Bo: The New Moon
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’.”
G-d agreed. In response, G-d “pointed His finger” and showed Moses something that is otherwise impossible to see: The birthing itself. The point when the darkness turns into light, the exact moment when the seeds of suffering yield the fruits of greatness
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 3319 year 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.