Tazria 5782: Time After Time
Tazria (Leviticus 12-13 )
GOOD MORNING! Have you ever wondered, “What was the first thing that God created?” This is not an idle pondering: The first thing created would have to be essential to this world and would define everything that came after.
The Torah starts with the word “bereishis - in the beginning,” which tells us that the first thing created was the concept of time. Time was created first because it is God’s gift to the world and the most valuable thing we have.
When we make an accounting of our lives, we must be cognizant that it’s not our families, loved ones, careers, or possessions that are our most valuable assets. Time is simply the most valuable aspect of our lives as it represents what we can become – it is the ultimate determination of how we actualize our potential. How we use time ultimately defines us and who we want to be.
This Shabbat is the last of the Four Special Shabbatot (Hebrew plural for Shabbat) in which we append an extra Torah reading in addition to the regular Torah portion of the week. This week we add “Parshat Hachodesh – Portion of the Month.”
In this week's appended Torah reading we find the first mitzvah that God gave the nation of Israel, and would you believe that it also has to do with time? Not only that, but God actually gifted the Jewish people the ability to define time. Allow me to explain.
As discussed in prior columns, in Judaism the calendar is based on the lunar cycle (and adjusted every few years to align with the solar year). Parshat Hachodesh discusses the mitzvah of sanctifying each and every month based on the arrival of the new moon – this process is known as Kiddush Hachodesh.
In ancient Israel, the Jewish high court – the sanhedrin – would listen to the testimony of witnesses who would stream in from all over the country and testify to seeing the “new moon.” These witnesses would have to explain where in the sky and exactly at what time they saw it and the sanhedrin would patiently listen and then thoroughly test them. If the answers aligned with their knowledge, then the sanhedrin would declare the start of a new month.
The ancient sages of Israel had a thorough understanding and an expertise in astronomy and they knew exactly when and where the new moon was supposed to appear. In addition, the sanhedrin had been taught the exact length of a lunar month from Moses, who was given the exact calculation by the Almighty. They calculated the lunar month at 29.53059 solar days. This translates to 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 3.333 seconds.
About sixty years ago NASA established, based on calculations and data derived from satellites orbiting the earth, that the lunar month is exactly 29.530588 days long. It is remarkable to note that when the Jewish calendar was established there were obviously no satellites. In fact, if we think for a moment, they were also lacking computers, telescopes, and even watches. This makes the knowledge that our sages had all the more remarkable.
If we compare the two calculations:
29.53059 = Sages’ measure
29.530588 = NASA satellite measure
The difference is 0.000002 = two one-millionths of a day.
(It is quite possible that if we give NASA another couple thousand years they may actually get it right!)
Our sages also foresaw that one day the Jewish people would be forced into exile. About 1,600 years ago, in the 4th century CE, Hillel II created a perpetual calendar as he foresaw the cessation of the sanhedrin, which would mean that there wouldn’t be a way to decree the beginning of a new month. This is the calendar we use to this very day.
As mentioned, this mitzvah of sanctifying the new month has a special significance as it was the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a nation. In fact, this passage of the Torah is so significant that the great Biblical commentator known as Rashi makes a remarkable statement regarding it. In his very first comment at the beginning of the Torah, Rashi points out that the Torah should have logically started with this very mitzvah instead of the story of creation.
The famous 16th century sage, Rabbi Yehuda Loew (1526-1609, and better known by his acronym – Maharal), explains Rashi’s rationale; the Torah is first and foremost a book of laws and commandments. For this reason, says Maharal, Rashi wonders if instead it would be more appropriate for the Torah to begin with the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people.
Still, this assertion by Maharal is difficult to understand. Based on the assumption that the Torah is primarily a book of laws and commandments, wouldn’t it be more logical for the Torah to begin with the mass revelation at Sinai, when the entire Jewish people received all of the Almighty’s commandments? Following this line of reasoning, the Torah should begin with the Ten Commandments, which encapsulate all of the 613 mitzvos, and then filled in the remaining information afterward.
Perhaps we can suggest another theory as to why the Torah should have commenced with this first mitzvah. Essentially, the Torah is an embodiment of the relationship between the Almighty and the Jewish people. It is for this reason that Rashi considers this mitzvah an appropriate beginning to the Torah.
The mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh – that of establishing the new month – goes far beyond merely establishing a Jewish calendar. This mitzvah establishes the Almighty’s intention for the Jewish people to be His partners in running the world. God created the world and everything in it, but the management of this world, and God’s interaction with it, is in the control of the Jewish people. Giving the Jewish people the power (and responsibility) to establish the calendar and to determine when each month begins means that we have control over time.
As an example, if the sanhedrin decide that today is Rosh Chodesh (first day of the month), then Yom Kippur would fall out on one particular day. However, if it is determined that tomorrow is Rosh Chodesh, then Yom Kippur would fall out on an entirely different day.
This is incredibly significant. In essence, the Jewish people are the arbiters of how and when God interacts with the world because we hold power over time. We can actually imbue days with holiness based on our decisions. This is a profound statement of the trust that the Almighty has placed in the Jewish people and it defines the depth of our relationship with Him.
Thus, we are partners with God in the management of the world. It is a truly remarkable concept and this is why it was the first mitzvah given to the Jewish nation; it defines our role within creation and the role God expects us to play within His divine plan for the world.
It is for this reason that Rashi suggests that perhaps the Torah should have begun with the section that we read this Shabbat known as Parshas Hachodesh. Because it is the greatest gift God could give us: the power of time. We have the power to make days holy and decide when we serve God.
Tazria, Leviticus 12:1 - 14:9
The Torah continues with the laws of physical and spiritual purity. The focus of this portion is upon tzora’as, a supernatural physical affliction sent to warn someone to refrain from speaking badly about others. The disease progressively afflicted home, clothes, and then one’s skin – unless the individual corrected his ways and followed the purification process stated in the Torah.
There are three types of speech transgressions: 1) Loshon hora (literally “evil tongue”) – making a derogatory or damaging statement about someone even though you are speaking the truth. 2) Motzie shem ra – slander – where what is spoken is negative and false. 3) Rechilus (literally “tale bearing”) – telling someone the negative things another person said about him or did against him. Check out PowerOfSpeech.org for daily lessons in Shmirat HaLashon, proper speech.
Time is what we want most – but what we use worst.
— William Penn