Mitzvah Performance Only For The Sake of Hashem
The first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a whole is found in this week’s parsha. (The mitzvos that are mentioned earlier in Berieshes, Pru U’Rvu (having children) and Milah (circumcision) are commandments given to our forefathers before there was an actual Nation of Israel.) This first mitzvah is about establishing the months of the Jewish year based on the determination of the Beis Din (Jewish Court) (Shemos 12:11).
The pertinent procedure to be followed in the fulfillment of this mitzvah is that witnesses are to come before the Beis Din and testify that they saw the new moon. On the basis of their corroborated testimony, the court will proclaim a new month which in turn determines the dates of the Jewish holidays. It is clear that this is indeed the very first mitzvah given to the nation of Israel. In fact, the very first Rashi in Chumash mentions the idea that the Torah might conceivably have begun with perek 12 of Shemos, because that is where we find the first mitzvah to the Jewish people and the Torah is the a book which instructs us to perform the mitzvos. In fact, the word “Torah”, means instruction. (Rashi does give the reason as to why the Torah opens with the story of Genesis and the biography of the forefathers, but his explanation is not directly germane to the topic I wish to explore here.)
We often find that the introductory pasuk (verse) of a sefer encompasses in microcosm the entire contents of that sefer. If we take this maxim one step further, we might say that given the fact that (according to Rashi) the Torah should have begun with the pasuk, “Ha’Chodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadoshim – This month is for you the start of all months,” the pasuk is in fact telling us that there is something fundamental about this pasuk and this mitzvah which serves as a common denominator for the entire set of 613 mitzvos!
What might be that common denominator?
There is nothing more predictable in this world than the astronomical calculations of the cycles of the sun and the moon. We know that sunrise will be exactly the same time it was today on this date 5 years from now, 10 years from now and 100 years from now. Likewise, we know that a Jewish month is comprised of 29 days, 12 hours, and 793 parts of an hour (chalakim).* Therefore, what is the point of having witnesses coming to testify that they saw a new moon? Why is this a biblical mitzvah? Is it not a science? Is it not clockwork? What does this have to do with religion?
Clearly, the lesson learned is the purpose of this mitzvah is not for its informative value, rather, its purpose is to do it for the sake of doing what Hashem commanded us to do. This means that we should not perform mitzvos for utilitarian purposes. We are not accomplishing anything of a concrete, physical nature or of any utilitarian value. The reason for doing any mitzvah is because first, foremost, and last, it is the Will of the Creator.
Additionally, Chazal (Menachos 29A) teaches (and Rashi on the parsha quotes it), that Moshe Rabeinu had difficulty understanding the mitzvah of Sanctifying the New Moon until Hashem pointed out the new moon and said “kizeh re’eh v’kadesh” – like this you see and sanctify. How are we to understand “like this you see and sanctify?”
The great tzadik of Neshchiz (Reb Mordechai of Neshchiz 1740 to 1800, a disciple of Reb Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov. People would travel long distances to vreceive his blessings. His sayings were collected in Rishpei Eish) explains another Gemarah (Chulin 60B) which notes that at the time of Creation, Hashem ordered the moon to reduce its brightness.
At the time of creation the moon was meant to provide its own illumination and brighten the nighttime sky. Because mankind was unworthy of such a gift, Hashem ordered the extinguishing of the Moon’s light and it became merely a reflection of the Sun’s light.
The Neshchizer said that here we are taught the value of humility, for Hashem is insinuating to all, “Go and reduce your self-importance” just as He ordered the Moon to “reduce” its illumination.
To this thought we might add that Hashem, when commanding this mitzvah of sanctifying the New Moon, is conveying a similar idea: As ”you see this” [for yourself] so shall you [too, be] sanctify[ied]. Hashem is saying, “Behave like this (the new moon is but a tiny sliver) and then you will become sanctified.”
The mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon, depends on observing the “birth” of the New Moon, not upon its calculated position. As is the case with all mitzvahs, it is performed in this manner because Hashem told us to do it this way, and no other substitute method is acceptable. By doing it, we are obeying the Almighty and subjugating our minds and our bodies and our entire lives to His Will. This is then done out of utter humility and not because we understand or we think we know what is best. The greatest thing we as humans can ever do is the Will of Hashem. No other deed in the entire universe can ever be comparable to this, and there exists no objective good other than His commandments. As the first mitzvah in the Torah, this mitzvah is instructive regarding all mitzvos. We should not assume that there is necessarily a “practical application” to what we are doing other than to train us to fulfill the Will of the Creator and subjugate ourselves to Him.
* The computation cited here is actually an average of all lunar cycles. Because of the varying distances of the moon’s proximity to Earth the length of any one month can vary from 29.26 to 29.80 days due to the effects of the Sun’s gravity on the Moon’s eccentric orbit. Nonetheless, the rabbis in the Temple Era were familiar with the precise calculation of each specific lunar cycle and indeed used their computations to verify the witnesses’ testimonies.