Arguing with G‑d is an old Jewish tradition. Abraham did it, Moses did it, most Jewish grandmothers do it frequently. But, according to our sages, the first to argue with G‑d was the moon.
Before we get to that story, it's important to point out just how ludicrous arguing with G‑d really is. Here you have the first belief system that ascribes absolute omnipotence to a single deity. Power over everything, both in heaven and in earth. He knows all, directs all, and everything that occurs comes from Him. Everything -- including Abraham, Moses and your grandmother. And they argued with him.
It doesn't stop there: They usually win.
We must say, therefore, that G‑d wants to argue. It's part of The Plan. Furthermore, we must say that He likes losing arguments (most of the time).
I can empathize. After all, what fun is it to run a world so passive that its inhabitants agree with whatever you do? There would be no challenge, no thrill. It's that interactive experience that G‑d desired in creating the cosmos. And a lot of that comes from losing arguments with your own creations.
In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud recount that when G‑d lost an argument with them once, He laughed and said, "They beat me! My children beat me!" So, He really does get a kick out of the whole thing.
Arguing with the moon -- and losing -- was also part of the plan. G‑d set her up to it.
The Babylonian Talmud (Chulin 60b) tells the story in cryptic form. Here, for the first time, reconstructed from genuine accounts of enlightened sages, is the entire dialog:
It was early on that first Wednesday morning that the sun and the moon woke up to find themselves initialized into existence, high up in the sky, both illuminating Planet Earth with equal intensity. Right off, the moon complained.
"So we've got two bosses in the same office! What kind of a dumb cosmos is this anyways?"
Now, G‑d is a reasonable employer, open to constructive criticism. He considered the comments of His newborn critic and replied, "Good point."
"Yes. Therefore, kindly make yourself smaller."
Creation being a voice-activated interface, the moon was instantly diminished in size. That's when the real argument began.
"What a crummy system!" the moon exclaimed. "You lay things out the way they are, and you get shrunk for it!"
Once again, G‑d was impressed by the biting insight of His creation. It seemed that He really liked the moon and felt for her case. "Please allow me to make up for this," He begged her.
"Like how?" she demanded.
"How's this," G‑d replied. "The sun only gets to shine for her set twelve hours. You, on the other hand, are permitted to shine both at night and sometimes for a little of the day."
"Big deal!" she snapped back. "With the luminance rating you've given me, I might as well be some puny candle in the big blue sky!"
"Talking about the sky," -- the dark sky began to glitter as G‑d spoke -- "I've filled the night sky with pretty stars to keep you company!"
"I'll keep the jewelry," she answered, "but I'm still not satisfied. I don't like being small."
"Look at the brighter side," G‑d pleaded with her. "What's so terrible about being small? The truly great people of history will be small! Jacob will be smaller than his brother, Esau. David will be smaller than his seven brothers. There will even be a great sage who they will call, 'Samuel the Small'!"
"Great!" she cried back. "And I'll be the small, insignificant moon. Nobody will probably even notice me! They'll just say, 'When's that dumb little moon going to go away and the sun will come back and give some real light?'"
"That's not true!" G‑d exclaimed. "You will serve a very major function in their lives. You see, although most peoples will fix their calendars according to the position of the sun and the corresponding seasons, I will tell the Jewish people -- right away, as soon as I'm about to take them from Egypt -- to count their days according to the appearance of the new moon!"
"And what about seasons?"
"Yeah, seasons. Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer. Rainy Seasons. Dry Seasons. You're going to tell me they won't bother with seasons? That's impossible. I know what's in the works. You're planning to have them make all sorts of adjustments so that their holidays stay in the right seasons. They'll take a look at where the sun is and add a month once in a while, just to keep up with the seasons."
"So what's so terrible? They're still counting months, not days!"
"You see! It's not enough I've been condemned to second place! Even when I get my own domain, it's got to be tailored to suit Miss Big over there!"
She paused, sniffed a little, and then muttered, "Can't you just make me big again?"
"And what, then," G‑d pleaded, "will be with my universe? I can't make everybody the same size. You said that yourself. There has to be protocol or else it just isn't a world!"
"Aha!" the moon exclaimed. "Just as I thought! You had this whole thing set up! You were just waiting for me to kvetch so you would have an excuse to diminish my size! It was a trap, and I fell neatly into it like a fool! And now you expect me to forgive you and go about my planned role as if it were all my fault!"
"No. It's my fault." G‑d spoke pensively. "I wanted a world. And a world is a place where there is higher and lower, greater and smaller, parent and child. A hierarchy. Where things begin in one place and move on to somewhere else."
"And I have to be the somewhere else," kvetched the moon. "The bottom of the pyramid. I don't even get my own light. I just get to take whatever light I can receive from Her Royal Highness, Miss Luminance, and reflect some fraction of it down to a dark earth."
"In my mind, you're no less than her. You are both my creations, and both of utmost significance."
"But light begins with her!"
"Are you sure?"
"Then watch this."
It was an eerie feeling as the spin of the earth suddenly swung into reverse, along with the orbit of all the planets, the moon included. The strangest part, however, was the flow of radiant energy, as though it were sucked inwards, back from the moon to the sun. The moon was no longer receiving and reflecting light. It was emanating light, and -- strangest of all -- by the time the light arrived at the sun, it was a million times as powerful.
"What kind of a crazy cosmos have you made now?!" exclaimed the moon.
"Nothing more crazy than the first," G‑d answered. "What's better one direction of time than another?"
"But what's the point?"
"The point is that, as far as I am concerned, the hierarchy that bothers you so much doesn't really exist. It's only an artifact of the time continuum of your world. You see light originating with the sun and emanating towards you. I can see all things moving in the opposite direction. Or in any direction. Or not at all. Or all at once. For I am beyond time. And so, for me, you and the sun are both the same. You both shine, and that's it."
"Very nice. I'm very glad for you. And if you're planning to make one of those backward worlds, I'll be the first to sign up. In the meantime, I'm condemned to live through this forward paradigm, where I get to be the afterward. And for you, my pain doesn't even exist."
"Of course it exists! Otherwise, why should I have built in all this compensation!" G‑d paused. "Here, let me show you what the future has in store."
The cosmos quickly arranged themselves to the year 2448 after creation. The moon rose over Ancient Egypt, no more than a sliver in the sky.
"What do you see?" G‑d asked her.
"Pyramids. Just what I was talking about."
"Yes, this is the land of pyramids. The ultimate in authority and hierarchy. All knowledge, all power, all wealth in a neat pyramid of higher to lower. No one dares question the absolute power of Pharaoh. No slave dares question his lot in life as a slave. No one -- until my man in Egypt. And now I shall speak with him."
"You have done a fine job. As your ancestor, Abraham, smashed the idols of his father's house, you have flattened the pyramid of Egyptian authoritarianism. You have championed the plight of the oppressed and brought freedom and liberation into my world."
"Thanks, O Infinite One. What's next?"
"Now I want to introduce you to your mascot. She is the symbol of all that you and your people must accomplish. She is the moon and she is small, and she is humble and oppressed. You will begin now to redeem her, to uplift her status, by counting your calendar according to her cycles. And this shall be a constant reminder for you and your people of your mission in this world. For in this world you shall not be the most powerful, nor the most numerous. You shall be the smallest of the nations. At times you shall dwindle and almost disappear -- as she disappears from the sky at the end of each month. But only to return again, as an imperishable light, once again to champion the cause of the downtrodden and enslaved."
"Social activism is cool," Moses commented, "but what about spirituality?"
"That's where it all begins. Currently, the spiritual leadership promotes abandonment of the lowly, earthbound realm in order to achieve enlightenment. They're hiding out in caves, pastures and mountaintops, leaving the common world desolate. Your people need to reverse that trend. You will demonstrate that the most awesome spiritual highs are to be found in mundane matters of the everyday world. I've got a whole passel of mitzvahs ready for you guys, all involving fusion of the spiritual and the physical. It's all part of one big scheme: To flatten the pyramids of the world and reveal the value of those placed on the bottom."
Moses raised his fist in a power-salute. "Right on, O Faithful Redeemer!" he cried out.
But the moon wasn't yet impressed.
"That all sounds very inspiring and nice," she said. "But I don't get how you plan to make any of this really happen."
"Why, through mitzvahs and acts of kindness and beauty!"
A thousand scenes passed by. Scenes of valiant giving, heroic rescue, boundless compassion, of sharing and kindness. The oppressed were rescued from their plight. The downtrodden were returned their self-esteem. Those suffering pain and misfortune were comforted and healed.
"What do you see in all these scenes?" G‑d asked.
"I see that there is always one who gives and one who gets. And I don't get it. If it's justice you want, then why do you allow injustice to begin with?"
"If it were not for some imbalance, what room would there be for acts of kindness?"
"Who needs the acts of kindness? It just reinforces your whole hierarchical scheme. Like I said, there are those who give and those who get. Now if that isnt a pyramid..."
It was a simple scene of a lone traveler knocking on the door of a suburban home. The door opened, the traveler was invited in and he explained his predicament. His brother needed some very expensive medical therapy and he was traveling abroad to collect contributions. The homeowner listened patiently and then wrote a modest check. Sympathetically, he wished the traveler good luck. The traveler in return blessed the homeowner and his family a traditional blessing.
"Same thing all over again," muttered the moon. "One gives, one gets."
As the traveler left the house back into the dark night, a deep joy filled the hearts of those inside. Warmth and blessing emanated from inside their home. Somehow, they had all been elevated, their home infused with a glow of the Infinite Light that preceded all worlds.
"Now who is giving and who is receiving?" asked G‑d.
"But how did they receive so much?" the moon asked in amazement.
"Now look again."
It was a classroom, an active one. The children were at the prime of human intelligence -- about ten years of age. The teacher was struggling to get a point across, but the students kept badgering her with questions.
"Another hierarchy," commented the moon. "Just that this time the goods are intellectual."
The teacher was struggling to clarify a point. She drew a diagram on the board, but that didn't help. She showed the class pictures. But some were still confused. Finally, she closed her eyes to concentrate. Then she smiled. "Listen to this," she said.
For once, the students sat still and listened as the teacher told a parable, a wonderful metaphor for the subject she had been trying to explain. Their eyes widened and they sighed with relief, as the idea finally became clear to them. When the teacher was finished, a student exclaimed, "Teacher, why didn't you put it that way before?"
The teacher smiled again. "I guess I hadn't thought of it that way before," she answered.
"Now," prodded G‑d, "who is giving and who is getting?"
"Does that always happen?" asked the moon.
"Always," affirmed G‑d. "There are no one-way streets in my world. Nothing, but nothing, only receives without giving back at least as much. The poor give to the rich, students to their teachers, children to parents, the small to the great. And those who exploit others, in the end are only stealing from their own selves. It's just that you must look again, look deeper, to see the inner flow of life."
"But they are still small!" exclaimed the moon. "They are small and the others are great! If you have to give, wouldn't you rather be on the top giving downwards? Wouldn't you like to get some recognition? Hey, I'll bet that's the whole reason you created this whole universe to begin with -- 'cause you want some recognition for your greatness! After all, without a world, who's going to know how Absolutely One and Infinite you are? Well, I want recognition, too. I want to be seen, to be big and shiny up there and everyone below will look up and say, 'Isn't that a great job that big, shiny moon is doing!'"
"That's just what people will say! Once a month you will look so lovely in the dark velvet setting of the night as you reach your fullness."
"Once a month," she mocked. "Once a month you let me grow and be a little bit of a somebody. And then, just as I get to the point where I can feel that I'm accomplishing something, then I've got to start diminishing myself all over again. Until I'm a nothing. An absolute non-entity in the sky!"
"Just as the great personalities of history I mentioned to you before. They, too, become great by becoming nothing."
"Now you get great by being nothing. Now if that isn't a sneaky paradigm shift..."
"Not with the big guys I see down there. Look at Pharaoh. Struts around his luxurious palace with his nose in the air. Boats down the Nile in his yacht like he created it. Same thing with all those Caesars, Emperors, Czars, Global Corporation CEO's..."
"They are all nothing, and their end is nothing. I'm talking about the truly great. The ones who carry the entire world on the shoulders of their righteous deeds. Look at Moses! I choose him out of all humankind for the greatest job of history, and what does he say? 'I'm not good enough.' Same with King Saul -- they had to drag him out from his hiding place behind the luggage when he was chosen as the first king of Israel. And King David? At the height of his glory, he sits in his palace late at night and sings songs to me about what a worthless worm he is! And then there's Harriet Goldberg..."
"Who's Harriet Goldberg?"
"The whole world will endure on the merits of Harriet Goldberg."
"How come I haven't heard of her?"
"Nobody will. She's a waitress in a greasy-spoon cafeteria where she excels at keeping her good deeds quiet. Like you and all the other true greats -- as soon as she begins to shine, she reminds herself of her nothingness, diminishing herself to a complete state of spiritual void. And that is the secret of the power of her deeds."
"I bet she leads a miserable life."
"She doesn't think so."
"I bet there's a lot of suffering down in that world of yours."
"Well, nothing. There's suffering, there's pain, there's just a lot of darkness. And you're going to tell me that's all part of the plan. Because from the suffering will come good and from the darkness light. Well, I don't buy it. I don't get the whole idea of making a world so full of darkness, people can't tell between good and bad. If it were up to me, the entire world would be filled with light and joy and happiness!"
"And what's so great about light?" G‑d asked.
"Oh, come on. Now you've gone too far."
"Really. Why is light any greater than darkness?"
"Because, when there's light, you know the truth!" yelled the moon in exasperation. "And you don't suffer this horrible pain of meaninglessness and confusion!"
"When there is light you have a ray of the truth. In the dark you can touch the essence."
Now the moon was entirely bewildered. G‑d continued. "Let me illustrate what happens when you diminish to complete darkness as far as the inhabitants of the earth are concerned. Let's put you in full moon mode. Okay. Where are you in relation to the sun?"
"Well, there's the sun, then a few planets. Then earth. Then, a little further and there's little me. The sun shines onto me and some of that light bounces down to earth."
"Exactly. Now, let's see where you are when your light disappears from the earth. There. How do you relate to the sun now?"
"Well, the earth isn't between us anymore."
"So are you further or closer?"
"Yes!" G‑d exclaimed. "And so it is with all those who travel through darkness in their life. They may feel dejected and hopeless -- but the reality is that they are closer to the truth at that time than at any other. It is only because of those dark moments that they are able to shine at others."
"But they are in the dark! And dark is bad!"
"Darkness is my creation just as is light."
"Well, I don't know what in heaven's name you made it for!"
"Do I have to tell you everything?"
"No. You could just concede the case and make me bigger again," the moon suggested.
"But then you would never know the beauty of darkness. At the time when the sun rises or sets in its glory, you would not be there to proclaim that no, that is not all there is to the greatness of the Creator of All Things. He is more than just light. More than a nuclear fusion generator in the heavens that brings all things into being. He knows no limitations whatsoever, not even that of unlimited creative ability."
"But that is who you are," the moon asserted. "The Creator. You made all this out of the absolute void. And you sustain it from collapsing back into that nothingness at every moment."
"And if darkness was only a tunnel to reach the light," G‑d replied, "if it had no real purpose of its own in my world, then I would be known as just that. And nothing else would have meaning."
"So I made an utter darkness. I made a world where my Presence is hidden in such an absolute way that its creatures would feel entirely autonomous of me. And then they would have free choice, to take responsibility for their lives and for their destiny."
"But you are here!" the moon exclaimed. "In everything that happens and within all things! You are the true Being of All Things."
"But I am more than Being," G‑d explained. "I am the Absence of Being, as well. And when you and the sun unite at that point just before the new moon, that is when Being and Absence of Being converge. And there is the Essence of G‑d."
The moon pondered on this. "So they have free choice," she said. "And in that free choice is expressed your Essence -- your Being and Not-Being, as you say."
"And that is why there is darkness, and pain, and oppression and all the other bumps and blemishes of your world. It's supposed to be that way. So they can touch not just you in a revealed sense, but your essence."
"And your Essence is unlimited and infinite."
"Then why can't you do anything?"
"SO THEN WHY CANT YOU MAKE THAT THEY COULD REACH YOUR ESSENCE WITHOUT THE BLASTED SUFFERING?!!!"
"That I will not say."
"Then you lose."
Then G‑d looked down again to Moses. "Moses!" He called.
"I have another mitzvah for you. It has to do with the new moon. When it comes to that time, at the beginning of each month, I want you to bring a sin offering for me."
"A sin offering for who?" Moses asked.
"For me. Because I have diminished the light of the moon. And because there is suffering and oppression in my world. And darkness."
"But G‑d," Moses asked. "Why don't you just do away with the suffering?"
"That's your job, Moses."
"So why did you put it here in the first place? Who forced your Almighty Hand?"
G‑d paused. Moses waited. Finally, G‑d said, "Moses, you know I have revealed to you every secret of the cosmos. I have opened for you every chamber of the innermost wisdom, all the gates of esoteric understanding. I have not held back a thing, but given you my entire Torah, my most essential wisdom, to share and to teach to your people."
Moses stood perfectly still, in waiting.
"But there is one thing that, as long as you live in this world, I cannot reveal to you, one thing for which I must only say, 'Silence! So I have decided that it should be!'"
"But tell me why, Eternal G‑d!" Moses pleaded.
"Moses," G‑d asked, "if you knew the answer, if you understood why there had to be suffering from an all-powerful, beneficent G‑d. What would you do then?"
"I suppose I wouldn't feel so bad about it then."
"Precisely. And that is just what I don't want. I don't want you to be complacent. I don't want you to tolerate darkness. You must fight it with every sinew of your flesh, with all the capacity of your soul. Until you redeem every spark of light from its captivity, until you can bring sweetness to the most bitter places, until you have not left a corner of my world untouched with acts of kindness and compassion... until then you must hate the darkness as a blood-sworn enemy."
"So until that time, when I will wipe the tears of sorrow from every face, when all darkness -- even the darkness of the past -- will become light as the light of the first day of Creation, when, as Isaiah will say, the light of the moon will be as great as the light of the sun..."
"Until then, atone for Me."