The light of the moon

We read the very first commandment given to the Israelites, the command to establish a moon-based calendar.

IDF soldier in thought 370 (photo credit: Israel Weiss)
IDF soldier in thought 370
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
‘This month shall be to you the beginning of months, it shall be the first month of the year to you’ (Exodus 12: 2)
This Shabbat being the Shabbat before Nisan, the first month of the Jewish year, in which the festival of Passover falls, is called Shabbat Hahodesh, or the Sabbath of the Month. In addition to the regular Torah portion, we read the very first commandment given to the Israelites, the command to establish a calendar based on the moon. So why was this the first commandment given to the Jewish people?
Many mishnayot (the major texts of the Oral Law) describe in exquisite detail how witnesses would rush to Jerusalem to testify before the Sanhedrin that they had seen the new moon so that the judges could declare the new month. These witnesses were even allowed to desecrate the Sabbath by traveling in order to testify.
To this day, on the Saturday night following the new moon, Jews gather in front of the synagogue reciting praise to God while gazing up at the moon, in a ceremony called Kiddush Levana, or the Sanctification of the Moon. Why this preoccupation with the moon? The commandment to mark the months was given when the Israelites were undergoing their transformation from a group of slaves into a nation of free people.
The essential difference between a slave and a free person is that a slave’s time is not his own. As the Jews left Egypt to become free, God’s first commandment addressed their new-found mastery over their time and destiny.
The establishment of monthly cycles based on the moon’s appearance also symbolizes our departure from a civilization where the Egyptian sun god Ra was king. Ancient Egypt was locked into a rigid hierarchy – a powerful caste system that controlled the entire population. Theirs was a world in which nothing changed.
The sun, ever the same in the vast Egyptian sky, symbolized this mighty and unchanging world order. When the writer of Ecclesiastes wanted to express the idea that things don’t change, he declared, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
He didn’t say: “There is nothing new under the moon,” because the moon’s light never appears the same from night to night. The renewal of the moon, and its ability to emerge from the darkness and grow ever larger, holds out hope for a better tomorrow for the repentant – for an improved world order. So the Israelites are commanded to take note of the moon as a symbol of change, hope and renewal.
A third reason for our focus on the moon is that in the first chapter of Genesis, we find a strange, almost contradictory verse regarding the creation of the sun and moon.
First, we are told how God “created two great lights,” then we are informed that “the great light ruled the day and the small light ruled the night” (Gen. 1:16).
Rashi, in his commentary, addresses this apparent discrepancy by citing a fascinating midrash, according to which originally the sun and the moon were of equal size. The moon protested to God: “Can two kings share one crown?” So God told the moon to reduce itself. The moon then argued, “Must I lessen myself because I pointed out something which is true?”
Later, God refers to sacrifice on the day of the new moon as a sign of atonement for Him, and the additional amida prayer (musaf) recited on Rosh Hodesh (the head of the month, the day of the new moon) refers to the first day of the month as being a time of kapara, or forgiveness. What does the new moon have to do with sin and atonement?
Perhaps this charming midrash is a metaphor for God’s having created a world which is incomplete – with pockets of chaos as well as order, darkness as well as light, evil as well as goodness (Isaiah 45:7). When the moon argued that two kings could not share one crown, it was referring to the fact that jealousy is built into the fabric of nature, causing sin and evil.
The first murder came about because Cain was jealous of Abel; theft and adultery occur when one individual is jealous of another. The Almighty created such a world to provide the individual with free will and choice to leave room for human development, renewal and ultimate perfection of self and society.
However, a world which allows for sin is a world of tragedy, pain and human suffering. In such a world, the perpetrators of the evil need atonement – but so does the Creator of the game’s rules, which constantly force good to confront evil and righteousness to wrestle with sin.
From this perspective, the very phenomenon of the light of the moon emerging from a dark sky expresses the optimistic hope and faith in ultimate renewal and redemption. We are commanded to search the darkened heavens for the first ray of light to beseech forgiveness for ourselves, and our God, for allowing a world of envy and sin and to anticipate the time when human beings will perfect themselves and their universe.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.