By Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb
On July 20, 1969 the world witnessed one of the greatest technological achievements in history when a human being first set foot on another celestial body. Six hours after the initial landing, at 4:17 p.m. EDT, Neil Armstrong took the “Small Step” off of the Lunar Module and onto the surface of the Moon. Upon setting foot on the Moon, Armstrong famously said, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The Jewish fascination and preoccupation with the Moon long predates NASA’s landing and in fact begins with the mitzvah given to the Jewish people in this week’s Torah reading.
“Ha-chodesh ha-zeh rosh chadashim l’chodshei ha-shanah,” this month will be the first month of the months of the year. (12:2) With these words we are first taught about “Kiddush Ha-Chodesh,” the mitzvah to organize and maintain the Hebrew calendar. Elaborating on this verse, the Mechilta adds that, “her’ahu levanah b’chiddushah,” when issuing this command, Hashem actually “showed” Moshe the moon in its renewed and full state, and further instructed that, “ke’she’ha-yarei’ach mischadesh yihiyeh le’cha rosh chodesh,” the new month begins each time the moon renews itself.
In other words, unlike other calendars which define a year based on the earth’s rotation around the Sun – a cycle that directly affects the seasons – our calendar works based on the Moon’s revolution around the Earth. A solar calendar has many pragmatic advantages over a lunar based system and, as a result, the Sanhedrin needed complex calculations to synchronize the two calendars and, thereby, enable the Jewish holidays to fall out in their designated seasons.
Given the inherent challenges of a lunar based calendar, the obvious question is why did the Torah choose set up the calendar and – in essence – base Jewish life around the Moon? The fact that this is the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a nation and that, over the centuries, our enemies have singled out the Kiddush Ha-Chodesh for special attention, only deepens the mystery.
What is it about the moon that has earned it such prominence in Jewish thought and history?
Many meforshim have suggested that the moon’s symbolic significance lies in the ongoing fluctuation of its size (as viewed from earth). The waxing and waning of the moon represents the possibility of rebirth and redemption. That which is small can one day become large; something partial can once again be complete.
This is seen as the perfect metaphor for the history and fate of the Jewish people. We have had high moments of sovereignty and peace in the Land of Israel and we have had dispersion and Diaspora. We have had periods of peace and tranquility while we live in other lands and we have knows the dark times of pogrom and persecution. We have reached the heights of spiritual splendor and we have also stumbled to the depths of sin.
Our nation has repeatedly experienced drastic reversals of fortune. We must remember, therefore, that even when our light seems to dim, it will ultimately be rekindled and shine as brightly as ever. This message is so central to our national mission that our entire calendar was arranged around the Moon; Kiddush Ha-Chodesh is the first commandment we received as a people because it symbolizes our journey as a nation; and perceptive enemies have tried to vanquish this mitzvah as a way of extinguishing our hope for a brighter future and a better tomorrow.
There is another important message symbolized by the moon that is relevant to us, not as a nation, but as individuals.
Rav Avraham Pam (The Pleasant Way) focuses on the fact that the Moon does not produce its own light; rather, it merely reflects the light generated by the Sun. R. Pam suggests that, on a deeper level, this demonstrates that originality is not always crucial.
R Pam applied this lesson specifically to the experience of yeshiva students. Often a student’s ability to innovate and to produce a “chiddush,” serves as the primary barometer of his success and stature. This is a terrible mistake. Taking the wisdom of previous generations and transmitting it to others is an important achievement in its own right. Even one who does not introduce a new theory, idea, or line of reasoning can become accomplished scholar if he diligently applies himself to the point where he absorbes the great “light” of our tradition, enabling him to “reflect” it onto others.
In a similar vein, many years ago, when I was a yeshiva student, I recall hearing Rav Hershel Schachter mention that Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician and scholar, questioned the praise and acclaim that poets receive; after all, what original words have they produced? Pascal answered that the ability to arrange existing words into a beautiful composition which expresses great truths is also a significant accomplishment and worthy of reverence. In other words, there is a difference between originality and creativity.
Hearing this message from R. Schachter – himself the author of untold numbers of original and brilliant insights – continues to inspire me until today.
And finally, in addition to symbolizing our national history and the value of transmitting past knowledge, the Torah’s description of the Moon during the story of creation highlights another important message.
On the fourth day of creation, the Moon and the Sun are referred to as “me’oros ha-gedolim,” the great luminaries (Bereishis 1:16). The same pasuk also mentions the stars – but without granting them any corresponding appellation. This omission is especially surprising given that most stars are larger than the moon.
The Ibn Ezra explains that the reference here isn’t to size but to the benefit provided; the stars’ vast distance from earth – their physical size notwithstanding – severely reduces the amount of light they provide to Earth. The Moon, by contrast, shines brightly in the nighttime sky. Despite being smaller than the stars, the Moon deserves the title “great luminary” because of the profound and positive impact it has on Earth.
This is also a crucial lesson for us to consider. Real greatness is measured not by strength, wealth, or intelligence, but by using our abilities to “shine” and make a difference in the world. Providing light where there was previously none is what transforms a person from being merely a star into a luminary.
Such achievements would truly be “a giant leap for mankind.”
Originally appears on YUTorah