G-d on the Moon

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And G-d said: “Let there be luminaries in the heavens to distinguish between day and night; and they shall be for signs, and for times, and for days, and for years. And they shall be luminaries in the heavens to give light upon earth.” And it was so.

And G-d made the two great luminaries: the great luminary to rule the day, and the small luminary to rule the night….Genesis 1:14-16

The Talmud, examining the Torah’s account of G-d’s creation of the sun and the moon, dwells on the apparent contradiction in the above verses. Are there, in fact, “two great luminaries,” or a “great luminary” and a “small luminary”?

The Talmud explains: indeed, initially the sun and the moon were equal in greatness and luminance. But then,

The moon said to G-d: “Master of the Universe! Can two kings wear the same crown?”


Said G-d to her: “Go diminish yourself.”


Said she to Him: “Master of the Universe! Because I have said a proper thing, I must diminish myself?”


Said He to her: “You may rule both during the day and at night.”


Said she to Him: “What advantage is there in that? What does a lamp accomplish at high noon?”


Said He to her: “The people of Israel shall calculate their dates and years by you.”


Said she to Him: “But the sun, too, shall have a part in that, for they shall calculate the seasons by him.”


Said G-d: “The righteous shall be called by your name—‘Jacob the Small,’[4]


 ‘Samuel the Small,’[5]


 ‘David the Small.’[6]


Still G-d saw that the moon was not appeased. So G-d said: “Offer an atonement for My sake, for My having diminished the moon.” This is the significance of what Reish Lakish said: “Why does the he-goat offered on the first of the month differ from the others in that it is specified as ‘for G-d’?[7]  G-d is saying: “This he-goat shall atone for My diminishing of the moon.” [8]

Reading this celestial dialogue, several questions come to mind:

a) How did G-d intend for the “two great luminaries” to “distinguish between day and night” if He made them identical to each other?

b) G-d diminishes the moon to a fraction of her original size and deprives her of the ability to generate her own light, reducing her to a pale reflector of sunlight—apparently as a punishment for her having insisted that she and the sun cannot be equals. But then He appeases the moon for her loss. And when the moon is not so readily placated, He offers her one reparation after another. At the end, G-d still feels guilty (!) about the whole affair and commands that every month, as the moon enters a new cycle of rebirth, growth and diminution, a sacrifice be offered in the Holy Temple in atonement (!) for His deed. On the other hand, He does not restore the moon to her original “greatness,” so obviously He still feels that her “reduction” is warranted. So we still don’t know who is in the right in this argument. Did or did not the moon “say a proper thing”?

c) Rereading the verse, “And G-d made the two great luminaries: the great luminary to rule the day, and the small luminary to rule the night,” we now realize that the Torah is telling us that this, indeed, was G-d’s intention: that there should originally be “two great luminaries,” one of which should, at some later point, emerge as the “small luminary.” But the prophet Isaiah describes the future perfect world of Moshiach as a time when “the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun”[9] implying that, on the contrary, the moon’s original size and nature is the ideal. Or was this all some grand plot on the part of G-d—to create an impossible situation, have the moon complain, diminish her, and then decree that at the culmination of history, the original state of affairs (now somehow possible and desirable) should be restored?

Give and Take

No man is an island, goes the old cliche. But then again, neither is anything else in G-d’s world. Every being is inexorably married to its fellows in a series of reciprocal relationships: spirit and matter, male and female, parent and offspring, prey and predator, teacher and student, manufacturer and consumer, employer and employee, philanthropist and pauper, and so on.

And, of course, sun and moon. In their celestial dance of give and take, sun and moon are both metaphor and prototype for the innumerable give-and-take relationships which form the foundation of life—indeed of existence as we know it. When the sun gives its light to the moon and the moon receives and reflects the sun’s light, it is man planting life in the womb of woman and woman conceiving and nurturing it; it is the farmer’s investment in the soil, and the earth’s absorption of seed and rain to sprout forth vegetation; it is the rich giving to the poor, the pupil learning from his teacher, the rivers feeding the seas.

Indeed, “two kings cannot wear the same crown.” For it is only out of the interplay between giver and recipient that new realities are born. Without this give-and-take dynamic, our world would be as static as a museum display; with it, the world becomes vibrant and creative.

One can say that the giver is the “great” element in the relationship and the recipient the “small.” The “suns” of the world are givers by virtue of their superior resources and prowess; its “moons” are recipients due to their lack of whatever it is that they receive. This, however, represents but one perspective on the relationship—that of the giver and the recipient themselves. But what about the designer and creator of their reality? How does the ultimately objective viewer see it?

Seen from G-d’s perspective, is there any real difference between the fact that He provides the rich with wealth-generating talents and opportunities, and that He provides the poor with rich men with generous hearts? Both are thereby enabled to sustain themselves and contribute to the overall development of the world’s resources, each in his own way. Is there any qualitative difference between His making the sun a cauldron of energy and His making the moon a “passive” ball of matter positioned so that it reflects the sun in a certain fashion? Both are thereby enabled to illuminate the earth and generate the rhythmic cycles of life, again each in its own way. From G-d’s perspective, they are all recipients in that He gives them everything they have, including the capacity to give and/or receive; and they are all givers in the sense that through their partnership with each other, they create.

So every “sun” and every “moon” in G-d’s world is a “great luminary.” It is only that the way in which they are “great luminaries” is by forming partnerships in which some of them are great and abundant and others are small and wanting. As far as G-d is concerned, darkness is just another form of light, poverty another form of wealth, imperfection another form of perfection. Yes, He created the sun and the moon to differentiate between night and day—to polarize His creation between the givers and the receivers, between illuminators and the reflectors. This, however, is not a differentiation between great and small but between great and great—or rather, between great as great and small as great.

Inferiority Complex

Therein lies the significance of the dialogue between G-d and the moon. The moon’s greatness—her capacity to receive—is born of a sense of diminution and insufficiency. So when G-d created two great luminaries, it is the moon who cried—her very nature demanded it—“Wait a minute! We cannot be equals! If we are, where is the differentiation? Where is the creative relationship? Only one of us can give—the other must receive. Only one of us can shine—the other must be dark.”

“You are absolutely right,” says G-d. “Go diminish yourself.”
“But why me?” asks the moon. “Just because I’m the one who spoke up?”
“Yes. That’s precisely why you spoke up—because you are the recipient. The sun feels perfectly comfortable with his greatness; that’s his role—to be great through giving. But you are different. It is you who cannot reconcile herself to a world that consists only of givers; it is you who senses the necessity for a receptive element in My creation.”

“But why should I be the lesser one in the relationship?”
“You are ‘lesser’ only in the reality of your perception. But in essence, you are equals. In fact, you’re even superior in certain ways.”
“How?”

“When the day ends, the sun drops out of the sky. The night is inaccessible to him. But you are present not only at night when you illuminate the world, but also during the day, when your light is not seen.”

“But I’m a luminary. If I’m not illuminating, I’m nothing.”

“Exactly. That’s the difference between you and the sun. He illuminates by illuminating, but you illuminate by virtue of your nothingness, through your passive reception of his light. So when he isn’t seen, he isn’t there. But you—even when you’re nothing, you are present.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t. If you did—if you sensed your own greatness—you wouldn’t be a recipient.”
And so it goes. G-d tells the moon about the unique qualities of lunar time, where, unlike the steady, unfaltering solar cycles, diminution and extinction give rise to rebirth and renewal.[10]

He tells her of the great men of history who achieve true greatness by virtue of their humility and perpetual sense of inadequacy.

But the moon persists: “I still feel inferior!”

“Of course you do,” says G-d. “Your smallness is the essence of your greatness. If you did not feel inferior, you wouldn’t be driven to receive, and would not actualize your greatness. I see your greatness, but you cannot—at least not until the ultimate realization of your role. Then, on the day that all the givers and takers in my creation have produced the perfect world I have charged them to create, the true worth of the recipient will come to light.

“But I’ll tell you what,” G-d continues. “I know that all of this is My fault. After all, the concept of a world in which giver and recipient join to create new realities was My idea in the first place. I could have created a perfect world, or no world at all. It is because of My desire for an imperfect, self-perfecting world that the “moons” I created must initially experience darkness, weakness and poverty. So I will join you in your plight. From My perspective, you are already great—your potential as good as realized, your future perfection already recognized. Still, I shall enter your world and perspective, and together with you strive for and await redemption. Until that day when ‘the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun,’ I, too, will subject myself to the ups and downs of lunar life.”

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shavuot 5747 (1987)[11].

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.


[4] Amos 7:2.

[5] Ethics of the Fathers 4:19.

[6] Samuel I 17:14.

[7] In Deuteronomy 28:15, the Torah adds the word laHashem, “for G-d,” to the commandment to bring the he-goat sin-offering on the first of the month, which marks the new moon. The word does not appear in connection with the sin-offerings of the other festivals.

[8] Talmud, Chullin 60b.

[9] Isaiah 30:27.

[10] See Jewish Time, WIR, vol. X, no. 25.

[11] Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXX, pp. 8-15.

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