If we were G-d, what would we do? ‘I’ll do whatever I want!’ ok, so let’s say we’d spend bazillion of years enjoying ourselves on a beautiful beach somewhere, and then another bazillion traveling around our amazing universe, and then some more on our favorite activity, whatever that means, and then, one day, we decided to create humans, and then decided to have a people (and I do realize how challenging are each of these statements -), what would be the first mitzvah we’d give them??
We could ask them “to believe”; we could tell them ”to be holy”; maybe circumcision would be a powerful one, or how about if everybody ate the same food?
All these are good, but would they really work? How would that people look some years later?
This week’s Torah reading introduces the first mitzvah given to the people: to keep common time, to have the same calendar, to be synchronized; to have the same Shabbat day from New Zealand to CA; to celebrate all holidays together.
This seems minor. A calendar? Oh, I thought it would have been something bigger, but if we think about it, we can quickly see what happens to people who do not hold the same calendar, who do not “sync” their “clocks”, and who do not spend any time together, doing some common things.
As a parent, especially when my kids were little, there was a buzz about “quality time”. The online dictionary even defines it as “time spent in giving another person one’s undivided attention in order to strengthen a relationship, especially with reference to working parents and their child or children.” The idea is, don’t worry if you’re busy, but get those two hours once in a while to really focus and really catch up, and you’re fine.
The reality is, of course focused time is great. My kids still remind me how we used to go to Borders to have hot chocolate and read books, one of one. But, life is not made of once in a while hot chocolate. It’s made of million little seemingly insignificant details that we can’t time, and that we benefit from floating in each other’s orbit to share. Space is one such dimension, time – is another.
This idea is so powerful that the superfluous words “in the land of Egypt” are added when G-d speaks to Moses and Aaron, instructing them with this mitzvah. Why the addition? Why mention where it was given? The Torah does so very rarely, because usually the location of where a mitzvah is given is insignificant. But perhaps here it needs to be emphasized lest we think that this is something we’re going to do only in the Land of Israel, but rather that this is something to take with us everywhere, inside and outside of the land, during our travels, at all times.
There are changing of observances of Rosh Hodesh, and questions around this mitzvah of the beginning of a new month, such as: if this is so important, why are we starting the current Jewish calendar year in the fall and not in April as “it says”? And why do we count with Persian- Babylonian names (and yes, we try to infuse Jewish meaning into names such as Elul and Adar) rather than 1st, 2nd, 3rd, as we do the days of the week? Each of these (and more) has historical-rabbinical answers. Still, the critical idea of communal time expressed in the solar-lunar calendar remains. That is a foundation. Once we know when, we learn more about what to do with that time, which for holy, which for mundane, which to sit a few minutes longer to write, and which to rush for Shabbat…
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As mentioned elsewhere here, Moses is big on not only “let me people go”, but “let my people go so they may worship Me” (Exodus 7:17 and elsewhere), and yet, when Pharaoh starts giving in, trying to bargain how is this “worship Me” going to look (with cattle? with property? with kids? See Exodus 10:26), Moses comes back with:
“. . . [W]e will not know how we will worship the Lord until we arrive there.” “. . .וַאֲנַחְנוּ לֹא־נֵדַע מַה־נַּעֲבֹד אֶת־יְהֹוָה עַד־בֹּאֵנוּ שָׁמָּה”
The leader who speaks with G-d on a first name basis, all the time, who gets all the commandments “mipi hagvura”, from the Almighty’s own mouth, can still say, ‘really, until we get to wherever it is, we can’t know exactly what it is that G-d wants from us; we just have to be ready for anything, because after all, Pharaoh, we’re not dealing with a human, we’re not even dealing with you; we’re not dealing with anything predictable. We’re dealing with G-d, and regardless of how much ink will be poured over analyzing each syllable He says and each mitzvah He gives, we still need to remain open to what He wants from us right then and there’.
When it’s time, the Torah too, will be given in the desert, to remind us of this: yes, we need to follow instructions, and there’s lots of them. And at the same time, stay open to what’s ahead on the journey.