הַחדֶש הַזֶה לָכֶם ראש חֳדָשִים
This month shall be to you the head of the months.
The first commandment they were given in Egypt which signaled the commencement of their liberation was to mark time. A slave is relieved of mitzvos asei she-ha-zeman geraman, of time-bound positive commandments. This is because the slave lacks time experience. To the slave, time is a curse; he waits for the day to pass. The slave’s time is the property of his master. No matter how hard he may try to be productive in time, he will not reap the harvest of his work; therefore, he is insensitive to time. His sense of the movement of time, the passing of hours, days, weeks, is very dull. Life, to the slave personality, is motionless. He lacks the great excitement of opportunities knocking at the door, of challenges summoning him to action, of tense expectations and fears of failure. Any faith which is inseparably bound up with time is inapplicable to him.
This time-awareness or experience has three basic components. First, retrospection: without memory, there is no time. Second, the exploration or close examination of things yet unborn and the anticipatory experience of events not yet in being. Third: appreciation or evaluation of the present moment as one’s most precious possession.
No one is worthy of time-awareness if retrospection is alien to him, if he is incapable of reliving, recovering, and reproducing past experiences. Memory is not just the storehouse for latent impressions; there is also living memory, which reproduces and re-experiences the past. Past events which are not re-experienced belong not to history, but to archeology. Indeed, the mitzvah of sippur yetzias Mitzrayim does not exhaust itself in a historical review of bygone events that have vanished completely. It is more than that: it is a drama charged with emotion and tenseness, of participating in the past. Rabbi Akiva is not just a figure who lived so many hundreds of years ago. He is a part of my life, and his image and teachings are integrated into my personality. When I think of Rabbi Akiva, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Yehoshua, Maimonides, I am not thinking about people who lived in antiquity or the Middle Ages. Their images have become part-and-parcel of me, of my “I” awareness.
On the other hand, to live in time and feel its rhythm, one must also move from the memory of the past to the unreality of the future. One must go from things and events that were and are no longer, toward that which will be real someday, even though it is not yet real—from reminiscing to anticipating. To live in time means to be committed to a great past and to an unborn future.
Time awareness also contains a moral element: responsibility for emerging events and intervention in the historical process. Man, according to Judaism, should try to mold and fashion the future. That is exactly why he has been created as a free agent. Man is free to reach central and basic decisions that will determine his and sometimes the world’s future.
To connect retrospection with anticipation, memory with expectation, hindsight with foresight—one must cherish the present, fleeting moment as if it represented eternity. Judaism has a very sensitive approach to the present: every minute is valuable, each second precious. With a fraction of a second, one may realize or destroy hopes, visions, and expectations. The Halachah is therefore extremely time conscious, finding the present moment so important. For instance, we are permitted to do work on a Friday afternoon until one minute before sunset, but are enjoined from doing work one minute later. A person reads Kerias Shema at 9:05 and fulfills the mitzvah, but at 9:06, his performance is worthless. What did he miss? It was the same recitation, the same commitment, the same dedication And yet, he has not fulfilled the mitzvah of Kerias Shema. Time is of critical importance—not years or months, but seconds and split seconds. This time-awareness and appreciation is the singular gift granted to free man, because time belongs to him: it is his time, and he can utilize it to the utmost or waste it. (Festival of Freedom, pp. 37-42)