Days before the Exodus, Moses is commanded by G‑d to gather the Jewish people and begin to instruct them. It was to be the first lesson in the “How to be a Jew 101” course.

“This month will be for you the first of all months” (Exodus 12:2).

The Midrash (Mechilta) explains:

G‑d showed Moses the moon in its renewal and said to him, ‘When the moon renews itself, you will have a new month.’ ”

The very first mitzvah issued was the commandment to sanctify the new month when the light of the moon first begins to shine. It was an instruction that needed to be the very first of the hundreds of directives that would follow.

Of the two celestial luminaries, we look to the moon, the smaller luminary, for our identity checkOne reason why sanctifying the new moon was given precedence over other mitzvot was because the Jew is like the moon: our identity is bound with its dance.

Tracking the moon’s progress is something like reading our mission statement each month. The moon speaks a profound understanding of our journey. Of the two celestial luminaries, sun and moon, we look only to the moon, the smaller luminary, for our identity check.

The Talmud puts it in this way: “The Jewish people are compared to the moon, and therefore we count according to her cycle.”

The most obvious similarity between the Jews and the moon is their extreme vacillation. In my favorite demographic map of the Jewish population through six millennia, the graph line sweeps up and down, dramatically marking the acute cycles of Jewish advance and decline. We were two million in the time of King David, and then two hundred thousand after the Babylonian exile. An increase to three million during the Hasmonean kingdom led to a decline to nine hundred thousand after the destruction of the Second Temple. Finally, we reached 18 million in 1939, only to drop to 12 million six years later.

Like the moon, there’s little stability; and like the moon, we’re resilient. Just when we think we’ve hit rock bottom, we bounce back up and begin again.

So the sanctification of the moon is the message of hope and rebirth. It dances a message of empowerment that the sun does not.

Kabbalah looks at the moon-Jew connection in a whole new light. The mystics see the sun as the generator of two types of light: an external and obvious light that functions to illuminate the earth and generate photosynthesis, and a second, “internal” light. The internal light is not necessarily about performing; it’s just about being. It’s too sublime to be exposed directly from the sun; it presents itself only through the medium of the moon’s reflection. Although the light of the moon seems weaker than the direct sunrays, its light actually displays the sun’s essential light.

Hence the parallel between the moon and the Jew: Both appear to be weak at times, yet both reflect a light that is so essential that it can’t otherwise shine.

The moon’s monthly cycle is in fact one of continuous growth. When the moon shines the sun’s light, it becomes humble in the process. Slowly it merges with the sun’s identity, until it is no longer visible as an independent luminary. The moon’s darkness represents its devotion to the sun. The sun, sensing this devotion, shines her most internal and tender light onto the moon, and the moon in turn reflects this delicate light. So invisibility is not the end; the moon’s humility ultimately elicits a new and deeper light of the sun, which it proceeds to share with the world.

Although G‑d’s light is constantly shining, our job is to reflect G‑d’s internal and intimate lightInitially the sun and the moon were equally powerful. The Midrash tells us about the conversation between G‑d and the moon that shifted this equilibrium. “Master of the Universe,” said the moon, “is it possible for two kings [the sun and the moon] to use one crown?” To which G‑d replied, “Go (lechi) and make yourself small.” Thus the moon shrunk to its diminished form.

The Hebrew word lechi (“go”) implies a progressive journey of growth. “Continue to go and to grow,” G‑d was telling her. G‑d took the moon’s initiative to propel her on a path that would require a temporary reduction, in order to progress to a higher plan than she would have been capable of before.

Here was Moses’ first lesson. Although G‑d’s light is constantly shining on earth, our job is to reflect G‑d’s internal and intimate light. Because of this, the Jewish nation will seem small, and will be persecuted. But don’t be fooled by this facade of weakness—this is actually the key to our greatness. It allows us to reflect G‑d’s quintessential light to the world. Humility erodes the self-conscious identity, and uncovers a more G‑d-conscious identity. Like the moon in its descent, the Jewish nation will seem to disappear in exile, but the disappearance is only the harbinger of a new and more essential light that will shine through them.

Whenever I feel humbled by life’s circumstances, I think about the moon’s dance. When my ego’s agenda is violated and I feel like an absolute loser, I try to remember that disappearing is an organic step in the process of growth and rebirth. When the ego is forced to relinquish control, there is the opportunity to become a more transparent partner with G‑d. Losing my old self-definition is the first step in discovering a new one.

Moses’ first talk with his people was about the moon. Look to it, track its progress, and you will see the story of the long exile and the anticipation for redemption. You will see a story of a nation that is so small that it is hardly visible, and yet it reflects a light that is so powerful that no one can ignore them. Look to the moon, and you will see humility as the harbinger of a whole new level of projection.1