In last week’s commentary/perush, we learned how the rabbis of the Mishnah, as well as Maimonides, challenged the belief that God created a world where supernatural events occur. Rather, they understood that miraculous supernatural events were pre-programmed within nature at the time of Creation.
With this week’s parasha, Pinchas, we see another commonly held assumption about Judaism challenged; this time by the rabbis of the Talmud. Its theological basis also begins with the first week of Creation. We read: “God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars.” (Gen 1:16)
Challenging a commonly held assumption about Judaism
Commenting in the Talmud: “Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi pointed out a contradiction. It is written, ‘And God made the two great lights’ and also written, ‘The greater light... and the lesser light.’ (Chullin 60b)
“Ben Pazi, through a homiletic tool, Midrash, confronted this contradiction and came to an astounding conclusion about God. He continued: ‘When they were first created, the sun and the moon were equally bright. She [the moon] said to the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Master of the Universe! Is it possible for two kings to wear one crown?’ He answered, ‘Go then and diminish yourself.’ She said to Him,‘Master of the Universe! Because I have suggested that which is proper must I then make myself smaller?’ He replied: ‘As compensation, go and rule by day and by night.’” (Chullin 60b)
Talmud scholar Ilana Kurshan notes:
“God responds by trying to appease the moon and detract from the severity of her punishment. He tells her that she may rule not just at night, but also alongside the sun in the daytime – presumably in an attempt to restore some semblance of Egalitarianism.
“Unlike the sun, which never shines at night, the moon can be found in the sky at various hours of both night and day, depending on the time of the month. The moon is thus granted more ‘sky-time,’ in spite of her diminished size. But the moon remains disgruntled. As a lesser light, she will always be eclipsed by the sun’s radiance.”
The Talmud continues:
“She said to Him, ‘But what is the value of this? Of what use is a candle in broad daylight?’ He replied, ‘Go. Israel shall count the days and the years with you.’ [Jewish months are determined by the crescent new moon]. She said to Him,‘But it is impossible to do without the sun for the counting of the seasons [the Jewish calendar is lunar-solar, and also needs the sun to keep certain holidays at their correct season], as it is written, ‘And let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years.’ (Gen 1:14)
“He said to her, ‘Go. The righteous shall be named after you as we find, Ya’acov the Small (Amos 7:2), Shmuel the Small (Jewish scholar of the 1st Century CE), David the Small (I Shmuel 17:14).’”
On seeing that the moon would not be comforted, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Bring an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller.” (Chullin 60b)
We are taught, “As for God, God’s way is perfect: The Lord’s word is flawless.” (2 Samuel 22:31) Yet here we are told God desires atonement for doing something wrong! This is based on an interpretation of a sentence from this week’s parasha where la’donoi can be read “to the Lord,” or “for the Lord,” providing an opening for:
“Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish when he declared: ‘Why is it that the he-goat offered on the new moon is distinguished in that there is written concerning it ‘For the Lord’ (see Bamidbar 28:15)? Because the Holy One, blessed be God, said: ‘Let this he-goat be an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller.’” (Chullin 60b)
What do we do with this astounding understanding of God? Rabbi Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz suggest:
“Perhaps they were also attacking the philosophy of Dualism which was prevalent in the ancient world. Dualism held that there were two great equal forces in the universe, the power of light, or goodness, and the power of darkness, or evil…
“Consequently, the adherents of Dualism believed that conflict was at the heart of all existence and were never quite sure which power to turn to for help. The Rabbis rejected this notion. They believed that there was but one God, one King to wear the crown, one authority to go with our prayers. This meant that unity, not divisiveness, was the central principle of existence.” (Swimming in the Sea of Talmud, pp. 287-288)
We are reminded of this Rabbinic approach, at Barrechu, in the daily liturgy when we thank God, “who forms light and creates darkness, maker of peace and creating everything.”
This prayer is based on, “I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)
RABBI RON AIGEN in his insightful siddur Hadesh Yameinu (Renew Our Days), explains why we do not use these jarring words directly from Isaiah:
“The original appears to be an attack on the Zoroastrian belief in two godly powers, one of light and goodness, and the other darkness and evil. The rabbi who composed this prayer presumably no longer needed to combat that ancient Persian belief. The rabbis explain that they were uncomfortable in attributing to God the quality of evil, and therefore permitted themselves to quote Scripture euphemistically.” (Talmud, Berkhot 11b). (Hadesh Yameinu, p. 149)
Ilana Kurshan takes the theme of equality within the Midrash and expands it to the relationships between men and women:
“In the beginning, according to God’s original plan, there were two who ruled alongside one another. And someday this egalitarian ideal will be restored, as per Isaiah’s prophetic vision of a time when ‘the light of the moon shall become like the light of the sun.’ (Isaiah 30:26).
“As we traditionally recite each month in the Kabbalistic prayer known as Kiddush Levana/Sanctification of the Moon, ‘May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my father, to readjust the deficiency of the moon, so it may no longer be reduced in size; may the light of the moon be again like the light of the sun.’”
Underscoring our Midrash is the strong monotheistic Jewish conviction against believing in two separate powers in the world – good and evil. That theology of interconnectedness becomes the cornerstone of a perception and orientation of responsibility toward this world, the people, and the planet.
As we glance across the headlines – too many filled with hate, violence, debasement of the other, and the quick dismissal of those we may disagree with – it can appear as though there actually are two separate forces in the world; benevolent and malevolent.
Judaism and many theologies are correct in their understanding of, and their charge for us to see and experience God as the “All-Encompassing Life Force,” which permeates the world, and ideally, all our encounters. When we turn our backs on that reality, it often is encased in hearts that have hardened and necks that have become stiff, making it easy to appear as though two very different forces are at play.
The implied message of the Midrash we have examined is that if God needs atonement, then even more, so do we. As Martin Buber teaches in his book, Good and Evil (p. 64), “The struggle must begin within one’s own soul.” Within that self-evaluation and self-examination is the imperative to increase our cultivation of what Congresswoman Becca Balint calls “courage and kindness.” ■
The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.