As the Jewish people prepare to leave Egypt amid signs and wonders, God introduces Moses and Aaron to the mitzvah of announcing the new moon. To make matters more intriguing, this was the first mitzvah God gives to the Israelites as a nation. In essence, this moment represents the birth of the Jewish people.
The timing of this commandment about marking time begs our attention. What did God have in mind by associating the Jewish people with the moon?
While history may recall the land of the Pharaohs as the cradle of civilization, our faith remembers Egypt as a cruel place. Mistreatment, enslavement and persecution transpire in broad daylight under Pharaoh’s jurisdiction.
The Torah communicates unequivocally God’s desire that we be neither slaves nor slaveholders. We know from the slaughter of the paschal lambs, which are considered to be sacred in Egypt, that the Jews did not just leave Egypt, they defiantly divorced themselves from it.
Thomas Jefferson captures this sentiment when he writes: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” With this in mind, embracing the moon may have served as an explicit repudiation of the Egyptian sun god, Ra. This interpretation is supported by the fact that the last three plagues – locusts, darkness and the killing of the firstborn – all either cause or take place in darkness. Seeing firsthand that power and position can blind us to suffering, Moses and the Israelites reject their masters’ religion and culture. Our ancestors may have marveled at the accomplishments of ancient Egypt, but they understood firsthand that this society’s infrastructure was built upon injustice, bias, and subjugation. With the moon leading the way, the Exodus unfolds.
Another way of understanding the primacy of this commandment connects to the deep damage done by living in an abusive, prejudiced society. While the commandment of announcing the new moon seems out of place with so many other things to do to prepare for the Exodus, its message cannot be timely enough.
The popular Broadway musical “Les Misérables” provides us with insight about giving this mitzvah at that exact moment. The haunting song, “Look Down,” describes the downtrodden: “Look down, look down/ You’ll always be a slave/ Look down, look down/ You’re standing in your grave.”
In order to declare the new moon, God tells the Hebrew slaves to lift their heads and look up at the heavens, moon and stars. It is hard to gaze at the moon and not think about tomorrow. Thus, by making these former slaves look up as their first gesture of freedom, God teaches our people the posture of hope.
Since transforming the Israelites from slaves to a free people represents the central mission of the Exodus; every detail is intended to keep their heads held high to actualize the Torah that will become their inheritance for all time.
Just 75 years ago during the Holocaust, our communal resolve was tested during a most tragic and horrific chapter in our people’s story. After such a brutal and methodical genocide, many resigned themselves to the fact that Europe would forever more be judenrein, empty of Jews. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, it would be understandable if the Jewish community kept its head down.
Recognizing the Shoah’s devastation on the map of Jewish life, Yad Vashem in 1992 constructed “The Valley of the Destroyed Communities.” Covering several acres, this permanent outdoor exhibition is shaped like a giant map of Europe with massive walls 20 to 30 feet high, covered with the names of cities, towns and shtetls that were basically wiped off the map. The bigger the community, the bigger their name appears on the walls. Yet even the small names representing tiny shtetls evoke tears.
At its dedication, the then-president of Israel, Chaim Herzog, remarked: “This site, which is carved from the stones of the Judean Mountains, has the strength of an everlasting tribute and a memorial to the communities that were destroyed and are no longer.”
Two years after the dedication, Jewish leaders from all over Europe reached out to Yad Vashem requesting that the memorial’s name be changed. These communities, once covered in ashes and shrouded in mourning, had started a process of rebirth still unfolding today. Their nursery schools, synagogues, kosher markets, and mikvahs proclaim: We are neither lost nor destroyed. We are still here! Understanding the resilience of the Jewish people born under the moon eons ago, Yad Vashem changed the name to “The Valley of the Communities.”
From the Exodus and continuing through today, the Jewish people have faced enemies and crises that have shaken the foundation of our spirit. Yet, in every generation, b’chol dor vador, we find a way to not just continue but to move forward; not just to escape death but to embrace life, not just to leave Egypt, but to find our way to the Promised Land.
The 19th century German rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, asserts: “The Jewish consecration of the new moon is an institution for the periodic fresh spiritual and moral rejuvenation of Israel by finding itself again in conjunction with its God.” Ever since the Almighty halted the tumult of the Exodus to give us this first national commandment, the moon reminds us that with our heads held high, tomorrow is never far away.
With freedom and justice within our reach, there is ample reason for dancing in the moonlight.
Rabbi Charles E. Savenor is director of congregational education at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.
Shabbat Candles: 4:53 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 10:1-13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28
Havdalah: 5:55 p.m.