Bill Murray, playing weatherman Phil Connors, heads to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the Groundhog Day festivities, not in the least hiding his contempt for the assignment, the small town, and the “hicks” who live there. But then, rather than making his report and getting out of there, he’s caught in a blizzard (he didn’t believe would happen), forced to live the same day over. And over. And over. Again. With no way out. He goes from angry to resigned to experimenting with different, sometimes crazy, ideas, but only when he decides to do something positive with life and whatever it throws at him, that he gets a hold on time.
I often my ask, ‘if you were G-d and you just got a bunch of people out of generations of slavery to be “your people”, what would you (G-d) give them as the first commandment’? We tend towards “be nice”, “believe in Me!”, “don’t hurt others”, “don’t give up“, “make aliya”, don’t forget your history” – all excellent! And yet, this is not what G-d tells Moses and Aaron, still in Egypt, awarding them their first mitzvah as a People.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר׃
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:
הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃
This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.
Wait, what? This is it? And why are the seemingly superfluous words “in the land of Egypt” added? Why mention where it was given? The Torah does so very rarely, because usually the location of where a mitzvah is given doesn’t matter. 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. Rather, this is something to take with us everywhere, inside and outside of the land, during our travels, at all times.
It also means that the way to stop being slaves to Pharaoh is have control over time. For a slave it does not matter which day it is. His time is his master’s. But a free human being, whose time is in his or her hands, can look up at the sky and announce, ‘hey, look! A new moon! In two weeks we’re having a holiday’! The calendar is our own boat to float through “the river of time” rather than being swept away by the currents around.
The Jewish calendar is especially fantastic (yes, I am bias), combining months calculated by the moon, and years – seasons – calculated by the sun. We might think it’s convenient: the moon allows to count by gazing at the heavens while keeping track with the sun means the farmers of old will maintain the various harvest holidays in their seasons, which is true, but there’s more. The moon is considered more passive, reflective; while the sun is active, powerful, dominant. This is in line with Jacob, whose first name was Ya’akov, the one “following”, holding his brother’s heel, choosing a more “crooked” path, and also Yisra’el, the one who can struggle with G-d and people and prevail; the one who takes on things head-on; who knows his value and is not shy about being who he is. Which way are we? Yes….
This mitzvah usually appears two month before the Rosh Hodesh it speaks of, that of Nisan, in the spring, but very close to Tu Bishvat, the New Year’s for the trees. Coincidence? We mark a new beginning when things are dark and cold, here, in NY but also in Israel. And yet, this is the time, tell us our sages, that the sap rises inside the trees. There’s a beginning that happens away from anyone seeing it – inside a tree, in the dark, cold, rain. Nevertheless, it’s there and it due time will show its presence.
We often talk about “saving time”, but the truth is, we can’t really “save” it. We can only spend it wisely or foolishly. Creating vessels to hold it and appreciate it, can help with the former.