Posted on January 22, 2021
When our kids were little and we wanted to explain to them the concept of slavery, we told them that slaves were not able to control their own time. Other people were masters of their time. They could not choose what to do when. That is what slavery means.
The very first mitzvah given to the people of Israel as a people addresses this aspect of slavery. Ex. Chapter 12 begins: וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר׃ הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃ “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.”
Why does it say הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים, this month shall mark for you the beginning of the months? Wouldn’t it be enough to say: הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים This month is the first month? Why do we need the word לָכֶ֖ם for you?
Our rabbis explain that the word לָכֶ֖ם is there to emphasize the new power of the community to make its own decisions regarding use of time and setting the calendar. From now on, the people will be able to determine their own times and festivals. They can control their own time! This is a very big deal. No longer will they be at the mercy of the Egyptians to determine how to manage time.
And the verse continues. רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃ it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. The whole second part of the verse seems redundant and most redundant of all is that the word לָכֶ֔ם is repeated a second time — that word that we were not even sure we needed in the first place.
Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (Late 19th and early 20th century) explains that the first use of the word לָכֶ֔ם refers to the power of the Sanhedrin to set the monthly Rosh Hodesh and the regular holidays. And the second use of the word לָכֶ֔ם is about the power of the Sanhedrin to declare leap years when needed, to recalibrate the calendar with the seasons. We might say that the first, declaring the new moon, seeing the new month only when it happens, is a zoom-in or micro perspective. And the second, being able to step back and see the need to add a month, to correct the calendar, to vision the year with its seasons, that is a zoom-out or macro perspective.
The word לָכֶ֔ם is in the verse twice to remind us that both perspectives are important, both are needed. This shabbat falls between the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Tu B’Shevat. We remember that we have to zoom-in on our personal relationships and how we treat the people around us. And we have to zoom-out on the health of the natural world and the state of the environment in the world as a whole. This is a time of hope and possibility on both fronts.