There are twelve months in the Hebrew calendar, just as there are twelve months in the secular calendar. On the secular calendar, we’re used to counting them: January, February, March, April… New Year’s day is the first day of January, and that makes January the first month of the year. Easy enough.
Following that logic, we should be able to deduce the first month of the Hebrew calendar. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year’s Day, is the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. So, the first month of the Hebrew calendar should be Tishrei, right?
Leave it to the Jews to make things complicated.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read a commandment that throws logic out the window. God tells Moses and Aaron that the springtime month—now known as the month of Nissan—will be the first month of the year for us (Exodus 12:2). That makes Tishrei, with Rosh Hashanah, the seventh month of the year. So here’s Jewish time for you: the first day of the year happens in the seventh month of the year. And when we’re halfway through the year, we get to the first month.
There is something special about the springtime month of Nissan: it’s when we celebrate Passover. It’s when, in this week’s parashah, the Israelites finally go free after 400 years of slavery in Egypt. The Exodus begins in the springtime, not on the first day of the year in the fall.
One midrash gives a simple explanation: the weather is better then. Who wants to begin a trek through the wilderness in the rainy months? Better to wait to leave enslavement until the weather is good for a hike (Bamidbar Rabbah 3:6).
But let’s go a little deeper.
This commandment—to begin our counting of the months from when we leave Egypt—is actually the first commandment in the entire Torah that God gives the Israelites. Before, God had told individuals like Abraham and Sarah what to do, but this is the first time God gives an instruction to our people as a group. Some commentators even ask why the Torah doesn’t just start here, in this very spot (cf. Rashi to Genesis 1:1). After all, the word Torah means instruction, so why shouldn’t the Torah begin with the instructions? Why include the creation of the sun and moon and natural world first?
There are a few important lessons we can learn from this commandment, the commandment to count our months starting not from Genesis but from Exodus. One is that time matters because we count it. The sun sets and rises, the moon goes through its phases, and the seasons, they go ’round and ’round…but until we name those cycles days and months and years, they are simply natural phenomena. We, human beings, are the ones for whom calendars and watches mean anything.
The second lesson is that time is relative. Time matters to different people different ways, and it largely has to do with our proximity to an important date on the calendar. I was in the preschool classes this week, and I noticed that some are putting spots on the wall to count up to the 100th day of school. Many of us count down the days to a bat/bar mitzvah, a graduation, or a wedding. We count the months of a pregnancy. We count the years since a loved one’s death. Counting time helps us orient our lives relative to the things and the people we care about.
Which brings us to a third lesson: that counting our months from the Exodus tells us what it means to be free. The S’forno, a medieval commentator, notices that when the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, they had no control over their time. They were told, “Do this, do that. Build this, build that.” Their days, their hours, even their minutes were up to their enslavers. But when they go free, the Israelites are able to construct their days themselves. They have God’s blessing to set up their own way of being in the world.
Perhaps that is why the commandment to count the months starting at the Exodus is the first commandment given to the Israelites. Before they can set up their holy society, they must feel empowered to use their time for holy purposes.
This is freedom: the freedom to count one’s time according to one’s own design.
It’s an important reminder: we are in charge of our time. As the sage Bachya Ibn Pekuda said in the 11th century, “Our days are like scrolls. Write on them only what you want to be remembered.”
But we know it’s not so simple. We all feel, sometimes, like time is out of our control. We have work obligations, we have family members who need our attention, and we have grocery shopping to do. It’s easy to feel like we have no time, like we’re wasting time, spending time without getting a return on our investment.
Sometimes it feels like time is a luxury. But the Torah offers us a fourth and final lesson here: Torah is guiding us to look at our time differently.
Remember that after leaving Egypt, the Israelites travel to Mount Sinai. There we receive the Torah, with the rest of the commandments, the rest of the tasks we are called to do by the Holy One.
The freedom to be in control of our time is not the same as being free of obligation. It is the freedom to use the time we spend doing our obligatory tasks according to our higher purposes.
I’m suggesting a kind of mindfulness in our daily lives, a sort of consciousness of what we’re doing when we’re doing it. We can choose how we want each moment to count. A difficult meeting at the end of a long workday becomes a time to practice loving rebuke and attentive listening. Caring for a sick family member becomes a time to practice patience and honoring others. Running errands, a time to practice being happy with our portions.
That is the freedom of getting to count our own time: we get to make our time count.
The Talmud says that one who forces time will be forced back by time, while one who yields to time will find time standing at their side (Eiruvin 13b). Time is our ally, and we are free to use it for holy purposes.
May this Shabbat be its own beginning, a Shabbat of renewal, for counting holy time for us all.