In this week’s Parsha we are given the first national Mitzvah, “HaChodesh HaZeh Lachem Rosh Chodashim, This month will be for you the first of all months.” (Shemos 12:2). God gave Moshe the instructions for establishing the lunar calendar. After “disappearing” towards the end of the month, the moon reappears and signals the beginning of a new month. The Talmud explains that after receiving the testimony of those who saw the new moon, the Jewish court proceeded to declare the new month and dispatched messengers to inform the greater Jewish community.
One would imagine that a great deal of Divine thought went into choosing the first mitzvah to be given to the fledgling Jewish nation. This first mitzvah would set the tone and serve as the foundation for our national consciousness. If we are honest – we find ourselves a bit surprised by God’s decision. There are so many dramatic, meaningful, covenantal mitzvos that help to shape our relationship with God and with one another. Mitzvos like Bris Mila (circumcision), Shabbos, Tzedaka (charity) and Emunah (belief in God). Yet, despite the numerous options, the first mitzvah God gives to us is something that most people are not even directly involved in. Kiddush HaChodesh (sanctification of the new moon) is a technical, calendrical necessity that does not appear to carry incredible meaning for the common man. Why did God choose this mitzvah as our first?
In order to answer this question, we must examine the juxtaposition of the plague of darkness (choshech) to the mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh (sanctification of the new moon). In describing the plague of darkness the Torah states, “They did not see each other, and no one rose from his place for three days, but for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings.” (Shemos 10:23) The Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiyah ben Manoach, 13th century) points out that the word “dwellings” teaches us that wherever the Jews went they had light. Wherever they established their “dwelling” the light followed. During the earlier plagues if the Jew wanted to escape the Divine wrath he had to remain in Goshen. If he ventured out into Egypt proper, he ran the risk of being harmed by the plagues. However, when it came to darkness, the Jew had light wherever he traveled. Why was the plague of darkness different than the previous plagues? The Ohr HaChaim (Rabbi Hayyim b”r Moshe ibn Attar, 1696-1743) explains that the plague of darkness was an external manifestation of an internal state of disrepair. The Egyptians were so overcome by anger, animosity, rage and hatred that darkness filled their souls. And this inner darkness became so intense that it flowed out and darkened the world around them. When a person is filled with bitter darkness, it prevents them from seeing any light in the world. Yet, in the very moment when the Egyptians were blanketed by their internal darkness,”u’lchol Bnai Yisroel haya ohr b’moshvosom, the Jewish people had light in all of their dwellings.”
Life was far from idyllic; the Jewish nation still bore the emotional and physical scars of barbaric slavery – but they made a decision to focus on the light. Our ancestors made a decision to focus on the good. They decided to gird themselves with optimism, dreams and hope. There were many obstacles both present and future. They knew not what awaited them but they knew that God loved them and would take care of them. They knew that their leaders Moshe and Aharon would lay down their lives for them. They knew that they were the children of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and as such were heirs to a great spiritual destiny. The nation of Israel suffered loss, humiliation and defeat. They would have been within their right to become bitter and filled with resentment. But they didn’t. They made a decision to focus on the positive. By maintaining an optimistic disposition, they decided to create luminescent light. The truly amazing reality is that when you decide to create your personal light, it follows you wherever you go and illuminates even the darkest of paths.
Rashi (12:2) explains that Moshe had difficulty seeing the new moon even as God, Himself pointed it out. The Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabba 3:2) explains that no matter how much Moshe strained himself, he saw nothing but darkness. God turned to Moshe and He said, “HaChodesh HaZeh Lachem, this month is for you; if you want light – lachem, you must create it yourself.” Moshe was waiting for God to illuminate the dark night; God reminded Moshe, you must create your own light.
This is the deeper meaning of Kiddush HaChodesh. God gives us time, God gives us opportunities, but God doesn’t give us the light, we must produce it ourselves. At the beginning of each new month we walk outside, we look heavenward and it is dark. We look up and it is difficult to see the light. We walk into the darkness and we pledge to ourselves to do our best to create new and beautiful light. We vow to be like our ancestors in Egypt who illuminated the dark night with their internal, luminescent optimism and hope. Life is difficult, life is challenging, life is often an uphill struggle but we have the ability to create light within the darkness. If we focus on the positive, if we maintain an unconquerable sense of optimism and if we choose to see the good in our world, in ourselves and in one another, we can illuminate even the darkest of circumstances. Too often we wait for others to provide us with happiness, fulfillment and light. If we want to dispel the darkness – the power is in our hands.
“HaChodesh HaZeh Lachem Rosh Chodashim, This month will be for you the first of all months …” is not a technical mitzvah for the measurement of time, it is a mandate for successful living. The world is often dark – find the courage to create your own light.
We spend much of our lives trying to provide the very best for ourselves and for our children both physically and spiritually. It is important to be cognizant of the atmosphere that we surround ourselves and our families in and how it influences us. Rabbi Silber shares a powerful insight on holiness from this week’s Parsha.
The first encounter did not go as planned. In last week’s Parsha, Moshe and Aharon told Pharaoh to release the Jewish people. Pharaoh, incensed that Moshe and Aharon would question his absolute authority and distract his slave work force with dreams of emancipation and freedom, responds with two simple words, “Tichbad ha’avoda, let the work become more intense.” The daily quota of bricks was increased and the Jewish slaves were required to forage for the raw materials to construct them.
In this week’s Parsha, Moshe tries to lift the spirits of the people and once again stoke the fires of optimism and hope. “Therefore, say to the children of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you, and you will know that I am the Lord your God, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you to the land, concerning which I raised My hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and I will give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord (Exodus 6:6-8).’ ”
We would have expected the Jews to feel the first tingle of freedom, the optimism of emancipation, the hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel; to rally around Moshe, hoist him on their shoulders and begin to plan for a beautiful future. But that is not what happened. Instead the verse says, “Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not hearken to Moses because of [their] shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor (Exodus 6:9).” Unexpectedly unresponsive. What happened? How are we to understand the reaction of our ancestors to this beautiful message of hope and salvation?
The Meshech Chochma (Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843-1926) explains that they were listening and attentive to every word until Moshe began to speak about the Land of Israel. When Moshe said the words, “I will bring you to the land …. And I will give it to you as a heritage,” they tuned out. Why? “Mi’Kotzer Ruach U’meyavoda Kasha, from shortness of breath and hard labor. For it is the way of those who are suffering to only want to hear that their suffering will end. But they cannot absorb or internalize a message of future success and salvation.” When a person is in the midst of difficult times, the most they can imagine is the alleviation of their present pain. If you tell a person dealing with crisis and conflict, that one day everything will be amazing, miraculous and beyond imagination – they will not have the emotional bandwidth to internalize this information. When Moshe tells the people that God is going to take them out of Egypt and redeem them from their suffering – the people hear and eagerly anticipate this reality. But when Moshe then says, “and God will take you to the Land of Israel and you will be an autonomous successful nation” – they tune out. Not because they don’t want to believe – but because they can’t. They were so overwhelmed by the enormity of their difficult circumstances that they could not see beyond the removal of their present pain.
The Maggid, Rav Nachum of Chernobyl (1770-1837) once stayed at the inn of a simple Jew. As was his practice, Rav Nachum awoke at midnight to recite Tikun Chatzos (the prayer to mourn for the destruction of the Temple). Rav Nachum lost himself in prayer and began to cry over the ongoing suffering of our people. The inn-keeper quickly ran to Rav Nachum’s room to see if everything was alright. “Rebbe, I heard you crying, is something wrong?” Rav Nachum responded, “I was crying over the destruction of the Temple.” “Rebbe, I am not familiar with the Temple or its destruction,” said the simple inn-keeper. Rav Nachum then proceeded to explain to the inn-keeper about the Bais HaMikdash and all it meant to our people. After concluding his explanation, Rav Nachum said, “My dear brother, don’t despair, Moshiach will come soon and we will rebuild the Temple. But tell me when Moshiach comes, will you be ready to travel the land of Israel?” The inn-keeper responded, “Rebbe, I must ask my wife.” He returned a few minutes later. “Rebbe, my wife said that we can’t ascend to the Land of Israel when the Moshiach arrives as we have cows, chickens and horses and we must look after them.” The Rebbe would not give up. “But there is so much anti-Semitism, the Tartars, the Cossacks – every day there is someone else who wants to kill us. Forget about the animals and promise me that when Moshiach comes you will ascend with him to the Land of our Forefathers”. “Rebbe, I understand your words – let me go discuss it with my wife.” The inn-keeper returned a few minutes later, “Rebbe we discussed it and my wife said that you should pray that the Tartars and Cossacks should be taken to Israel and we will live here in peace with our livestock!”
There are times when we become so embedded in our present that we can’t see a future. Often, we are so blinded by our current circumstances that we can’t see beyond them, even though beautiful blessing is within reach. This lack of vision can be the result of feeling overwhelmed by the difficulties and challenges of life. But it can also be the result of being too busy with the “Livestock” of everyday life. We each have a destiny and are here in this world to do something meaningful and important. If we are encountering difficult circumstances, we must constantly remind ourselves that it will be alright. Even if we are overwhelmed by the details and responsibilities of life we must remind ourselves that we each have a beautiful destiny which needs to be actualized. Even if we are “short of breath” we must find the strength to look beyond our present into a beautiful future.