Jewish destiny was partially achieved upon the Jewish exodus from the land of Egypt. With signs and wonders, a people who had been enslaved for 210 years were led out of a land that was closed, if not impossible, to escape. They could finally form their own destiny and begin their journey in history – one that would make them a nation of all nations and place them in the center of all world events.
When leaving Egypt, Almighty G-d gave to the Jewish people only one mitzvah, the mitzvah of “Kiddush hachodesh al pi ha-re’iyah” – sanctifying the moon by sight. The mitzvah required the central beit din (court of law) in Jerusalem to establish precisely when the new moon had been seen and to then sanctify and proclaim the beginning of the new Jewish month. This action would in essence define the Jewish calendar and would place into the hands of the people the decision of when the holidays would fall out during the year.
The question is why this mitzvah at this time? Surely there are other commandments that seem more important and vital for Jewish survival. Perhaps the prohibition against stealing or adultery or killing would have been more appropriate. Why this mitzvah of the sanctification of the new moon?
Rabbi Joseph Ber Soleveitchik, zt”l, writes that when the Jews left Egypt after 200 years of slavery, they had no past, present, or future. People who are slaves never feel that they have a history to draw lessons from, nor do they enjoy the present or even anticipate with excitement their future. Life for them becomes drudgery – day in, day out, doing the same things, just surviving. At this time, perhaps at the lowest time for the Jewish people in terms of their self-worth, Almighty G-d gave them the mitzvah of time. He told them that they would have control, in a limited way, over their time. They would be charged to decide when the month would begin and on what day the holidays would fall out.
The underlying message of G-d to His people was that time is so very precious and that it should be embraced and treasured constantly. Every minute of one’s life needs to be appreciated and valued, for we have a limited time to live and to achieve. The Jewish people were in essence told that their lives had value. Not as slaves, where time has no meaning, but as a free nation with an illustrious past, a dynamic present, and a future to yearn for.
The Talmud makes an eye-opening observation about how to analyze a life. If a person lives to age 70, he or she would have to account for the following: the first years of life – the discovery years – when one is not obligated to perform mitzvot (in fact, our Sages do not hold people responsible for their sins until they reach 20 years old); then the remaining 50 years of the person’s life – at least one third of which is spent sleeping and another third eating; plus time wasted on activities like watching television or surfing the computer. When one gives thought to this, a person in a 70-year life span has perhaps 10 productive years in which to grow and make an impact on the world and his or her community. Many of us waste that time, too, and thus that 10-year window shrinks to nearly nothing.
That is why Almighty G-d gave us – as we left Egypt to shape our destiny as a people – the mitzvah of time. It was a charge to our people on the importance of using time wisely: to study our holy Torah, to love our families, and to be an example of a priestly people, for all people and all nations of the world. Time is so valuable, yet fleeting. As we age, we realize how precious our minutes and hours in this world are. Yet even with all the time available to us, especially after retirement, it is still challenging to utilize our time properly.
Despite these challenges, it is precisely in that direction that we must strive to better ourselves and use the time that we have in this world to benefit and further the sacred destiny of the Jewish people.