The Jews as a people receive their first commandment in today’s Torah portion. (The few preceding commandments were given to individuals—for example, Abraham was given the mitzvah of circumcision.) The reckoning of the calendar according to lunar cycles introduces Israel to formal Judaism. The lunar calendar must obviously have a special quality beyond its specific function, a pervasive characteristic, to merit its beginning Jewry’s service of G‑d.
The moon has phases of growth, decline, disappearance and rebirth. The sun is relatively constant, not appreciably different from day to day. The lunar calendar, rather than the solar, governs the religious life of the Jew, because it is more symbolic of that life. Fallible, easily tempted man is not expected to be an immaculate angel impervious to worldly distractions. Neither is man simply a higher form of animal life, not radically different from the beasts and hence not subject to restraints, free to indulge his passions.
Fallible, easily tempted man is not expected to be an immaculate angel impervious to worldly distractions
In finding his place in the world, man may vacillate between the inspiration that elevates and the perverseness that misleads man. He is on a sort of spiritual seesaw, saintly and sinful in a confusing sequence. If we enjoy occasional moments of true religious inspiration, our failure to maintain those feelings may lead to disillusionment. We taunt ourselves (and others) with the sneering charge of hypocrisy if we do sin. Some may feel, with good cause, that the spark in the recesses of every Jew’s heart is extinguished for them.
Here the lunar calendar has a lesson for us. The moon declines to the point of disappearance. But decline is as much a part of life as birth. Decline is not extinction. Like the moon, the Jew has the power of revival. The spark is never extinguished.
Then there is the process of change and of growth in live people, also implicit in the lunar cycle. The Jew is expected to add to his spiritual trove, to progress in learning (an all-but-forgotten Jewish virtue) and piety, in kindliness and selfless charity, in developing better character traits. The Jew is constantly trying to perfect his deeds and himself. The sun, with its original and unchanging brightness, cannot teach man what the always changing, developing, growing and revitalized moon can.