By Shlomo Riskin
On the eighth day of Passover we read a passage from the Book of Deuteronomy which lists the festivals of the Jewish calendar. What does it tell us about how we spend our time and our relationship to the people around us?
Every ancient people held certain places and objects sacred. The Jewish people, however, attached the most importance to sanctifying time. The Torah reserves sanctification not for the physical objects of creation but for the Sabbath: “And God blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it’’ (Gen. 2:3). It became an oasis of holy time.
Two Hassidic rabbis, the Kotzker Rebbe and the Vorker Rebbe, once discussed the relative holiness of certain commandments: The Vorker observed that on Sukkot one chooses the four species after painstaking care to ensure their perfection and beauty. They are admired and waved, but finally they are laid aside, the commandment concerning them having been fulfilled. This is the way it is with most mitzvot: as long as we hold them we encompass the holy; the moment we release them their holiness departs. But when the Jew sits in the sukkah, he is surrounded by the commandment. The holy literally encompasses the Jew. Thus, sukkah is the greatest mitzvah. The Kotzker replwied that the commandment concerning the Sabbath is even greater. The Jew can walk out of the sukkah, but he cannot walk out of the Sabbath. In other words, the sanctification of time is the ultimate sanctity, and since life is measured in time, holiness of time means holiness of life. It is thus characteristic that the first commandment God gave the people of Israel as a nation – while yet in Egypt – was a mitzvah dealing with an aspect of time: “This month shall be to you the first of the months’’ (Ex. 12:2).
The Torah clearly emphasizes our role in transforming and ennobling the time we are granted by the Almighty. As Jews, we must view time not merely as objective, disparate units, such as minutes, days, etc., but rather as subjective, interconnected moments which we are empowered to fill with content and to sanctify with meaning. This idea is halachically manifested in the institution of sanctifying the new moon (kiddush ha-chodesh), which is the process whereby we declare a certain day to be the beginning of the month. Originally, after hearing testimony from witnesses concerning the new moon, the Great Sanhedrin would proclaim the onset of a new month by the formula “the month is holy, the month is holy .” The court’s decision determined on what day the festivals would occur. In contrast to the Sabbath, which occurs every seven days regardless of the calendar, the festivals depend on the determination of the month, which in turn is fixed by the Jewish people. As Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (ca. 1475-1550) observes in his Bible commentary, it is no coincidence that this commandment to sanctify time was given at the moment of freedom from Egypt. Slaves have no clear notion of time since it is not theirs to dispose of. Only free men, who have at least limited control over their time, can fill it with significant matters – and sanctify it. Thus, the concept of freedom and the sanctification of time are bound up with each other.
The first month in the Jewish calendar is the month of Nisan, the time of the emergence of the independent nation. The seventh month is the month of Tishrei, the anniversary of the creation of the human being. The major Jewish holidays occur in or near these two major periods: Passover and Shavuot in the former; Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot in the latter. The first group of holidays is characterized by its emphasis on the particular – on historical events of relevance only to the Jewish people, namely emancipation from Egyptian bondage and the revelation at Mount Sinai. The holidays of the second group, however, contain universal themes and occur appropriately in the month when man was created. Both are part of the Jew’s life-cycle. That they can be reconciled is an important motif of the Kiddush. By making reference in this blessing to both the creation of the world and the Exodus from Egypt, we affirm that there is no conflict between the two. The Bible opens with the Lord of the universe creating a world designed for all humanity and with instructions applicable to every individual. After the major Divine disappointments, first in Adam, then in Noah, the Almighty decides, as it were, to create a family out of which would be forged a “holy nation and kingdom of priests.” This nation would by its example inspire the world to accept God’s teachings. Hence at the very moment of his election, Abraham is promised by God that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” through him. From the elevation of a particular people will follow the elevation of an entire peoplehood.