the beginning of Jewish history
The story of the exodus from Egypt reaches its climax. Nine dramatic plagues have descended on Egypt, and the tenth and final plague is about to happen. The Children of Israel are packed and ready to leave. But before any of this can take place God speaks to Moses and gives the children of Israel their first commandment as a people:
“This month shall be for you the beginning of the months” God commands Moses. “It shall be the first month of the year to you.”
Why, of all the hundreds of commandments given to the Jewish people, including many key principles of faith and morality, is God’s first commandment to the Children of Israel, as they are about to leave Egypt, that they must fix a calendar starting with the exodus?
The Italian commentator Ovadia Sforno, reading God’s commandment carefully, notes that it uses the word “lachem” “for you” (“this month shall be for you”) . With this in mind, he suggests that at this very moment, when the children of Israel are about to taste freedom, their very attitude to time is about to change.
“From now on” he writes, “the months will belong to you, to do with them as you wish, in contrast to the days of slavery when your days were not your own, but were subject to the service and the will of others. For this reason this is for you first of the months of the year, for in it began your free existence.”
For a slave, observes Sforno, time has no meaning. The significance of time is not that it passes, but what we do with its passing. Only when we have freedom of choice can time have true meaning. For the Jewish people it is only when we began to taste freedom that our history could truly begin. The day in which we experienced freedom from slavery was truly our ‘independence day’.
Strikingly, it is at the very moment of the giving of this commandment, that the Bible records the first date in Jewish history – the tenth day of the month of Nissan.
History, Sforno suggests, is not simply a chronology of events. It is a series of freely made choices. Freedom brings with it the ability to partake in making history, to exercise mastery over time through the choices we make.
This insight of Sforno, writing in the 16th century, has been attested to by the experience of many immigrants to Israel in our own. For many many Jews, living in societies characterised by totalitarianism and oppression, coming home to Israel has been an expression of the freedom to choose, and to play a role in history. From having been oppressed and passively acted upon, they have become active players in the development of Israeli society, and in doing so have come to play a part in writing history, not only for themselves, but for Israel and the Jewish people as a whole.
In others’ words
“The world is now preparing itself to enter the st century. For us we prepare ourselves to enter the 41st century [in the Jewish calendar]. The difference of the two thousand years is not just a difference in age, but in suffering, in victims, in exiles, in Holocaust. And yet we enter the 41st anniversary, with great optimism and readiness to remain believers, to become optimists, to be engaged, to serve things which are greater than us.”
Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister, Address to National Jewish Community Advisory Council, February 1993
On a lighter note
A question of timing:
Chaim phones his rabbi with a troubled expression. He says, “Rabbi, I know tonight is Kol Nidre night, but tonight my favorite football team is in the European Cup quarter finals. Rabbi, I’ve been a life-long fan. I’ve got to watch the game on TV.” Rabbi Levy replies, “Chaim, that’s what video recorders are for.” Chaim is surprised: “You mean I can tape Kol Nidre?”