Once upon a time, time was round. Then somehow we straightened it out, put an arrow on the end and took it for a ride. But every schoolchild knows that to flatten a circle you need an infinite calculation of the irrational π. Turns out, when you flatten a circle, something infinite appears.

Now let me tell you how it happened. You see, our ancestors counted their days beginning in the fall. Why the fall? Because, they said, that’s when the cycle of nature began. G‑d set the world spinning on the first day of the autumn month of Tishrei, and it’s been twirling around in a yearly cycle ever since.

Then came the Exodus and a new beginning. That’s when G‑d spoke to Moses and told him, “Moses, I have a mitzvah for you. The very first mitzvah that I will be commanding the children of Israel. From now on, you are to start the year in this month of the spring, the month in which I will redeem you from Egypt.”

So the first day of Tishrei remained the head of all the days of the year, but Nissan, in the spring, became the head of all the months of the year.

Sounds simple enough. But there was a slight complication:

“And Moses, you are to count your calendar by the phases of the moon. When the new moon first appears in the sky, that is the beginning of each month.”

Problem is, moon years don’t match solar years—they’re off by about eleven days plus. Yet G‑d provided no further instruction.

“Measuring the years according to the cycle of the moon instead of the cycle of the sun,” wrote Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra in the 12th century, “is not just a matter of following a different cycle. The Muslims also follow a cycle of the moon, so that 34 lunar years will complete in 33 solar years. But we were also told to keep the first month, with Passover, always in the spring.If so, we are not just to keep a cycle. We are to determine it. If so, we are not just to keep a cycle. We are to determine it.”1

In other words, according to Rabbi ibn Ezra, if Moses had asked G‑d how exactly are we to solve this puzzle, G‑d would have replied, “That’s just the point: I’m leaving it up to you.”

So we decided that once in a while we’ll add another month to the year, so as to push Passover back into its place in the spring. When is that once in a while? Whenever we—i.e., the Jewish supreme court, which represents the people—determine.2

All the heavenly court come to the Holy One, blessed be He, and they ask, “When is Rosh Chodesh? When is Yom Kippur?” So He answers them, “Why are you coming to me, when I have already placed this in the hands of the children of Israel? Let us all go to the earthly court and see what they have determined.”3

If that sounds trivial, think of the context: You’re in Ancient Egypt. As in all the rest of that world, you look up to the stars, and they determine your fate. The cycles of nature, the flooding of the Nile, the growth of your crops, the fertility of your womb, all are determined by the predictable movements of the constellations. So it was in Egypt, so too in the civilization of Sumer from which our father Abraham came, so it was for the wise men of India, for the sages of the Tao, the I Ching, for every system of wisdom prior to Torah. Each man is born into his caste, his station and fate in life, all sealed by karma/matta/cosmos since the beginning of time. Even the gods stand beneath that great cycle of being in the grand pyramid of life. The Great Wheel of Life turns and turns, indifferent to human endeavor or aspirations, chanting, “. . . the life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.”4 “Whatever was will be and what will be already was, for nothing is new under the sun.”5. And if so, “what advantage could there be to all the striving of man?”6

And now, whammo: Out of the circle and into the pilot’s seat.No longer does the Cycle of Time rule over us. Now we are free. No longer does the Cycle of Time rule over us. Now we are free. Now we are to determine Time.

This is our very first mitzvah, the proto-mitzvah of all others. Not a command to obey like robots, but to take charge of our own world. A command that liberates and empowers. A command to break the chains of fate and hold Destiny itself in our own hands.

Which sheds light on a fascinating nuance of the Hebrew language so easy to overlook: A year in Hebrew is a shanah. A month is a chodesh. Shanah means something that repeats itself again and again—a cycle. Chodesh means “new.” The sun goes round and round, but the moon renews itself.

Two diametrically opposite descriptions of time: Shanah is time as a cycle, like all the prisons described above. Yet then comes the other description of time as chodesh, as newness, as real change. Time in which we are moving somewhere, where the future holds something the past never had. Time with meaning and purpose to life. Time in the sense of that most powerful of words that has forged modern society into an anomaly of history: Time as Progress.

When He Who Transcends All Time and Space wrested us out of the bonds of Egyptian slavery, toppling its pyramid of social caste and shattering its concept of naturalistic determinism, it was then that freedom first entered the world. If anywhere today human beings strive for a better world, their story begins with that Exodus. Not just because slaves were freed. Not just because the simple serf could cry to the Master of the Universe as his own Father, and the laws of nature would be broken for him. But because humanity was lifted outside and beyond the circle, no longer enslaved to the tyrannical millstone of the gods of Nature, Time and Fate. It was then that sentient life on earth was empowered and told, “Take your destiny in your hands.” It was then that sentient life on earth was empowered and told, “Take your destiny in your hands. Go forward. If this is not a world with which you can make peace, change it, make it so. If you find suffering, banish it. If your karma stinks, get past it. Never be satisfied. Be not the prisoner of fate, but its master.”

“In this world He has betrothed us, but in the world to come He will marry us. Therefore, in this world He has given us the moon. In the world to come He will give us the sun, the stars and all the cycles of nature.”7

We were given a Torah with a box of tools to manage a world, to drive it to its destiny, to reveal its inner meaning for which it was originally made. Until ultimately freedom will break through every cell of this world, and like that mysterious number of π, the circle will be revealed for what it truly is: Infinity concealed.