G‑d showed Moses the moon in its renewal and said, “When the moon is renewed, that will be the head of the month.” (Rashi’s Commentary, Exodus 12:2)
The other nations count by the sun, while Israel counts by the moon. (Talmud, Sukkah 29a)
And He told the moon to renew herself, as a crown of beauty to those He carries from the womb, for they are likewise to be renewed and to glorify their Creator for the name of the glory of His kingdom. (From the blessing on the new moon)
Isn’t it a strange thing, how the Jewish people identify with the moon? Wouldn’t it be more dignified to identify with the bright and powerful sun?
Go ask the other nations of the world, “What are the qualities with which you identify?” Brave, strong, free, powerful . . . they sing these things in their anthems, emblazon them on their flags, engrave them in the minds of their children. And so, they count by the sun.
And us? We are the paltry moon, struggling to lend a little luminance to the darkness of the night, disappearing as the world plays its games beneath the big blue sky, waning after every waxing, owning no light of its own.
You know, there are masculine qualities and feminine qualities. Which is which depends on where you live and who you are.
If you are an ancient Greek or a Hindu, for example, activity and motion are feminine. Passive stillness is masculine. That’s how it works in the Pythagorean table of opposites and that’s how they are identified in the system of Hindu gods and goddesses. But if you are a Taoist, then action is masculine and passiveness is feminine. That’s how it works in the Yin-Yang.
Why the difference? Because to a Greek philosopher or a Hindu guru,
unchanging stillness is a virtue—therefore, it must be masculine. But to a Taoist, movement and action is virtuous—therefore, the roles are reversed. And so it goes on consistently throughout the world. To the point that, ironic as it may seem, even contemporary feminists, when describing the qualities that make for a liberated female, place their emphasis on the male qualities that women must adopt.
And to us? To us, the moon is feminine because she has no light until she receives from the sun, just as a mother cannot give life until she receives the seed from the father. Yet, oddly, we identify with her. For we, too, are the feminine of the nations, “the sheep among seventy wolves, the dove among the eagles”—all the metaphors the sages provided for us repeat the theme. In fact, they say:
There are three qualities of this nation: Compassion, a sense of shame and an eagerness to do kindness. (Talmud, Yevamot 79a)
Unarguably feminine qualities. Nothing there about being strong and brave.
True, we have fought when we needed to fight and we were brave indeed. We held off the Greek-Syrian army, the Roman legions, we stood up like a fierce tiger in Warsaw, and today, as well, we hold our own. But in the hymns and prayers related to those events, there is little said about courage and might. On the contrary, we say, “many were given over into the hands of the few, the mighty into the hands of the weak.”
So why is it? Why do we insist on identifying as the weak, the minority, the little guy, the oppressed?
It is our sense of purpose, the mission and destiny we accepted upon
ourselves at the birth of our people. This radical notion, this volatile
catalyst of history: that the status quo that G‑d made in establishing His world, in which the strong rule the weak and the givers are above the receivers, is not to be tolerated. The protocol is meant to be broken, the pyramid is meant to be to turned on its head.
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, “Why is the goat offering of the New Moon unique? Why does it say it is a sin offering for G‑d? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, said, ‘This goat will be an atonement for my having diminished the moon.’ ” (Talmud, Chullin 60b)
What statement could be more radical than to say, “We must atone for G‑d by changing His world”?
No idea caused greater fret to the oppressors, no movement has brought
greater upheaval. It was due to this that Constantine chose Christianity over Judaism as the religion of his empire despite the wildfire spread of Jewish values throughout the Mediterranean: Christianity could be conformed to accept the status quo, to leave the emperor his godlike power and keep the masses in ignorance. Come to church on Sundays, accept your lot in life and obey the rules we make for you.
Not so, the Jews. Theirs was a participatory religion, where knowledge was an obligation of every citizen, and anyone could learn to take part in the debate; where no one ruled over the Sabbath rest; where the sages and the king were subject to the law and rights of the people.
The ruling class did not try hard to conceal their motives. Seneca, the Roman historian, derides the Jews for “wasting one-seventh of their lives in idleness,” and then informs us that “the custom of this most accursed race has gained such influence that it has now been received throughout the world!”
Seneca’s fears were well understood: he, as most Romans, owned thousands of slaves—many of whom were now demanding a day off from work (=15 percent reduction in productivity), and ready to give their lives for it. Who needs a religion that grants such rights to slaves?
To this very day, what is it that truly frightens the Arab dictators, that brings them to invest so much energy and fret into anti-Israel propaganda? It is nothing less than this horrifying threat, this very real worry that maybe their own populace will taste the fruit of popular rule, of value for human life and dignity of the individual. And then, for the dictator, all is lost.
When it comes to the roles of men and women, the concept has barely begun to gain ground. It remains burnt into the ROM of our subconscious that fighting fires, managing offices, making money and making your mark on the world is so much a greater venture than giving life and nurturing life. Why else could it be that we abandon our marriages for our careers and leave our children alone to be raised by a television set? When such values will change, when men will see what their wives truly give them, parents will allow themselves to be nurtured by their children, and women, too, will realize the essence-power they contain by being women, then, all of society will be transformed.
We will touch our essential beings.
The moon, when she was first created, was a glistening jewel. She did not merely reflect light, but rather transformed it and brought out its inner beauty, much as a precious stone glistens with a secret, hidden light all its own. In her own way, the moon was greater than the sun—for the sun only shines from its surface, whereas the moon shone from its inner essence. The sun holds the light that extends outward, whereas the moon holds the light of being.
And so will be, once again, and much more so, in the time to come, once we have transformed the world with the Torah and its mitzvahs. (R. Isaac of Homil, Shnei Me’orot)