I would have expected the first mitzvah (commandment) of the Torah to be the first of the Ten Commandments – to have faith in one G-d. The Rambam sites this mitzvah first when he lists all the 613 mitzvot and the Vilna Gaon refers to it as the foundation of all the Mitzvot. Perhaps the first mitzvah could have been “Love your neighbor as yourself” which Hillel refers to as a foundational principle of the Torah, or the laws of Shabbat about which the Talmud says, Shabbat observance carries the same weight as observance of the entire Torah.
The first mitzvah recorded in the Torah is in fact none of these. The first Mitzvah that Hashem gives His people is to manage time:
החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים ראשון הוא לכם לחדשי השנה
This month (Nissan) shall be to you the first of the months , the first of the months of the year.
The management of time in the Torah context is not about organizing your day, it is a much more global and even cosmic mitzvah. The Rambam codifies this verse in the Torah as two inter-related mitzvot: The verse defines the responsibility of the High Court in Jerusalem to identify the first day of each lunar month and to declare it as Rosh Chodesh. It is also the requirement that we synchronize the lunar year with the solar year by adding an additional month into the lunar year approximately every three years.
Like all mitzvot, this one has a complex technical dimension about which hundreds of volumes have been written. Also, like every other mitzvah, it has deep philosophic and kabbalistic meaning. The deeper meaning of Torah ideas can often be discovered by an accurate and conceptual translation of the Hebrew terms used to describe these ideas. For example, the Hebrew for ‘year’, is shannah, and the Hebrew for ‘month’ is chodesh.
The root of the word Shanah, שנה, means to review, to repeat. The year repeats itself annually. The root of the word chodesh, חודש, means new or renewal. By understanding these meanings of the words, the requirement to synchronize the months with the year becomes beautifully nuanced. This mitzvah now highlights one of the key polarities of Jewish life and thought, the polarity of past and future, tradition and innovation. Polarities create tension; embracing this tension and managing polarities builds energy. As with most polarities, their management resides in discovering a third dimension that embraces both poles. The third dimension in this case, is the Hebrew word for time itself, zman.
By translating zman as ‘time’ we miss the deeper meaning of the word and the essential Jewish understanding of the concept of time. We miss the Torah method by which to manage the polarities of past and future.
The root of the word zman, זמן, comes from the word להזמין meaning ‘appointment’ or preparation for the future. Secularly, we tend to think of time as a linear trajectory from the past, a spectrum on which we find ourselves. History ends with the present moment; the future is unknown, in our minds the future is the territory of gypsy fortune tellers and astrologers, not rationalists. When we write about the past it is history, when we write about the future it is fiction.
The Torah view of time – past, present and future – is different. The present is not the tail end of the past. The present is our appointment with the future, it is the moment in which we prepare ourselves for the next moment, for tomorrow, for next week, month or year. To understand the present, we need to study the past, but to make sense of the present we must focus on the future. We must ask ourselves: How does this moment, born out of my history, prepare me for what could be coming next? Otto Scharmer, co-founder of the Presencing Institute, understands this and talks of the present as that moment of suspense when having released the past you can pre-sence the future. The Talmud refers to this as the essence of wisdom; איזהו חכם הרואה את הנולד – the capacity to envision a future that has been born but is not yet visible. To do so, you cannot be rooted in the past. Nor, to envision the future, can you be operating from a place of fantasy. The future can only be envisioned when, with understanding of the past, you have let it go so that you can be fully present – in the present moment, your appointment with the future.
Even our understanding of evening, the end of the day when people are generally winding down, is different. We see sunset, not sunrise, as the dawn of a new day. In our calendar the day is counted from sunset to sunset, not from sunrise to sunrise. We see evening not as the end of today’s story, but as the prologue of tomorrow’s. Our evenings are not times to brood remorsefully or nostalgically about the past. Evening is our time to reflect on how yesterday (the idea incorporated in shanah) can be improved for tomorrow (the idea incorporated in chodesh). Our evenings are our appointments with the future, they are times to plan and set goals for the next day. We take the momentum of today and inject it into our vision of tomorrow without interrupting that flow with leisure and sleep. Our sleep is not an act of collapse from exhaustion, but a mindful renewal in preparation for the day to come. The qualities, thoughts and feelings with which we go to sleep inspire the direction with which we awaken. In the evening we pre-sence the morning and the opportunities it will offer us.
We, products of our pasts, are the instruments of our future. With knowledge of our past we focus on our future. We use the present zman, our appointment with tomorrow, as a time to prepare ourselves for it. In each present moment we hone, improve and refine the only real instrument we have with which to face the future; ourselves.
 Sefer Mitzzvot, Asei, 1.
 Mishlei 22:19
 Shabbat 31
 Yerushalmi, Nedarim 3:9
 Shemot (Exodus) 12:2
 Maimonides, Hilchot Kidush Hachoddesh 1:1-2
 The solar year is some eleven days longer than the lunar year.
 See Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, Friday Night Lectures, 1:16, Parshat Bo
 Tamid, 32a