Kiddush HaChodesh: Redemption in a Bottle
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender
A new job, a new love, a new home: something fresh and sparkling runs like a vein through all these words because they convey new beginnings.
Imagine how powerful that excitement must have been as the Jewish People stood on the verge of the redemption from Egypt. They and their ancestors had been forcefully held under the cruel thumb of their Egyptian taskmasters for over two hundred years. That’s a long time to cry and dream and pray. The Jews had awaited this moment for what may have seemed like forever. Now it was finally here.
But what happens once new love turns into old love, once the exciting job becomes same-old, same-old? Familiarity breeds contempt. We get tired, bored, and disenchanted. We lose that sense of excitement. Life stops feeling like a delicious adventure and more like a situation comedy where you play the wrong part.
Wouldn’t we do almost anything to package and bottle that sense of newness and excitement for a rainy day? Wouldn’t it be great if there were some mechanism that allowed us to tap into that energy, to inject the power of enthusiasm back into our everyday lives when commitment presses hard against the borderline? How do we marry the stability of the old with the passion and excitement of the new?
While every mitzvah of the Torah holds a unique gift for the Jewish People, our very first commandment was something special. The very first mitzvah ever given to us as a nation characterized our mission, started us off on the right foot. That mitzvah was Kiddush HaChodesh, the secret of renewal.
In order to understand Jewish spirituality and philosophy, you must first understand Jewish law. Jewish law provide amorphous spirituality with meaningful substance and shape. The technical practices that make up Kiddush HaChodesh give rise to something amazing:
“This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year.” (Shmos-Exodus 12:2)
According to the guidelines of Jewish law, the mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh takes place when an individual Jew witnesses the new moon, travels to the central Jewish legislature in Jerusalem called the Sanhedrin, and testifies to what he witnessed.
The witness is quizzed. Is he sure he saw the moon? It wasn’t a bird? It wasn’t a trick of light, a star, a distant candle? Whenever the testimony is confirmed by an additional witness, the court is ready to go. A new month is declared, and the holidays and Jewish events due to take place that month are declared in kind.
The trick is that the witness may be detained, questioned further, or rushed through as soon as possible. The practical difference can be enormous – will the Pesach Seder fall out on a Thursday or a Friday? What day will we fast for Yom Kippur? The practice of Kiddush HaChodesh meant the Jewish People collaborating with G-d to control and determine time. We were given the power and responsibility to create our own new beginnings.
The Roman Empire would later exile the Jewish People and force the Sanhedrin to disband. This would force leader Hillel HaNasi to establish the months of the year in advance for millennia to come. The problem was that while the Gregorian calendar follows the solar cycle and the Muslim calendar follows the lunar cycle, the Jewish calendar follows both. This meant some fancy footwork in the astronomy and calculation department – how did Hillel HaNasi determine where to place the months in order to coordinate between both the lunar and solar cycles for decades upon decades to come?
The resulting calendar, used to this day, inspired the praise, “For that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples…” (Devarim-Deuteronomy 4:6) Our modern age of satellites and atomic clocks has brought to light that the calculations of the Sanhedrin in the 5th century CE regarding the length of time between cycles were correct to the fifth decimal point.
Now that we understand the framework of the mitzvah, what does Kiddush HaChodesh teach us about how to live our lives right now?
Get a Life
Kiddush HaChodesh, the first mitzvah of the Jewish People, all boils down to one simple question: do you want to have a life? Do you want to celebrate the Jewish holidays, have a relationship with G-d and others, tap into the potential born inside you like a miraculous seed? If you want to have a life, you have to get one. That means making time.
Before Kiddush HasChodesh, making time was a gift that we had never had. Egypt ate time. One of Pharaoh’s cruelest tactics for the subversion of the Jews was to deny us even a moment to catch our breath and reclaim our dignity. Pharaoh made sure that we were always in a rush, always stressed, always threatened. Imminent danger was constant. We had no control. We had no time to think. We had no sense of self. We had no life.
Kiddush HaChodesh was the first declaration of our independence, and what a declaration it was. We were given this mitzvah before we left Egypt because ingraining this message was what allowed us to break out of that prison at all. Together with the Almighty, we control time! In a partnership with G-d Himself, we decide when we will do what we need to do, not the Egyptians, and not anyone else. Things don’t just happen to us, we make them happen. We got a life in the most meaningful sense possible, grabbed that life with both hands and actively brought it to be.
What’s better than one redemption? Redemption in a bottle. How have the Jews survived the travails of anti-Semitism over and over again? How have the Jews flourished despite the most crushing of circumstances? How do Jewish people around the world thrive with an unquenchable enthusiasm and thirst for goodness, growth and heroism to this day?
We begin anew again and again, one of the fundamental secrets of Jewish greatness. It never gets old. Kiddush HaChodesh empowered us not only to make our own time, but to create our own redemptions at every turn.