Pinny Arnon

The First Mitzvah, The First Step To Enlightenment

Photo by Farzad Mohsenvand on Unsplash

What is the very first mitzvah that was commanded to the Jewish nation in the Torah? It was not “I am the Lord your God,” which was the first of the ten commandments given on Mount Sinai. It was not any of the “thou shalt nots” which established the foundations of societal structure and legality. It was not “you shall be fruitful and multiply,” which was a more general directive that was given to Adam and Eve thousands of years prior to birth of the Jewish nation.

In his commentary on the very first verse of Genesis, Rashi tells us what the first mitzvah was. On the Torah’s introductory words, “In the Beginning,” Rashi comments: “Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from ‘This month shall be to you (the head of the months),’ (Exodus 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded. Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” (Rashi on Genesis 1:1)

The Torah could have begun with the twelfth chapter of the book of Exodus, Rashi states. It is there (in this week’s parsha, Bo), where the first commandment – to sanctify the moon and establish the lunar calendar – is delivered. If the Torah were merely a book of laws, then this is indeed where the Torah would have commenced, with the first law. Rashi explains that Torah is more than merely a book of laws, and it begins where it does in order to establish God’s “ownership,” so to speak, of the universe. This explains why an entire book and a half of the Torah precede the delivery of the first formal mitzvah, but it does not provide any insight into why the mitzvah of the new moon is the first to be commanded. Wouldn’t we assume that there are other commandments – like the prohibitions of idolatry, murder, theft or the other ten commandments – that would seem to be more primary and urgent than the establishment of the months? Yet from the primacy of this mitzvah, we can glean that the establishment of the new moon and the observance of Rosh Chodesh contains a fundamental lesson that needed to precede all of the other mitzvos.

If we read the verse itself, it is difficult at first glance to perceive the vital guidance that it contains: “This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year”(Exodus 12:2). Read plainly, the words seem to simply instruct us which month is to be the first of the year. However, upon further analysis, we will find that the verse is teaching us something far more profound. We will note that the redundancy of the verse is perplexing. It seems to repeat itself unnecessarily, yet it is a basic tenet of Torah study that there are no extraneous words or insignificant repetitions. Therefore the verse cannot merely be telling us twice over that “this month,” the month in which the Exodus occurred (the Hebrew month of Nissan), is to be the first month of the year.

Rashi explains the seeming redundancy as follows: “‘This month:’ He [God] showed him [Moses] the moon in its renewal and said to him, ‘When the moon renews itself, you will have a new month.’ Nevertheless, a biblical verse does not lose its simple meaning. Concerning the month of Nissan, He said to him, ‘This shall be the first of the order of the number of the months, so Iyar shall be called the second [month], and Sivan the third [month].’” (Rashi on Exodus 12:2)

The second phrase of the verse, Rashi expounds, does indeed indicate that the month of Nissan will be first month of the year. However, the first phrase of the verse is telling us something different. Rashi quotes the first words of the verse – “hachodesh hazeh” – and explains that while they can be translated as “this month,” that is not their only translation. “Hachodesh” means not only “month” but also “renewal,” from the word “chadash/new.” Therefore, “hachodesh hazeh” should be understood not simply as “this month,” but as “this renewal.” God showed Moses the “renewal” of the moon in the sky as it was just beginning to appear as a mere sliver after it had disappeared completely in its final phase of the previous cycle, and He informed him that this is the sign of the beginning of the month. In other words, what God was instructing Moses here was not simply how to order the months of the year, but also how to determine when a month begins.

When does a month begin? In the secular calendar, the month’s commencement is unrelated to the moon. While the term “month” is derived from “moon,” it is only the length of the month that is related to the lunar cycle, and the months of the solar-based Gregorian calendar are simply twelve random divisions of roughly thirty days that have no connection to the moon’s phasing. The months of the Hebrew calendar, on the contrary, are strictly coordinated to the moon’s movement and appearance. But how do we know at which phase of the moon to begin the month’s counting?

As it has been established, the Hebrew month begins when the moon is just beginning to appear in a mere sliver, and ends when it is no longer discernible at all. The first of the month is the day after the moon has become invisible. The moon then waxes, or grows, each day until it reaches its fullness at the midpoint of the month (the 15th day), and then wanes throughout the next two weeks until it once again vanishes completely. On the monthly day of celebration, Rosh Chodesh, the moon is thus barely visible at all. Would it not make at least as much sense to begin and end the monthly cycle with the full moon? In such a scenario, Rosh Chodesh would be observed when the moon is whole and glorious in the sky; the moon would then diminish for two weeks until it becomes imperceptible, and then it would grow again for the following two weeks so that the month would culminate with the moon’s plenary wholeness.

To forestall this latter proposition, God instructs Moses “hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim” – the renewal of the moon will be the beginning of your months. You will not begin counting the cycle from wholeness or fullness, we are told, but from emptiness. Why? Considering the celebratory quality of the quasi-holiday of Rosh Chodesh, we can wonder why the disappearance of the moon is a cause for additional gratitude and festivity?

The classic answer is that we are celebrating the concept of restoration and rejuvenation. In spite of all of the challenges and persecutions that we suffer historically and personally, we always manage to rebound and rise again from the flames. Yet if we want to celebrate renewal, then would it not have made more sense to begin with fullness, to chart the inevitable decline that comes with life’s challenges, and then to build back up to the full expression of gleaming potential? Why must the cycle begin and end with nothingness and oblivion? What are we truly celebrating in this cyclic process of temporary increase and inevitable subsequent decline?

Why did God choose this dynamic of celebrating absence rather than plenitude? He did so to inform us that culmination in Torah is not fullness, but rather emptiness. We celebrate nullification rather than acquisition and amplitude. We recognize that it is the elimination of self and substance that renders us complete. The lesson of Rosh Chodesh is thus not only renewal, but also removal. In order to be truly whole, we must become completely empty. We must peel away all of the veils and garments that cover and conceal the spark of Godliness that is at our core. Like the moon, we begin with nothing, we grow and acquire everything we can, and we then realize that our true destiny and ultimate fulfillment is “bittul/self-nullification,” giving everything away and becoming nothing once again. Our greatest accomplishment is the admission and revelation that we are nothing but everything – in our nothingness, we are united with all.

With this, we can now understand the necessity of delivering the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh prior to the Exodus from Egypt. The self-transcendence that the new moon teaches is both the prerequisite for all progress, and the objective of all development. Like the moon, we begin with modesty and simplicity. As we grow in wisdom, we develop an ever greater ability to understand our nothingness and the humility and surrender that this wisdom breeds. Without this mitzvah of the new moon, there is no way to receive any of the other mitzvos properly. If one is already full, then s/he can receive nothing new, as the Talmud states, “An empty vessel can hold, a full one cannot hold” (Talmlud Brachot 40a).

The mitzvah of the new moon was delivered prior to Mount Sinai to convey to Moses and his people that in order to receive the Torah and its incredible wealth of divine wisdom, they would first need to empty themselves of everything that they previously contained. But could this message not have been delivered in the desert as they approached Mount Sinai? The fact that it preceded not only the giving of the Torah, not only the splitting the of Sea, but even the actual departure from the house of bondage, indicates that it contains some additional lesson that is particularly relevant and instructive for the process of liberation.

That lesson is that it was precisely through this nullification, symbolized by the new moon, that the liberation from slavery would be accomplished. A full vessel cannot hold, but it can be held. It is heavy and slow and easy to restrain and manipulate. Fullness would not only inhibit the people from receiving, it would also weigh them down and tether them in place. An empty vessel, on the contrary, is not only open to receive, but it is far more difficult to grasp and hold down. It is free not only of contents, but also of constraints. Like the moon in its absolute emptiness, once the people emptied themselves of themselves, they would no longer be detected, delimited, or detained. With true “bittul/self-nullification,” one can no longer be held.

The Torah’s systems and rituals are far more than mere customs or legal strictures designed to control our behavior and gauge our obedience. They are guides and practices by which we can discover and manifest the divinity that is our ultimate root and reality. God introduced the commandment of the new moon to enable us to go out of the exile in Egypt, and through the mindful observance of this mitzvah each month, we can liberate ourselves from our current exile and allow the light of God to shine brightly from within us even on the darkest night when there is no light shining from above.

Excerpted from Pnei Hashem, an introduction to the deepest depths of the human experience based on the esoteric teachings of Torah.

About the Author
Pinny Arnon is an award-winning writer in the secular world who was introduced to the wellsprings of Torah as a young adult. After decades of study and frequent interaction with some of the most renowned Rabbis of the generation, Arnon has been encouraged to focus his clear and incisive writing style on the explication of the inner depths of Torah.
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