By Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)
This week’s Parsha has the very first mitzvah given to the entire Jewish people. (There are a few given earlier to Adam and Eve and Avraham, but this week is the first official commandment to all of Bnei Yisroel.
When I teach the Parsha, I usually ask the students, “If G-d let you pick the first mitzvah in the Torah, what would you pick?” Some answer, “The commandment that we believe in G-d;” some answer, “Thou shalt not kill,” etc. Nobody ever guesses the actual first mitzvah, Kiddush haChodesh. This mitzvah basically states that for any Jewish month to begin, two or more witnesses have to testify that they saw the moon begin to grow from its minimal crescent.
All of us get a calendar from a Jewish organization which tells us when the month starts. These are based on the mathematical formulae which tell us when the moon cycle starts. Even thousands of years ago, they knew the calculations when the cycle began; so why require people to go and testify at the High Court to get the month started? Why not simply use the math, as our calendars do? Also, this seems like a very odd choice for the very first mitzvah.
The Torah’s first mitzvah has an amazing message: we start the month, we control our time, and our very quality of life boils down to how we manage our time. That’s life in a nutshell: a block of time management, from birth to expiration date. Rather than passively letting time pass us by, we hold the key to starting and managing time.
I pen these words on my beloved father-in-law’s yahrtzeit. Since his passing, I think more about time and how I fill it. During his illness, I spent a lot of time in hospitals with the TV on in the background, and like most Americans, during the last election. I sat in astonishment at the circus antics and sniping coming from all directions, and wondered about the fate of our society. Then I would return to the reality of the hospital room and staff, and I found it very comforting to see the dedicated, kind professionals working tirelessly to heal and comfort people.
Then I’d go to work at The ARK, surrounded by my dedicated, wonderful colleagues working with constant professionalism and kindness to help our community; and I felt comforted, knowing that despite the power-hungry, back-stabbing, self-serving people I saw on TV, there is this alternate planet of wonderful people who bring beauty and light to our world. They’re not on the TV news, in the headlines, or on Twitter, because they’re too busy doing good to self-promote and crave attention. They actually are busy with a purpose. Their time management is beautiful and pristine.
I recently attended the funeral of Rabbi Aron Leib Shteinman in Israel. I, along with 400,000 other attendees, paid my respect to this holy man. Until he was in his 80’s (like Moshe, who was 80 at the time of the Burning Bush), Rabbi Shteiman was virtually unknown outside of his small circle of acquaintance. He taught, and dedicated his life to teaching, doing acts of kindness, and scholarship. As the elder leaders of Israel got older, they chose this quiet, unassuming man to take the reins of guidance.
He lived in simple modesty. His home was threadbare. He still slept on the same mattress he received from the Keren Kayemet nearly 70 years ago when he arrived in Israel. Most of the money he earned went to those less fortunate than he (who probably had better mattresses than he did.) In his 80 years of dedication to our people, his complete lack of ego, flying under the radar until (like Moshe) he was forced into the limelight against his will. On his grave stone, at his request, it only says, “here lies Aron Yehuda Leib.” This man spent the last years of his life as the captain of the Torah community (and he visited Chicago about 25 years ago), promoting unity, sensitivity to others, and the continuity of Judaism, until his 104th year. Now that’s time management—and perfectly illustrates the reason that G-d chose as the first mitzvah the idea that we actively manage our time and create moments; and that we are not just passive as time marches on.
We should all be blessed to use our moments to bring light and harmony to the world.
Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum is Director of The ARK’s Michael E. Schneider Spiritual Enrichment Program.