"And G-d spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: this month ( Nisan ) shall be the head of the months to you. It shall be the first month of the year (Exodus 12:1)." So begins the Pesach narrative, the formation of the Jewish nation as we began our journey "from slavery to freedom, from agony to joy, from mourning to festivity, from darkness to great light and from enslavement to redemption (hagadah)." The Jewish people even before leaving Egypt had to learn how to sanctify time, a concept that is quite foreign to a slave. Thus Shabbat which is the quintessential sanctification of time is observed in order that "you must remember that you were slaves in Egypt. It is for this reason that G-d your Lord has commanded you to keep the Shabbat" (Deuteronomy 5:15).
The Jewish calendar is a lunar-solar one and thus while our months follow a lunar cycle our years follow the solar one. Yet this first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a whole is known as kiddush haChodesh , the sanctification of the month based on the new moon, not the sun. In fact no mention is made here of the requirement for Pesach to fall in the spring (this is derived from a verse in Sefer Devarim ). The exodus from Egypt is linked with the moon only. The sun is a constant, never moving, never varying in its intensity. It is the moon with its (at least from an earthly perspective) varying degrees of fullness and brightness which is the true symbol of life. Life, like the moon has its ups and downs, times when our strengths are evident to all and times when we are out of sight and out of mind. Yet whatever position we are in now, the cycle of life continues to move. Slaves can become free and vice versa and as our Sages teach us redemption can come in the blink of an eye. The message of the moon is the message of Jewish history.
The first of Nisan preceding the exodus was a time of great anticipation. Moshe and Aharon were busy readying the Jewish people for their leave of the house of bondage. The Jewish people were commanded to prepare the Pascal lamb, and in a remarkable act of defiance slaughter the lamb, the god of Egypt. The moon may have still been small but the future was looking extremely bright.
Not coincidentally exactly one year later, Rosh chodesh Nisan was also a time of great anticipation. The Jewish people after receiving the Torah at Sinai were commanded to build a mishkan, a central place where the unified nation comes together to serve G-d. After building the beautiful edifice, the mishkan was consecrated with a seven day dedication ceremony and celebration. The mishkan was now ready to be used on a daily basis. Just as the prior Nisan had heralded the formation of the Jewish nation this Rosh chodesh Nisan heralded the implementation of Torah to its fullest degree possible. Yet this Nisan was to see the cycle of life dramatically change. In the midst of celebration Nadav and Avihu the eldest sons of Aharon the high priest and budding scholars are instantly killed for "offering a strange fire before G-d, which He had not commanded them" (10:1).
Our commentaries grapple with trying to identify what precisely they did that warranted the death penalty. Perhaps the date of the tragedy, Rosh Chodesh is significant. One of the primary features of the moon is its "unyielding obedience". It never veers from its assigned role. To do so would be to flaunt the laws of nature, an impossibility in our natural world. Similarly our approach to mitzvot must be of absolute obedience, and the thought of not following the will of G-d should be unimaginable. While extremely difficult, G-d expects that people such as Nadav and Avihu, would reach this level of fidelity to G-d. Thus a fire "that He did not command them" warranted death. Whatever the ups and downs of life a Jew, like the moon, must continue to do his part confident that at some point the full moon will shine for all. Shabbat Shalom !