In the midst of recounting the horrifying last three plagues in Egypt, God tells Moses and Aaron: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Exodus 12:2) As the Etz Hayim Humash remarks: “A slave does not control his or her own time; it belongs to someone else.” (p. 380). One of the first steps in the liberation of the Israelites, then, was for them to have their own calendar – to measure their lives and their holy moments in their own way, not at the dictates of others.
But the new calendar was not only to be a practical, national institution. It was to have its spiritual side as well, as Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century commentator, points out: “[God] began the construction of the inner life of His people by the institution of an “ot”. This regular, periodically recurring sign was always to draw the looks and the thoughts of the people afresh up to Him. It was to summon them to ever fresh rejuvenation out of the darkness of error and depravity, and so to ensure a constant rebirth to truth and purity that would forever protect Israel from Egyptian spiritual and moral insensibility. Just as God told No·ah to turn his looks away from the earth which had just been regiven to Man, and direct them to heaven, and, showing him the rainbow, said “zot ot habrit” – this is to be the sign, the guarantee, of My covenant with the new future which I promise to humanity – in the same way, in Egypt, at the threshold of the new Jewish future, He called Moses and Aaron into the open, showed them the silver crescent of the new moon, and said: “This renewal is to be to you a beginning of new-moons (literally a beginning of renewals, or revivals) … “
Hirsch is rightly concerned that the recurring sign of the new moon would be for the Israelites (and their descendants, the Jewish people) a way to renew themselves to choose the moral and true path in their lives. In Hirsch’s time, in the time of the Israelite enslavement in Egypt, and in our own time, without periodic reminders of the true and good path, one could easily slip into spiritual and moral insensitivity, or as Hirsch suggests, depravity. And the Jewish calendar – following the waxing and the waning of the moon – certainly provides us with constant reminders of God’s festivals and our moral obligations on those festivals – especially to our community and to the poor.
But the renewal of the moon, which almost disappears and then grows bright again every month, speaks to me of other, more personal renewals as well. The constancy of the moon reminds us that life moves in cycles. In our deepest, darkest moments – the renewal of the moon reminds us that we won’t always feel despondent. In the moments when we feel most forlorn and most abandoned, the moon reminds us that brighter days will come again. Just as there has been sadness, there will also be happiness. Just as there has been despair, there will also be healing. Just as there has been bereavement, there will also be new life.
May we be inspired by each “new moon” to renew ourselves and our commitment to living moral and ethical lives – and to know that when we feel surrounded by darkness, there will be light again.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi