“This renewal of the moon shall be for you [the Festival of] the New Moons – the first month for you of the months of the year.” Exodus 12:1
A new nation, Israel, is being born, and it celebrates its birth with a new festival and a new calendar. Our calendar has a strong lunar factor, the monthly festival which marks the renewed moon which appears – almost miraculously, but also consistently – from a lightless, frightening sky. The Jewish calendar also has a strong solar element, its first month being Nisan, the time of longer days and agricultural renewal after a cold and lifeless winter.
The key word here is “hodesh”, month, which also connotes “hidush”, change, and “hadash”, new. It is a calendar born of hope, an optimism which arose from the experience of cataclysmic, miraculous social changes which enabled powerless Hebrew slaves to overwhelm mighty Egypt and emerge a free nation.
A stubborn, irrational optimism has characterized the Jewish people for its 4,000-year existence. Even in the worst periods of exile, persecution, torture and pogrom, we proclaimed: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and declare the deeds of the Lord” (Psalm 118:17). This optimism was born on this first Rosh Hodesh, and it emerged out of the miraculous renewal of a family/nation reborn. Hence we are enjoined to remember the exodus from Egypt every day (Deuteronomy 16:3) to celebrate and re-experience it during our Pesach Seder celebration each year (Ex. 13:3), and to study history with an inner vision which sees the marvelous changes wrought by the majestic partnership between God and Israel: “Remember the days of yore, understand the changes [Hebrew shnot, shana, shinui] from generation to generation; ask your father and he will tell you, your sages and they will say it to you” (Deut. 32:7).
Egypt, Greece and Rome all had the seemingly consistent sun as their god and guide, a beacon which breeds the pessimism of “whatever has been is what will be, and whatever has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new [hadash] under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) and “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time” (Macbeth 5:5).
It was the Bible, with its account of the Egyptian change and renewal, which gave the world the symbolism of the moon, the possibility of light emerging from darkness, freedom from slavery, which enabled us to dare hope for a perfected world and a time of peace and Redemption.
Moses was a product of this faith in change and redemption in the midst of slavery and oppression. When we are first introduced to him, we don’t even know if he will survive the homicide decreed against Hebrew male infants. He is anonymous, as a slave is devoid of a name. Likewise, he lacks a clear pedigree: “A man went from the house of Levi and took a daughter of Levi” (Ex. 2:1). It is only four chapters later, when his mission as “redeemer” is defined, that we are given the names of his parents and grandparents.
The family names are extremely significant. I know little about Moses’s parents, but I know a world about his grandparents, who undoubtedly influenced his parents. These grandparents, in the midst of bleak Egyptian servitude, named their son Amram, exalted nation – and their daughter Jochebed, glory to God.
“Exalted nation,” in the midst of slavery? “Glory to God” in the midst of persecution? Apparently, they had the tradition of a “covenant between the pieces,” of an emergence from poverty and affliction, and infused their grandson with that faith. Only one who believes in the possibility of change will struggle to bring it about.
One of the strangest rituals of our people is the “Sanctification of the Moon” (Kiddush Halevana), which takes place on the Saturday evening following Rosh Hodesh (the New Month festival). The congregation leaves the synagogue and assembles beneath the renewed moon. There, they bless the God who “renews the months,” wish each other peace, and sing and dance to words which promise ultimate Redemption – a moon which will never wane but will shine forever with God’s light of love.
Peculiar? Ridiculous? Not at all. A people that believes in a God who is invisible, that has experienced a promised return to its ancient homeland, must continue to dream of a world at peace though most skeptics think it’s impossible!
Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.