Taking Notice in Our Time

Renewal is possible at every moment.

Commentary on Parashat Bo, Exodus 10:1 - 13:16

The original Jewish geography, according to our mystical tradition, has three components–Place, Time and Soul (Olam, Shana and Nefesh). These are the basic dimensions in which we exist and interact with our world.

Environmental thought often dwells in the realm of place, as clearly the physical world has inherent ecological import. Therefore, when we read the Torah for its environmental wisdom, we usually look for passages relating to land or material goods.

In the Torah portion Bo, however, our attention turns to time: “This month will be to you the head of the months (Exodus 12:2).”  An exploration of this unique mitzvah can reveal profound insights into the Jewish nature of time, and unlock the secret of how the realm of time is also of deep environmental significance.

The First Mitzvah

The commandment to mark the month of Nisan is the very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a whole. While still in Egypt the people are commanded to note the month so that they may prepare to observe the first Passover at the time of the Exodus.

This mitzvah is so significant that Rashi‘s first question on the entire Torah (Genesis 1:1) is: If the Torah is the book of the Jewish people’s Divine Law, why doesn’t it start with Parashat Bo? We know that it does not; we go through the whole process of the book of Genesis before arriving to this place of mitzvah. But what is so crucial about the awareness of the new month that it holds the significance of being the Torah’s first mitzvah?

Conceptions of Time

In some of the environmental movement’s writings on religion, what has been called the “Judeo-Christian” conception of time as a linear progression comes under attack. In such a view, history moves towards a culmination of God’s plan–the attainment of an ultimate, eternal good, far beyond that which is accessible in this world. Herein, we find our “end.”

The conception of time as cyclical is considered primitive, oblivious to the reality of a final, heavenly Truth. One of the tasks of Jewish environmentalism is to grapple with this version of religious belief and question whether Judaism really sees time and nature this way.

We are free to view time as an unstoppable vector moving towards a pre-determined end. But what are we to make of the events and processes along the way? Are they really just means to an end? Certainly not.

Subtle changes of weather, daylight, and flora signify complex changes in time. When we pay attention to our actual experience of these changes, we find a dynamic source of connection with our Creator. Far from being conceived as purely linear, our Jewish calendar reflects the cyclical nature of the year with a precise system of holidays and observances connected to each moment and season.

The Jewish Calendar

The beginning of our year, as proclaimed in the first commandment in Parashat Bo, is the linchpin of that connection. The Torah calls Passover “Hag haAviv,”  the holiday of the spring, and the Talmudic prescription of the Jewish leap year, implanting an extra month in the year, is done in order that Passover will indeed always occur in the spring.

This is a dramatic statement of environmental consequence. The Sages could have declared a purely astronomical, lunar-based calendar, but based on the Torah’s prescription, they took steps to ensure that the calendar also reflects the cycles of nature. This demonstrates Judaism’s deep awareness of the Divine character of nature’s processes.

The confluence of redemption and springtime is no coincidence. Everyone is aware of the tremendous energy of renewal that occurs in the springtime. The rebirth of flowers and greenery, the new life in the fields–these are all symbols of our redemption. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyadi in a teaching about Passover mentions an anthropocentric view that the renewal of spring actually stems from the redemption of the Jewish people.

The truth, he teaches, is that there is no such primacy or causality–the Divine energy that brings forth the birth of spring in nature is the exact same energy that brought about the redemption of our people in Egypt. And it is precisely the return of spring each year that inspires our personal redemption with each Passover.

Months and Years

The word we receive with the commandment of time is chodesh–month, or more literally, newness. It is extremely instructive that our word for this basic time unit implies renewal and revelation, as opposed to a continuation of the status quo. Even the word for year, shana, is connected to the word for change, shinui.

Although we do view history as a march towards an ultimate Redemption, we are reminded–on Passover, on Rosh Hodesh, on Shabbat, and with the rising of the sun each day–that the renewal possible at every moment is of as much significance as the final goal. As we experience the changes of time, we should be changing and adapting along with them. And as we grow, we cannot afford to ignore the natural world, or to act in ways that suppress or spoil the inherent wisdom of God’s Creation.

Finding the revelation of God through time happens when we connect with the Divinity of natural changes. I was once a Shabbat guest in a very well-to-do synagogue. Many of the people there wore fine watches on their wrists. But as the third meal of Shabbat winded down, the Rabbi walked outside, looked up at the sky to count the three stars that mark the end of Shabbat, and only then gave the call for the evening prayer.

There is something beautiful in how our tradition’s attention to the natural cycles still impacts us today, how our Jewish practice brings us out of doors to find our connection with God. Rabbi Menachem Frumin of the Israeli town of Tekoa once asked, “How can Jews, who are commanded to develop Yirat Shamayim (fear of Heaven), live in a place where they can’t even see the Shamayim(skies)?”

The commandment of Rosh Chodesh teaches us to continually m’chadesh, renew, our perspectives and relationships, and to embrace chiddush, innovation, as a fundamental value of Jewish being. Our belief in time as a source of newness and opportunity is one of the deep tenets of Judaism that allows for a modern ethos of change like environmentalism to take root in the daily life of Jewish people.

Such an awareness can empower us to make the radical changes that sustainable lifestyles demand. Realizing that Jewish theology does not write off the revelation happening within the cycles of time, we are encouraged to engage and celebrate the changing nature of this world and to find profound and simple ways for us as Jews to serve God and live responsibly.

Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.

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