month.' When God gave the commandment, Moses was uncertain what the new moon looked like, so God pointed to it. In doing so, God meant literally "look out for this reappearance and consecrate the beginning of your months" (Talmud Tractate Rosh Hashanah 20a).
From the time of the exodus from Egypt until the third century, Jews gathered at the end of each month to look for the new moon. The Mishnah teaches that as soon a person saw the new moon, he immediately raced to report the sight to the sanhedrin, the high Jewish court. The sanhedrin asked the person several questions, and if the testimony was correct, the court announced that a new month had begun. The identification and confirmation of the new moon were based on traditions that had been passed down orally from Moses. Only through knowledge of the Oral Law were the Jews able to proclaim the new moon and thereby fix the time of the festivals. Though today we rely on a fixed calendar to identify the beginning of each month, the spirit of this law carries on.
The word 'chodesh' comes from the same root as 'chadesh' meaning 'to be new'. It is related to 'chidush' meaning 'a novel idea,' and 'chidesh' meaning 'to commence anew.' Each month the moon renews itself, and provides us the emotional strength to carry on for another month.
The mitzvah of marking the new months is a symbol of Israel's mission and ideology. The Jewish people mark the passage of time through the lunar cycle, while the non-Jews mark the passage of time through the solar cycle. The Sfat Emet, a 19th century Chasidic leader, says that this difference shows a distinction between the Jews and the non-Jews:
"The non-Jewish nations endure only as long as the sun of fortune shines brightly on them. When their sun begins to set and their good fortune turns, they fade from the pages of history. Israel, on the other hand, continues to illuminate the world even during periods of darkness and oppression, like the moon that lights up the world during the darkest night."
The Jewish mission is to be a light amongst the nations, and we gain inspiration each month from the returning moon. Each month after the sky has reached its darkest, most intimidating moment, the brilliant light of hope returns to guide us. So too the Jewish people have emerged innumerable times from the darkest moments of history, to bring a spark of goodness to the world and to guide it on its proper path.
God needed to interrupt the story here because this was the only place He could do it. The Jews were embarking on a new age, with a new mission. At this moment, God needed to give the Jews their marching orders, and these orders were contained within the commandment of marking the new moon. Just as the moon renews itself each month, so too the Jews survive by constantly renewing ourselves, by closely obeying the commandments passed down in the Oral Law.
This weekly column is dedicated in memory of Dan Miller.
Michael Gros is a graduate of Emory University. He currently lives in New York where he studies at Yeshiva Madreigas HaAdam and works as a writer and editor.
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