For Shabbat Hahodesh — the Shabbat before the new moon of Nisan, in which Pesach occurs — a special reading is added to the regular Torah reading. That reading, from Exodus, chapter 12, includes “This month shall mark the beginning of months for you.”
Defining the boundaries of time and establishing the calendar rhythm are prerogatives of power. Enslaved people have their time determined by those who rule over them; liberated people define their time on their own terms.
Among the remarkable occurrences that attend upon the Exodus, this simple yet powerful gesture of redefining time as a consequence of liberation is among the most significant. Writing in his commentary on Exodus, Dr. Nahum Sarna suggests that “the impending Exodus is visualized as the start of a wholly new order of life that is to be dominated by the consciousness of God’s active presence in history. The entire religious calendar of Israel is henceforth to reflect this reality by numbering the months of the year from the month of the Exodus.”
Note that this declaration comes from God to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, rather than after the Exodus. Put differently, the end of Israelite enslavement begins not with the redefinition of space — leaving Egypt — but with the redefinition of time. Even before they have departed, the Israelites have ceased to be under the slavery of a calendar beyond their control.
The reckoning of time is a central feature of Judaism whose significance extends beyond the Exodus. Establishment of the fundamentals of the Jewish calendar occupies a good deal of the attention of the Torah, which no fewer than three separate times records the cycle of the holidays. The Sabbath is included among the Ten Commandments, indicating that communal calendrical consensus is essential to the identity of the Israelite people.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “Time is the presence of God in the world of space,” an insight linked to this week’s additional reading. The biblical view of time as linear, purposeful, and redemptive is established with the Exodus. With the beginning of the redemption of the Israelites comes a new meaning of time, which is no longer to be viewed as the repetitive cycle of predictability; time itself now becomes the place where God enters the world to make possible new things.
The Exodus is both a point in time and a metonym for the spiritual meaning of time itself. It serves as a historic inauguration of the Israelite nation and as a symbol of the hope for the future redemption of all history.
Judaism embraces time as a gift, as an opportunity to sanctify minutes, days, weeks, months, and years by filling them with acts that advance God’s hope for the world and those of us within it. In marking Jewish time as beginning with liberation, the Torah seeks to awake within us the awareness necessary to use our time wisely, both individually and collectively.