In this week’s parsha, parshat Bo, Bnei Yisrael are given the first mitzvah as a nation—the commandment to declare the months. In Shmot 12:2 it states
—החודש לכם ראש חודשים ראשון הוא לכם לחדשי השנה.
This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.
The wording of “for you” emphasizes that this mitzvah requires our participation. Rather than simply list a set of instructions, the Torah is begging us to forge a bond with the mitzvoth through active involvement.
This is a concept well known to today’s society. Hardly a day goes by where one of our friends isn’t posting about a physical challenge, volunteer tourism activity, or simcha that he or she is doing in honor of a specific challenge. Their personal involvement and connection is supposed to galvanize us to help them in their quest to raise money.
But what might be obvious to us today, was totally unique to Bnei Yisrael then. For the last few parshiot we have read of the leadership of the few. It was Moshe and his brother Aharon who led the charge against Pharoh rather than a rising of the masses. Moreover, Bnei Yisrael were actually viewed as a hindrance and a challenge to overcome – “Veheim lo ya’aminu bi” “and Bnei Yisrael will not believe me”.
The Bnei Yisrael before this mitzvah were a passive group. It was Hashem’s decision to listen to the cries of Bnei Yisrael which was the deciding factor in starting the Exodus process. Here now the tables are being turned and it is we the Jews who are empowered, more so than even Hashem himself.
When it comes to our parsha’s mitzvah of declaring the moon, there is a very telling story mentioned in the mishnayot of Massechet Rosh Hashana. The Mishnah writes that there were two witnesses who came to give testimony of a new moon. Rabbi Yehoshua pointed out that these witnesses were obviously lying but Rabban Gamliel who was in charge was forced to accept them nonetheless because they answered all of the halachic criteria.
The same was done for the reverse. Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch writes that even if people saw the moon, but were unable to make it to a Beit Din in Yerushalayim, the physical evidence supplied by G-d is ignored.
The importance of Beit Din in the process also sends a powerful message. The Mishnah describes the declaration process: the head of Beit Din cries “Mekudash” (it is sanctified/consecrated) and the nation listening repeats after him “Mekudash! Mekudash!” Just think about it. Any two people can start the process. And in order for the declaration process to come to a successful close, the group listening to the Beit Din must join in.
This idea is evident in the Shmonah Esrei. There is a stark contract in the way the brachah before “Retzei” ends on Shabbat and that paragraph’s ending on Chag. On Shabbat we say “Mekadesh HaShabbat” whereas on Chag we say “Mekadesh Yisrael VeHazmanim.” The timing of Shabbat is ordained by Hashem. But the timing of the Chagim, which is a direct result of our declaring of the New Moon, is reliant upon us, who have been sanctified by G-d to make this decision.
We are currently in a period called, “Shovevim,” a word comprised of the first letter of the first word of Sefer Shemot’s first six parshiot. Many Jews have the custom for this period to be a time of introspection, but introspection that is supposed to lead to action. This custom is based on the successful change that Am Yisrael went through as a nation during these parshiot, exemplified perfectly by our first mitzvah as a nation, declaring the New Moon.
Indeed, may this period bring a new appreciated of our potential as people and as Jews and may these realizations lead to positive action and change for the better.