Controlling time—Parshat Bo and Tu B’Shevat

by | Jan 11, 2013 | Torah Thought

You are probably familiar with the fact that the Torah contains 613 mitzvot for the Jewish people, but do you know where the first one is? According to the great Torah commentator, Rashi, it’s actually in this week’s parsha. He quotes a midrash by Rabbi Isacc, which says “The Torah, which is the law book of Israel, should have commenced with the verse (Exodus 12:1) ‘This month shall be unto you the first of the months,’ which is the first commandment given to Israel.” So, at least according to Rashi, there is not a single commandment in the Torah until this week’s Torah portion, Bo. What was so special about this verse that it merited being commandment number one? Keep a special calendar unlike the ones other peoples’ use and the first month of that calendar will be the month of the exodus, Nisan. In other words, step one of living as a Jew is thinking about time as a Jew.

The Jewish calendar is not only different from the secular Julian calendar because the months have different names. Its beauty comes from the fact that it is a lunar calendar. On any given day you could look up at the sky and have no idea what day it is or what time of the months. But on any given night you can look up at the sky and have a pretty good idea of those things. If it is a full moon, it’s the 15th of the month; if there is no moon, it is the end of one month and the beginning of another, and so on through all the phases. The lunar calendar gives our sense of time a natural connection to creation.

As a matter of fact, Judaism is in many ways obsessed with time. We count days of the week and call every seventh one holy; we count years and treat every seventh and 50th one as holy. We have more sacred times, holidays, than just about any religion I have ever come across. So what is gained by this obsession with time? Through it we can take control of our time.

Celebrating Shabbat, the holidays and the Sabbatical and Jubilee years reminds us that there is a sacred connection between time and the One who created time, just as there is a sacred connection between the world and the One who created it. In all of these cases, we recognize the holy nature of time by refraining from filling it with the busyness of our lives. We recognize the preciousness of every moment by saying, “I am going to stop doing all the mundane things I usually do to fill time and appreciate it just by experiencing its passage. The plight of modern living is that we constantly feel pushed around by time. There is never enough. We can’t even imagine stopping for an hour no less for a whole day. But it is when we can do that, when we can stop to recognize and even celebrate the passage of time, that’s when we take control of time rather than being controlled by time.

This time of year we are not only reminded of the special relationship between Jews and time by the reading Parshat Bo. We are also reminded by the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, the New Year of the Trees, which starts this year on Friday, Jan. 25.

Let’s face it—you have to have a pretty special relationship with time to celebrate the New Year of the Trees in the most desolate moment in the middle of winter. But as part of the Jewish people, our sense of time is not bound only to where we are; it is connected to a deeper nature of things and to where we want to be. Because the almond trees are starting to bloom in Israel around this time, it is springtime for Jews everywhere.

Tu B’Shvat is a spiritual springtime. By taking control of time and celebrating springtime when it is still cold, Judaism recognizes that there will always be “cold” moments in our lives and in the lives of our people, but our connection to our Creator and to Creation can carry us through those moments. It’s a pretty potent message—yes there will be bad times, there will be winters, but we will always have the power to sense the spring, to sense the holiness in the world and in our lives.

So, as we move into the heart of winter and celebrate Tu B’Shvat we should ask ourselves, how will we use our time? How will we make this winter into a personal spring? In the answers to those questions, may we all find the ability to sense our connection to God and God’s creation through the gift of our special calendar and recognition of the holiness of time.

—Rabbi Jeffrey Arnowitz, Congregation Beth El.