What the Jewish People Can Learn from the Moon


Will Gotkin is a regular contributor to GTJ and a recent graduate of The George Washington University. The opinions expressed in this piece belong solely to Will.

As Jews we live with the weekly Parsha. Each week we gain new insights that we can apply to our lives. However, not always do the weekly Parsha and our own lives intersect in a way that is so readily apparent. This week in Parshas Bo, the Jewish people received their first mitzvah (commandment) as a nation. That mitzvah was to sanctify the new moon, also known as the festival of Rosh Chodesh, which marks the beginning of a new month on the Hebrew calendar.  This year, Rosh Chodesh for the Hebrew month of Shvat fell during this Parsha.

It seems strange that after finally being freed from exile and slavery in Egypt amidst great miracles that G-d’s first order of business would be to assign our people the task of sanctifying the crescent of the new moon by establishing a calendar that is mostly lunar. But it says something special about the Jewish people and our relationship to the Master of the Universe.

The moon and its phases are symbolic of the faith the Jewish people as a nation and each Jew as an individual has in Hashem. The moon goes through various phases of waxing and waning. Sometimes the moon is more visible and other times we can hardly see it. In Jewish history there have been times when G-dliness was very apparent–we have witnessed miracles in Egypt, the revelation of Hashem’s will at Sinai, and the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In such times it was very clear to us that behind the physicality of the world, G-d was really running the show. But our people have also experienced very dark and painful chapters in our history and invidual Jews have encountered troubles and are plagued by feelings of confusion, helplessness, or loss.

During a new moon the night sky is the darkest. Rosh Chodesh is observed as soon as the first portion (a waxing crescent) is visible. As soon as we were redeemed from Egypt our relationship as a people with Hashem was about to begin. By first giving us the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh, Hashem was telling us that over the course of our long history, like the phases of the moon, G-d’s presence would be readily apparent at some times and less so in others. This is true for each Jew in his/her personal life as well.

The lesson for us is that in times of darkness and concealment such as our present era in which we no longer see open miracles, or a have a Holy Temple, and ideologies and lifestyles antithetical to Torah values are promulgated throughout the world, we should not despair. Rather than sit around weeping for what has been lost, we must focus on the future and joyfully bring the world into a state in which G-d’s presence is fully revealed. The new moon symbolizes a new beginning – a new era. It is this new era that our generation must now work to bring to fruition. And in our own lives when we feel enveloped in darkness and cannot see a way out we must remind ourselves that there will be other new moons. We will all experience moments of confusion and despair, but such times will always be followed by ones of clarity and joy.

Main idea based on the words of Rabbi Kaplan at Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies at Farbreng Rosh ChodeshShvat 5771.