Parashat Bo: The moon's message

Time is of very little importance to a slave whose life - and therefore his time - is owned by his master.

sybil Jerusalem Post For Publication: Jan 11, 2008 Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Bo Exodus 10:1-13:16 by Shlomo Riskin gershom The waxing and waning of the moon express the ability of nature to change and become renewed. (Ariel Jerozolimski) Parashat Bo: The moon's message Rabbi Shlomo Riskin "The first glimmer of the new moon of this month [Nisan] shall be for you the festival of the beginning of the month, the first month of the year." (Exodus 12: 2) Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch understands this passage as being the first commandment given to the Jewish people, the commandment to mark the renewal of the moon every month as a semi-holiday, as well as to begin the months of the year with Nisan, the month of the exodus from Egypt. The Hebrew word hodesh means both month and renewal, and so the sages of the Talmud explain that the Almighty actually showed Moses the precise appearance of the new moon in the heavens; the Mishna in Rosh Hashana explains that the Israelites would scan the skies looking for that first glimmer. Those who caught a glimpse would then be expected to go up to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and be questioned by the expert Sanhedrin members. The Sanhedrin would then declare "The month is sanctified, the month is sanctified," and that day would be declared the first of the new month. So vital was this ceremony that witnesses were even allowed to desecrate the Sabbath in order to reach the Sanhedrin as quickly as possible. Why is this instruction so important that it is the very first of Israel's 613 commandments? After all, the moon renews itself each month; why make such a big tzimmes over it? The Sforno (Italian biblical commentator of the 16th century) maintains that it is precisely this natural phenomenon which symbolizes the great gift of freedom - one of the fundamental values which Judaism taught the world. Time is of very little importance to a slave whose life - and therefore his time - is owned by his master. Only for a free individual does time have true significance. Hence, as a symbol of their newfound freedom, the Hebrews after the Exodus are commanded to mark time, to celebrate every new month, and never to take for granted our ability to do what we want with time. Secondly, time is marked for us by both the moon and the sun. "There is nothing new under the sun" declares the author of Ecclesiastes. The moon, however, changes constantly: it waxes, it wanes, it disappears altogether and then emerges again from the darkness. The moon thus symbolically expresses the ability of nature (including human nature) to change and become renewed. Indeed, the sacred Zohar declares that the Jewish people is compared to the moon: there may be periods of history during which we as a nation lessen in number and influence, almost disappearing altogether. Nevertheless, we will emerge from the darkness and begin to shed light once again upon a darkened world. It is our prayer that the moon shall become as large and as constant as the sun, and that God's people will shine forth as the teachers of humanity in this period of universal redemption. This is the significance of the prayer we recite on the Saturday night following Rosh Hodesh, our Sanctification of the Moon, and it is a prayer which deserves study. This lesson of optimism is the most important to emerge from the story of Exodus. One might well ask what great deeds did Amram and Jochebed do in order to be worthy of children such as Moses, Aaron and Miriam. The Bible tells us very little, but hints volumes. Imagine a baby boy born during the centuries of Egyptian slavery. In that period two individuals from the house of Levi named their child Amram, meaning "exalted nation." Exalted nation? When the Hebrews were on the lowest rung of the Egyptian totem pole? Close to that time, another Levite couple had a daughter whom they named Jochebed, literally meaning "praise to the Lord." Praise to the Lord of the Egyptian subjugation? But these two couples knew of the Covenant between the Pieces, of a nation which would emerge from slavery with great wealth and with a message from God which could redeem the world. Two sets of grandparents believed in the message of the moon, of the light of Israel which would emerge from the darkness, and so they merited grandchildren the likes of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.