“And it was on first month of the second year on the first of the month that the Tabernacle was erected” (Shemot 40:17). The first of Nissan is a most special time in Jewish history. It was on this date that Moshe and Aharon began preparing the people for their exodus from Egypt. It is thereby "the head of the months", marking the beginning of national Jewish history. While the actual exodus did not take place until the 15th of Nissan, the process of redemption began on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, leading the Haggadah to raise the possibility that one might actually be able to recount the exodus beginning from Rosh Chodesh.
The Ramban (Introduction to Shemot) notes that the physical exodus marked only the first step of redemption, while the building of the Mishkan marked the final step (with Sinai in the middle). Not coincidentally, the Mishkan was dedicated on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, exactly one year after the exodus began. Yet there is a fundamental difference between the sanctity of Rosh Chodesh and that of the Mishkan and its successor, the Beit Hamikdash.
On Rosh Chodesh we sanctify time, recognizing it as the most precious resource we have. To the slave, time meant nothing; one day blurred into the next in a monotonous routine of work and more work. Thus, the command to observe Shabbat in order "to remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt" (Devarim 5:15). On Pesach our time sensitivity reaches its height. We left Egypt in haste even before we could "finish lunch". The difference between chametz and matza is simply a matter of time. Letting the dough rise just a little longer is the difference between fulfilling a Divine mandate and being "cut off from our people".
The Mishkan symbolizes the sanctification of space, a notion that generated a great deal of ambivalence. Why the need for a specific place to worship G-d if He is to be found everywhere? The primacy of time over space is highlighted by the fact that the Torah introduces the command to build the Mishkan with the laws of Shabbat. This apparent redundant non-sequitor led our Sages to declare that the construction of the Mishkan had to stop at the onset of Shabbat. As if to highlight the importance of time even in the Temple, the Torah demanded that sacrifices be eaten only within very carefully delineated time periods. Failure to abide by these restrictions could lead to the penalty of karet, excision.
The Temple actually functioned in its own "time zone". The day began not at nightfall, but at dawn. We bring the korban Pesach on the 14th of Nissan during the day but eat it on the night of the 15th—later on the same day according to the Temple calendar. The same is true for all other sacrifices.
Whereas space is communal, time is individual. Two people cannot occupy the same space—a fact that has led to and continues to fuel many a conflict. Because time is not tangible, it operates primarily in relation to one's self. How I spend my time has no direct impact on how you might spend yours. It is how we use our time that demonstrates the level of sanctity we attach to it.
It is the community that must sanctify space, i.e., the land of Israel was sanctified through communal conquest. Time, on the other hand, is primarily sanctified by the individual, by the lighting of candles in one's home, something that one individual may choose to do earlier than another.
Moed, which is commonly translated as time, actually means a meeting place. While scientists measure both time and space quantitatively, our tradition focuses on their qualitative properties. It is that tiny sliver of land known as Israel that has kedushat haaretz, holiness of the land. The holiness of Shabbat, the kedushat hazman, is meant to spill over into the six other days of the week, days that are referenced only in their relationship to Shabbat.
It is on Yom Tov when time and space converge, when we sanctify time together in the "place that G-d has chosen", coming together as a people in Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, we cannot come together during this difficult time. While we must keep our spaces separate we have the opportunity to sanctify time to an extent we may not have even realized is possible. Family time, time to read, time to reach out to others, time to learn, time to put things in order.
“In Nissan we were redeemed and in Nissan we will be redeemed” (Rosh Hashanah 11a). Let us pray that G-d answers in the affirmative our prayers for the sick, for an end to all viruses and that we emerge, stronger and wiser from our forced isolation.