This new moon (Ha’chodesh Hazeh) shall be to you the head of months (This week’s Torah portion – 12:2).
Moses found difficulty with the renewal of the moon…G-d therefore showed him with His finger the moon in the sky and said to him, “You will see a moon like this and you will then sanctify [the month].” Now how did G-d show it to Moses? Did He not speak to him only by day? …Rather, this chapter was said to Moses just before sunset, and He showed him [the moon] when it became dark (Rashi, from Midrash Mechilta. Talmud Menachot 29a)
Why did Moses have a problem with the moon’s renewal?
And what did G-d show him? If there was a moon in the sky, Moses could have looked up and seen it on his own. And if there was no moon yet – which is more likely because the new moon was just being born – what exactly did G-d show him? How can a new moon be seen with the naked eye?
Various reasons for Moses’ difficulty are posited by the sages. Some explain that Moses was unclear as to the exact criteria necessary to determine when we must sanctify the new moon. Others suggest that Moses was unsure how to determine whether he was actually seeing the new moon or perhaps the final stages of the old moon. But all these explanations seem inadequate for several reasons: Moses, who was quite an educated man, could have figured out, like any astronomer, the factors that constitute a new moon. Why did he need G-d to show it to him? Clearly, Moses was disturbed by something that only G-d could resolve. Additionally, as mentioned, the new moon does not yet have any shape and form, so what exactly did Moses see?
The mystics explain that Moses was struggling with some of the fundamental dilemmas of existence as they are reflected in the birth of the new moon (see Ohr HaTorah on this chapter, vol. 8 pp. 2902). Here we will focus on the psychological and personal application of this strange episode – which illuminates one of the most profound challenges in life: How to deal with pain and loss.
But first, another practical question. Why is the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon told to Moses as a prelude to the redemption of the Jews from Egyptian bondage? What connection is there between the moon’s renewal and the Egyptian Exodus?
The waxing and waning moon reflects the ups and downs of life and history. The waning moon represents difficult times; periods that get darker and darker, like the fading moon. But just as the moon disappears, when all seems bleak and lost, we experience rebirth, newfound life – a new moon has been born.
The long Egyptian exile was the first documented instance of institutionalized oppression perpetrated by one nation against another. Multitudes of Jews were killed, tortured or worked to death in forced labor. The moon was dark indeed.
By commanding Moses to sanctify the new moon G-d was in effect imparting to Moses the power of renewal: Just as the moon is reborn right after its disappears, so too will the Jewish people experience a renaissance following their darkest moments.
Moses, however, was disturbed. He was happy to hear that the time of redemption – the birth of the new moon – had arrived. But he was bothered by the fact that when things get so dark, to the point that the moon emits no light at all, how can mortal man hold on? How do we gather strength when we don’t see any glimmer of hope? If we don’t have the energy to see it through, we can be consumed and destroyed by the darkness, and then never reach the new light…
Philosophically, Moses understood that a mortal human being will never fully fathom the mystery of pain and suffering. He also understood and believed that the “end story” was that we will endure and prevail over all our adversaries. Indeed, the Egyptian oppression forged a nation with enormous power, an eternal nation. The more they were oppressed, the more they proliferated and grew.
But Moses was disturbed because he knew that this was not enough. Moses in effect was saying: “If you want man to grow through the dark challenges, You, G-d, must give us the power of hope – the strength to see it through and forge ahead despite the inability to see the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’.”
When we cry over a disappointment or loss we feel pain and sorrow. We (and others) may understand that “those that sow in tears will reap in joy” (Psalms 126:5). But while we weep and taste our bitter tears, we cannot at the same time see the joy that will come. The seed by its very nature conceals its future fruit.
G-d therefore divulged to Moses the mystery of transformation, how darkness turns into light. And He revealed it as the sun was setting. Usually G-d spoke to Moses during the day. But in this instance G-d wanted to show Moses that even darkness yields light. He therefore spoke to him just before sunset, and He showed him the moon as darkness was falling.
This vision of Moses has a perpetual effect for all generations to come – to give us the power to make it through any challenge, no matter how difficult.
All birth in this world comes only after a moment of darkness. Growth is always preceded by a void. Creativity is a child of frustration. But when things seem bleak we get demoralized, and that in turn makes things far worse. If only we were able to see the birthing to come we would be able to endure the hardest times. The problem is that we cannot see from beneath the rubble the light ahead.
So once in history a man was shown the moment of rebirth. Once in history the invisible became visible.
That one vision has given us strength throughout history, as our lives have waxed and waned like the moon, to see it through. Even as we have stood at the abyss, at the brink of extinction, something deep inside us reminded us that all is not lost.
Where does such conviction come from? How does a mother have strength to fight for her child even when all doctors have given up hope? What power did the Jews have when they were herded into the gas chambers to sing “Ani Maamin” (“I believe”)? How is it possible that against all odds, in situations that were absolutely hopeless, a nation has not just survived but thrived?
This enormous, superhuman, power is rooted in Moses’ vision one lonely night in Egypt. As he looked up into the skies Moses saw nothing. The moon had completely disappeared. But then G-d pointed his finger and directed Moses to look closer: Hachodesh hazeh – here, look at the secret of rebirth, here I show you the moment that no man has ever seen and no man will ever see – the moment of transition, when one state is about to end only to open up a new state. Here is the invisible intersection where dark meets light, pain meets joy and exile meets redemption.
Birth means something new. We therefore can never actually see the exact moment when the old becomes new. But Moses did see – once for all times. G-d showed Moses the new moon at its moment of rebirth, and said to him: “When the moon is reborn, mark the beginning of a new month.”
As we now read the story of Exodus, the “book in which Israel goes from darkness to light” – the story of process, the process of loss and renewal, of suffering and growth, the process of death and birth – we can gather in our own lives much fortitude from the events that took place over 3300 years ago.
When the next new moon arrives, go outside and look up into the sky. If we look hard enough perhaps we may get a glimpse of what Moses saw. But even if we can’t, our very gaze into the dark heavens, looking, searching, yearning, for the sliver of the new moon’s birthing, carries immense power – strength that can help us though any challenge.
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To me, the new moon represents eMOONah!
Moon means night, birkat ha levana, mother as in the dream of yossef.
Also, the moon is a radiant queen with her escort, the stars.
The moon means to me a new birth from Self to a representative of G-d (a shaliach) – reflecting the Light of G-d – …the moon is reborn right after it disappears…. The mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon (to me) is like sanctifying the new birth from darkness to light, from self to G-d. It is like G-ds mitzvah to sanctify the Sabbath day – a ceasing from our own works, and entering into His spiritual rest. The moon is associated with the #12 – the people of G-d, and Shabbat with the #7. The birth of the new moon connects with the Egyptian Exodus, because the people of G-d were being birthed from darkness and its domination into the fullness of light, which is life, and peace. The end story: Light will prevail over darkness.
The moon is a metaphor for women. Because women by their nature are cyclical. They are either full with life or in the process of renewal. And each month this reality repeats itself.
For this reason the cycle of the moon does not affect a woman in the same way that perhaps a man would relate to it, because for a women it is intrinsic to her nature. She experiences the renewal within her being, with perfect faith because the physiological reality is in sync with the world. Whereas, a man has only his faith, which when doubts seep in and he is weak, it leaves him confused. He may believe that the moon will renew itself because it has before but when it disappears from sight there is still this small fear that it just may not return. That may be why it is not good for man to be alone. He needs a woman to keep his faith strong. And a woman needs a man to deal with her cycles and to be able to be full.
It is interesting to note that the first mitzvah in the Torah is rosh chodesh as it sets the parameters for life within time.
And men need to bless the moon. Almost to acknowledge gratitude for its renewal. Whereas for women this is not a required mitzva, because it is time bound, and almost it seems as though it is a given.
And, too, rosh chodesh is given by the Creator of the Universe to women as a gift. A gift? Yes a yom tov, no less. A time for women to leave all their household chores and remember this special gift. For what? For not participating in the sin of the golden calf. Again, what was the sin, a lack of faith that Moshe in fact would return, just like the moon. Will it in fact return?? The subtle doubt.
The women we must remember left Egypt with their tamborines in their bags. They KNEW the redemption was coming any minute, they didnt just believe, they knew.
In the same way, that Miriam new in Egypt, and Yehudit knew and Esther knew, so too, in spite of how bleak the world looks some days, today too, the women KNOW that any minute the promise of the geulah shleima will be fulfilled. It cant be otherwise.
And so, the women like the moon keep shining off the light of the sun, the endless light, the Tsaddik, knowing that our emuna will never wane because ultimately the geulah depends on us. May it be immediately.
Such a stunning article. Thank you.
When I see the moon I always realize that at the most I perceive only half of what really exists…..sometimes I forget and think I am supposed to understand everything….
It seems to me that many of the points made about the moon being the symbol of regeneration and renewal can be made about the sun as well. It must have been terrifying for ancient man to see the sun disappear, be enveloped by darkness, and have no reassurance of the next day. Conver-sely, it must have been enormously relieving to witness the sun rising once more.
Perhaps, the emphasis should be directed toward the fact that for the Egyptians, the sun was their major god, deemed the source of all life, and the attempt here is to redirect the perspective of the Israelites. The imagination is very versatile, and ratiosynations can be invented to buttress all premises conjured by the mind, including how to regard the moon.
Whenever I look up at the bright, dazzlingly shiny white beautiful light of the full moon in a pitch black sky, I cannot help but be convinced that this is a manifestation and a representation of an incredible supernatural reality. The beauty and power of the sight blows me away every time.
For some time, the moon has definitely meant that to me–the faithful witness in the sky (or, as this article made clearer, the witness of faith!), marking the pattern of the generations yet to be born of the kingdom of Yisrael until in their fullness Mashiach comes forth and brings renewal to the heavens and the earth.
Thanks to this extraordinary article, I now see it with even more depth, breadth, and yet more personal closeness, especially as it came at just the moment in my life when I really needed that understanding of rebirth on a personal level. I always knew that its darkest before dawn and all that, but to know it in this detail and straight from the original source of this knowledge, drawn right from Divrei Torah, makes that all the more real and immediately, specifically applicable to my life.
I also loved the comments of Chayah, including her (unintentionally?) saying that the women of Yisrael new that the redemption was upon them.
To Know our own redemption is to Now that knowledge, apply it to the current circumstances so as to lead us to be reborn like the the moon, as the blessing says we are predestined to do.
So if we Now what they New, we then can be New Now. 😉
To me, the waxing and waning of the moon is due to the motion of this body around the earth, while the sun stays (relatively)fixed and shines continuously. Nothing supernatural, nothing complicated,just the most elementary dynamics and geometry. Sure, the moons periodicity provides a very useful timepiece, particulalry for ancients who had no clocks and needed calendar information. But why is this simplest of explanations completely left out of these discussions, particulary when it happens to be true? Just as sunrise and sunset are never discussed in terms of their simplest explanation; i.e., that the earth rotates? If one wishes to draw all types of profound spiritual meaning out of these (simple) celestial behaviors, well I have no problem with that. But how about also providing the actual physical explanations for these behaviors rather than leaving it seem to be miraculous and supernatural (rotation is not a miraculous phenomenon). If one didnt have our current elementary understanding of these processes, then just reading the preceding comments about the moon would lead one to think that its waxing and waning was one of the fundamental mysteries and miracles of the universe (which I suppose is just how are ancestors saw it). For a column that seemes to pride itself about its knowledge of quantum physics and how much insight our learned sages had on these matters, wouldnt it be approriate to also point out to your readers the most elemntary scientific truths about the celestial phenomena discussed in the Torah and by its commentators?
My sympathy to the poor fellow who asked why R. Jacobsen didnt provide the simple scientific explanations regarding the waxing and waning of the moon. He sounds just like that fool that debated with Tony Blair a while back on the subject of his view that religion was the cause of all bad and how ridding the world of religion was a first step to improvement. No, sir, you are near the head of those who say that seeing is believing, when the Truth is that Believing is to See. Have you no notion of a Superior Being? You also sound like the poor scientists some hundred years from now who ask G-d to come and see how they now can create man in a few instants from virtually nothing but a pile of dirt, some chemicals and electrical contraptions. G-d comes down, sees the man made in a flash; and says Good, but next time bring your own dirt!
This is a fascinating take on the new moon. Each month the little bit of Moses in us can go right back to the moment in time between Moses and G-d of which you speak. You pose the greatest question about suffering. Why does G-d allow us to suffer. I dont know is the answer and it is wise of oyu to state this instead of some of the myriad explanations that dont mean anything. You metaphor of the seed is apt. The suffering represented by the seed is explained by the emergence of the fruit.
Thank you. Good Shabbos !
When I see the New Moon, I am mesmerized its beauty and say the New Moon blessings to draw down the inherent energy as a planting for renewal. Your commentaries are so warming to my Soul. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with all of us.
The meaning of the new moon – it is very interesting that this is the very first mitzvah we received as a nation and the reading of this portion is always about the time of the month of shvat. Tu bshavat is a uniquely Jewish celebration – this is the only kind of holiday the other nations of the world do not have. This is purely a Jewish characteristic – to seem as though we have fallen to the abyss and no hope to rise seems possible. No other nation in history was able to rise and create some form of government after they have fallen and been conquered. Tu bshavat is the day that new sap rises to the trees roots giving a yet another year of growth. We are the only nation in the world who proved time and time again throughout history that we always rise again after any blow. The tree seems as if it has no life – then tu bshavat comes and within a few weeks we see flowers blossoming again. We do this on a national scale as well as in our personal life. This is the gift we received at the time of becoming a nation – strentgh that empowres us to always continue — grow — and give off fruits; literally and figuratively.
The Birth of the New Moon
From out of the womb
Tunneled the new moon
A sliver of silver
Taking her first breath
Sighing her first cry
The Holy Name pointed
High in the sky
And declared Celebrate
The man Moses had confusion
A snow haired woman
With averted eyes
Shrugged bony shoulder
Remember the golden calf
would not worship the golden calf
The new moon is the beginning of the full moon that ultimately makes dogs howl and cats and humans sing, makes cats frisky. Its a gradual revelation of things hidden.
Out of Megillas Esther in which the name of HASHEM is hidden, emerges the nascent crescent to which the Muslims subscribe, but which will end in the gleaming round Challah which symbolizes for us the fullness and the circle of life and also the Achdus. The new moon means that we get another whack at experiencing this revelation; the new moon reminds us of this Parshas HaChodesh with the Yetzias Mitzrayim – a reminder of HASHEMS tremendous, unspeakably great help to us, giving another chance and a splendid opportunity to us, who had sunk so low, but whom in our state of persecution HE miraculously saved.
The cycle of the moon as you point out contains all our ups and downs – including our discouragement when we do not see.
It is therefore perhaps not so surprising that a non-Jewess, Sophie Scholl, who together with her brother was to be executed for distributing flyers against the Nazis, sang the night before her execution the words of a German poet: Seht ihr den Mond dort stehen; er ist nur halb zu sehen, und ist doch rund und schoen? So sind wohl manche Sachen, die wir getrost belachen, weil unsere Augen sie nicht sehen. (See the moon up there? It is only half visible, but it is really round and beautiful; thus it is with many things we complacently mock, because our eyes do not perceive them.
The new moon of Nisan is our new day in the morning, revealed in greater contrast against the darkness of the night.
I dont really know, but after reading this article, perhaps it means HOPE, A new beginning. maybe an opportunity to start over, or rebirth, maybe even a return to good and purity. I hope this doesnt sound too childish.
No your statement didn’t in the least seem immature! It takes a heart of longing and beauty to appreciate the Awesome Aspects of Our Eternal Elohim. After reading the Rabbi’s article I have a new sense and appreciation for the application it has for our lives…I will never let another New Moon Cycle go unnoticed!!! Bette
The changing nature of the Moon mirrors our lives with the complexity of our experiences while reassuring us of Lifes continuity(this message was stronger due to the total solar eclips two days ago). The monthly cyclical rhytm takes on special significance in the yearly seasonal renewal. In my personal life-cycle as a mature woman, I humbly ask Hashem that we may celebrate our daughters wedding and for continuity in our grand-children.
The moon is a pleasure,
As the low light of night.
Unlike the Sun,
Which warms and
As its yearly journey
Is being done.
Something bright, something beautiful, something light, something mystical. A glint in ones eyes.