- Posted by Jen Gubitz
- On October 8, 2019
- 0 Comments
(Midrash story adapted from Barbara Ellison Rosenblit’s In a Different Light in the spirit of Pirkei de Rebbe Eliezer 6:1)
There was some unexpected chaos on the fourth day of creation. It was on that day the Book of Genesis teaches that God made two great lights: One… to dominate the day and one… to dominate the night. Setting them in the expanse of the sky To shine upon the earth, and to separate the light from darkness: Day 4 got a metaphysical thumbs up, Ki Tov, because God saw that it was good.
Ordering chaos was going better than expected.
Those two great luminaries – we call them the sun and the moon – started out as equal size, in height, in qualities and illuminating powers. (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 6:1) But “rivalry [as if between two siblings] ensued between them, [and] one said to the other, ‘I am bigger than you are.’ To which the other responded, ‘No, I am more powerful than you are.” (ibid)
The sun went to God and protested, saying ‘Master of the Universe, there’s only enough room in this firmament for one of us.’ The moon didn’t really want to bring God into this, but quietly agreed.
“So what did the Holy One do, so that there might be peace between them? God, the creative midrash suggests, saw the unexpected seeds of rivalry rooted in creation and with wisdom answered: “Sun, you shall be larger and more powerful than Moon. Your size and strength shall dominate.”
The sun luxuriated in easy victory, and shone proudly.
“But,” God continued, “Your request shows poor judgment. For great power contains within it the seeds of damage and destruction.
“You, my sun, now so great and glorious, will be blamed for famine, for your piercing and endless heat will parch the earth. Your fiery rays will burn the skin of those exposed, and you will cause cancers to erupt on human flesh. Your strong rays will burn out the eyes of those who stare at you. No one will ever gaze upon you again…
Sun gulped as its rays began to grow
This wasn’t exactly the answer moon was hoping for either.
“Master of the Universe, really?” The Moon asked sadly. “Yes,” God replied, “but as compensation for my decision, go and rule both during the day along with the sun and during the night.” “[You, sweet Moon,] will be smaller and less powerful, but you will bring comfort to all [who gaze your way.] Poets and lovers will be moved by your hazy afterglow. Artists will be moved to capture [your] essence on canvas. And while sunstroke will come to mean dehydration, followed by death.Moonstruck will become a synonym for dazzled by the wonders of love.
You, Moon, will be ever-changing, ever-watched, ever-admired, ever mysterious. The rhythmic ebb and flow of the tides, whose sounds create the pulse of the earth, will be [yours] to control. “No two days will find [you] the same; rather, every night will reveal [your] subtle changes. [Your] every movement will be studied and glorified. Time will be measured by [you.] Cycles… calculated through [you]. The calendar… fixed using [you.] And each month, [you] will be blessed.”
But still God knew Moon was sad, feeling diminished by the heat of the sun, and so God promised: Moon, the Jewish people will count the days and years with you, and this will be your greatness.
When I imagined the sun and the moon in my youth, the sun always wore sunglasses and the moon always wore pajamas. The writers of this midrashic story unlikely believed that the sun and moon had faces or feelings; rather, they sought to understand and illuminate the creation of the world and the ways of the world from chaos to order, from enslavement to freedom, from hubris to humility, from rivalry to peace while grappling with being Jewish in a world that was decidedly not.
The Moon’s glow might be smaller than the hot rays of the sun, but it would animate the lives of the Jewish people. This story, and others like it is the etiology of Jewish time. And so from this origin story, the Jewish people became, not only the People of the Book – lovers of wisdom and learning, pursuers of curiosity and truth, but the People of the Moon by whose glow we would mark time to gather for mourning, to rejoice in celebration, to pursue renewal and sanctify transformation.
But our challenge was this: Jews would live by the light of the moon amid a majority of the world who basked in the sun.
In the Book of Exodus, on the eve of liberation from slavery in Egypt, God gives Moses the first commandment to share with the collective Israelite people: By the light of the moon, “[this] month shall mark for you the beginning of the months;” (Exodus 12:2). God is talking about the month of Nisan and what will become the Spring festival of Passover celebrating the Israelite escape from Egypt. It sets the precedent for the power of timekeeping as our ancestors journey to freedom. The commentator Sforno suggests God is telling them this: “from now on these months will be yours, to do with them as you like. [You can] organize your own calendar! [A] contrast to the years when you were enslaved, when your days, hours, minutes even, were always at the beck and call of your taskmasters and you had no control over your time,” Slavery was a tyranny of timelessness – with no beginning, middle or end of the struggle. Freedom for the Israelites meant they could live by their own clock. The moon became their time piece.
Of course, the prosaic idea of living by the moon while everyone else lives by the sun is easier said than done. In her book Palaces of Time, Elisheva Carlebach writes that “those who did not celebrate the same holidays, rest on the same Sabbath, or labor alongside others on the same workdays assumed as powerful a sign of cultural difference as any badge, language, or physical marker would have conferred.” (p.1) Living in time marked by the cycles of the moon “illimunate[d] the uneasy balance between separation and integration that marked Jewish life. Navigating closeness while maintaining uniqueness was the “central paradox[es] of Jewish existence. (p.1)
Being Jewish in a world that is decidedly not: this challenge prevails.Saturday and Sunday mark the work week’s end,but Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest. And that’s why tonight when the 1st of Tishrei arrives and a shofar blast announces the new moon and Rosh Hashanah
Well, that’s why there is also a Red Sox game down the street. Living Jewishly in the modern world, we vacillate daily between the sacred and the secular. (side note: I am not saying the Red Sox aren’t sacred! I am suggesting that no one looked at the Jewish calendar when they made their game schedule.)
Three years ago, Salesforce had their biggest conference of the year beginning on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah. Last year, Boston’s Public School system didn’t understand why Kindergarteners could not begin their first day of school EVER on our Jewish New Year. The sun’s rays shine brightly in the United States.
Save for an unlikely move to Israel to solve this duality, it is hard to choose when to live according to the power and beauty of Jewish time and when to yield to the provocation of secular time that pulls us in so many other directions. And y’all this year, it’s personal: there’s a concert I really want to go… on the 2nd night of Passover. And the Wailin’ Jenny’s music for me is a sacred experience…
But the sun isn’t all burn.
Jews live between the sun’s rays and the moon’s glow, with particularity amid the universal. Truly in a lunar-solar calendar, adjusting and leaping every few years to make sure that Passover is in the Spring, and Chanukah, our Festival of Light, isn’t in the summer when there’s already plenty. And maybe we need the sun’s week to make the week’s end truly impact us. We need the universal to fully experience the particular power of Jewish time.
Dartmouth Professor Susannah Heschel, in the introduction to the book The Sabbath, written by her father Abraham Joshua Heschel, describes what Shabbat looked like in her childhood home. “When my father raised his kiddush cup on Friday evenings, closed his eyes, and chanted the prayer sanctifying the wine, I always felt a rush of emotion…I treasured those moments. Friday evenings…were the climax of the week…[We] kindled the [Shabbat] lights, and all of a sudden I felt transformed… The sense of peace that came upon us… was created, in part, by the hectic tension of Fridays. Preparation for a holy day, my father said, was as important as the day itself.” (Introduction to the Sabbath, vii) Heschel describes the race against time in order to sanctify time. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in 1951, amid a time of great assimilation, during which many Jews felt “the Sabbath interfered with jobs, socializing, shopping, and simply being American.” (S. Heschel xiii) He didn’t illuminate the value of Shabbat in order to shame secularization; rather to show how Shabbat, and how the marking of time through this ancient Jewish framework, could offer the same sense of freedom and liberty the Israelites experienced, released from their taskmasters’ tyranny.
“We need the Sabbath,” he writes, “in order to survive civilization… to remain independent of the enslavement of the material world.” Heschel wanted us to understand not only how to mark time by the cycles of the moon, but how to sanctify it. It’s not just about refraining from outer worldly concerns and behaviors, he taught; it’s about creating “a restfulness that is also a celebration.” (xiv) “The depth of its experience is created, he writes, by how we behave on the other six days of the week; They are a pilgrimage to the Sabbath.” (xv) Heschel offers us the avenue to find the balance between sacred and secular, the moon and the sun. The toil of the days of the week can enrich our day of restful celebration.
What do we do when our lives demand of us to let the sun and the moon share the firmament of our sky together? When much of the way the world marks time collides with the power and sanctity of Jewish time?
First, look around you: You are surrounded by others who share in this challenge, some of whom, I’m guessing, feel the weight of a difficult work project or a midterm exam or patient files that you feel you must tend to tomorrow. And so maybe that is how you’ll spend tomorrow…these “pulls” distract us from creating space for a fuller celebration of our New Year. And you’re not alone in that.
And you are surrounded by others who share in the challenge of doing all that you can in one week’s time and knowing Shabbat has arrived in the world, but feeling so exhausted by the tyranny of productivity that Shabbat will have to wait until next week. I suppose that’s the good news. Ready or not, Shabbat comes every week. Sometimes even I wish it would give it a rest! But here’s the thing: the work will still be there for you when you return. We excel at making more work for ourselves. And it’s an Egyptian taskmaster, tyrannical – when you think you’ve finished your work, it’s a TRAP!!! There will be more. It won’t stop Unless you stop it. (Don’t quit your job!) The proverbial sun will rise tomorrow – but if you bask in it for too long, eventually it will burn you.
And the moon? Well, the moon may be smaller and less powerful than the sun. But do not underestimate Moon’s power to transform our lives: Moon has been renewing herself day after day, month after month, year after year since the dawn of creation. Moon is the same moon upon which your ancestors gazed and will be the same moon shining upon your descendants.
And the Moon knows what it’s like to share space with the sun. The very act of living Jewishly is about sharing space, about living in the twilight, dwelling in the in-between. It is counter cultural, sometimes isolating, but also inspiring, life affirming, and full of blessing. Although tonight we can barely see the sliver of the new Moon in the sky: the Moon is calling us to begin again and to recommit to choosing to bring Shabbat into our lives every week because we deserve to rest! The Moon calls us to put our work aside and to choose living fully in Jewish Holidays because we deserve the joy and the communal connection! And when the outside world’s pull feels strong: remember this sight as you look around tonight. Here we are gathering in the moon’s glow. The struggle to choose to live Jewishly in our modern world is timeless but we are not alone. Shana Tovah!
**With gratitude to Rabbis Jodie Gordon and Chase Foster for editing.