I don’t remember whether I received one, but when I was growing up a common Bar Mitzvah gift was a watch. Nice pens were also common gifts. A young Jew, taking steps toward adulthood, might appreciate gifts which reflect that move rather than receive age appropriate toys. A watch is appropriate not only because it is a “grown-up” device, however. A timepiece reflects the message that we are responsible for our time. We have the maturity to use time well, and we have the means to be punctual, wasting not our own time nor the time of others.
The very first commandment dictated to the people of Israel was the concept of counting time through consecrating the new month. While until now only individuals were directed with commandments affecting themselves and their descendants, this is the first time the nation as a whole is instructed with a Mitzvah. The nation was still in a stage of early adolescence. During the centuries of their sojourn in Egypt the family of Jacob had grown unnaturally in numbers, which had alarmed Pharaoh and prompted him to place controls over Israel. The enslavement defined the people of Israel as chattel belonging to Egypt. Their movements were restricted, the borders were closed. The numbing labor made one day much like the next. Any sense of time was blurred by the routine of making bricks and mortaring them into Egypt’s future tourist economy. The drudgery and grinding toil crushed their spirit so they could not process the call of Moses for redemption. In such circumstances time meant very little. They had no independence and their time was not their own.
All this was reversed during the plagues. The months of disasters striking Egypt put the country into a state of emergency. The routine was disrupted and work ground to a halt. Israel had an opportunity to begin to live on their own terms, to become independent. At this coming of age God gave the people a timepiece, the Mitzvah of the calendar. Each new moon marked a new month, a new beginning. The month of Nisan would be the first of the 12 cycles of the year. The people now had a framework, a way of counting time that was integrated into their religious worship. They were now accountable for their time, they were deemed to have the maturity to honor time and use it effectively.
One might find it odd that the very first commandment instructed to the people is one appearing to have so little consequence to their formation as a nation. Many Mitzvot, more fundamental to the life and mission of a Jew, were dictated later, some before Sinai and some after. But we can appreciate that without having a sense of time, without giving meaning to the moment, the people would be lacking a framework for anything that came next.
This Mitzvah remains one of the collectively observed Mitzvot. Every Rosh Chodesh, a semi-festival, our prayers are augmented by the Hallel and Musaf services. The Shabbat prior to Rosh Chodesh we announce the date of the new moon so we are all able to anticipate it and incorporate the observance of Rosh Chodesh into our week. It is important, however, that the Mitzvah of observing Rosh Chodesh is not solely observed as a ritual but that we also absorb the spirit of the Mitzvah. Every day counts. Every Rosh Chodesh is a day of accounting according to our tradition. The day before Rosh Chodesh is a mini Yom Kippur, and many Jews have the practice of including special prayers of repentance on those days. We normally ask ourselves such questions around Rosh Hashanah time: How have we grown, what have we accomplished, what positive changes have we made in our lives? But Rosh Chodesh is here to remind us each month of those questions. What goals am I going to set for the coming month? What have I learned last month that I didn’t know before? How have I advanced my pursuit of character growth? This is why Rosh Chodesh was such a fundamental observance for a new nation. It is critical that we maintain a growth orientation. Education doesn’t end after school. We don’t walk out of university knowing everything there is to know. We have a responsibility to fill our time with meaningful pursuits – and be accountable to ourselves at the conclusion of the month. Stagnation is an attribute of slavery. Growth is a reflection of independence.
The consecration of a new month is also unique in that the authority of time is placed in the hands of humans. While the judges of the high court were expert in the astronomical movements of the heavenly bodies, their calculations of the new moon’s appearance were not taken into account. Only when human witnesses saw the crescent and testified before the courts could the new month be sanctified. No doubt this led to occasional lapses, where the new month was consecrated a day after the new moon would have appeared! Nevertheless, that system – where the people would determine the calendar – was considered the ideal. When the courts lost their ability to convene, the system was indeed transferred to astronomical calculations, but the idea that time is given sanctity by humans remains the lesson of this Mitzvah. We have the ability not only to use our time in accordance with our values, we have the ability to give time its inherent value.