In the middle of this week’s Torah reading there’s an abrupt change in the very nature of our text. For 61 chapters we’ve been following wonderful stories of great heroes and epic events. Suddenly, without warning, we’re reading about mitzvot. I imagine this is a bummer for many readers, but not for our Sages. They’ve been waiting for this switch. Rashi’s first comment on the first verse in our Tanach is: Rabbi Isaac said: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Shmot 12:2, in our parsha) which is the first commandment that the Israelite nation was commanded.
Rashi is informing us that many Torah giants believe that the Torah is primarily a legal text. Since Halacha is the central topic, therefore the Torah should begin with the first mitzva given to B’nei Yisrael as a nation. However, clearly, we need the many stories to connect us to the Jewish life style. The performance of mitzvot isn’t a set of mechanical acts. It’s a commitment to the people, to the covenant and to our God. As a matter of fact, many of the mitzvot in this section are EDUYOT, testimony mitzvot, which bear witness to our loyalty to our heritage, like having a Seder, eating matzah, and putting up a MEZUZA.
But the first mitzva is KIDDUSH HaCHODESH, sanctifying every Rosh Chodesh and setting up our Jewish calendar. Why? Shouldn’t the first mitzva have been connected to the Exodus, like the Paschal Lamb or remembering the Exodus?
What is significant about sanctifying the month which makes it appropriate to be the first mitzva of our legal system? The Bechor Shor makes the most straightforward suggestion: Let’s set up our calendar to count from the anniversary of our freedom and birth of our nation.
The Netziv, Ha’emek Davar, adds that this month will always be special for the Jews. The critical month for the rest of the world tends to be what we call the seventh month, Tishre. But for us we will always have a special connection to the first new moon of the spring.
This brings us to two last points. First, we have a powerful feeling about Rosh Chodesh. Something very profound is going on every new moon. It’s clear from a number of sources (most famously Shmuel I 20:5, Behold, tomorrow is the new moon, and I am accustomed to sit with the king, to feast.) that we Jews are specially connected to the New Moon. This is also apparent from our monthly recitation of BIRCHAT (or KIDDUSH) HALAVANA, blessing the growth of the new moon, when we pronounce: Blessed are You…Who said to the moon that it should renew itself as a crown of splendor… for those who will renew themselves in the future just like it.
We compare the waxing and waning of the moon to the rising and falling fortunes of the Jews throughout history.
And, secondly, this veneration of renewal doesn’t only refer to the rising and falling fortunes of the Jewish nation. The Sfat Emet declares that this mitzva really signifies the power of renewal on a personal basis. When Shlomo HaMelech declared, ‘There is no newness under the sun (Kohelet 1:9),’ it didn’t include the Jews who, unlike nature, can renew themselves. Starting with the Exodus, Jews have acquired the power of renewal. This refers to many fronts, from a future life in the World to Come to an ability to withdraw from idolatry and sin in this realm.
At the time of the Exodus the Jews became K’BRIAH CHADSHA MAMESH, ‘really like brand new creations’. This newness came with the redemption and replaced the stagnant status while enslaved in the GALUT, exile. This newness emanated from the recognition that all newness emanates from the CHIYUT provided by God. This explains why the ‘new king’ arising back in the first chapter couldn’t make any changes in the situation around him. True CHIDUSH can only emanate from God. And we are God’s representatives.
Sanctifying the new month and establishing a calendar wasn’t the expected candidate for the primary mitzva, but upon closer examination it makes a lot of sense. The concept of renewal was fundamental to the birth of our people, and continues to give us hope today and into the future.