Hachodesh: Forever Young
I found this essay saved on my computer. I didn’t write it, and I don’t remember who sent it in: Have you ever wondered why the very first commandment that G-d gives to the Israelites upon their flight from Egypt is to celebrate the lunar calendar? (“Hashem said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying “This month shall be for you the beginning of the months (12:1)). For centuries, two independent witnesses, appearing before the rabbinic court or Sanhedrin, attested to sighting the first sliver of the new moon; only then would the rabbis declare the start of a new month (Rosh Chodesh). The Jewish calendar continues to follow the phases of the moon, but builds in leap years to reconcile it with the solar calendar, thus ensuring that sacred holidays such as Passover and Succoth will continue to fall in their proper season.
As critical as keeping a calendar is, why is it that G-d makes this the very first commandment in the Torah to the children of Israel? And why does he not command us to follow a calendar based on the sun, or on rivers or mountains or other aspects of nature? Perhaps an answer may be found in the nature of the lunar calendar.
In the solar calendar, the sun rises each day with little variance from the day before. There is a quotidian repetitiveness to this endlessly repeating, arithmetically calculated cycle of sun rise, sun set. Day follows night in an unvarying cycle of time.
The moon, on the other hand, appears to us in a constant state of change, of flux and renewal. Every day the moon seems to takes a different shape than the day before. It begins as a dark and heavy orb, waxes crescent, and wanes to a sliver. And every month the moon disappears and then renews itself again. For thirty days, we live in a state of constant change.
The Israelites, a fledgling nation just barely out of chains, faced the very real danger of remaining in thrall to the past. We all know of slave nations that, once liberated, retain their slave mentality, sometimes for decades or even centuries thence. Yet here was a nation which stood at Mount Sinai, a mere 49 days after leaving Egypt, to receive the Ten Commandments. Three and a half thousand years later, these same commandments blaze forth from inscriptions on countless schools and courthouses, expressing the ideals of the administration of justice and serving as the foundation of Western jurisprudence.
What chutzpa would allow a slave nation to bring something of such gravitas to the world as the Ten Commandments? The answer lies in the concept of renewal. As the Israelites left Egypt, G-d tells their leaders, “This month shall be for you the beginning…” It is this focus on beginning anew, woven tightly into the fabric of Jewish observance, that gave a slave nation the courage and spirit to march from slavery to Mount Sinai and from Mount Sinai into a homeland called Israel.
Each month we gather to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new Jewish month. During a ritual celebration of a new moon that accompanies Rosh Hodesh, we recite (at night, under a clear sky) the kiddush levana prayer or “sanctification of the new moon:” “Just as you, oh moon, have renewed yourself so may we, too, rejuvenate ourselves and renew ourselves constantly.”
Perhaps it is this spirit of constant renewal that allowed surviving Jews to march out of Auschwitz straight to Israel, to carry arms, and to protect the borders of a renewed homeland against overwhelming odds. This same spirit may explain why more Israeli companies are registered on the Nasdaq than in all of Europe combined. With a combined population of over 100 million, during the past ten years Egypt and Saudi Arabia have registered just 200 patents in the United States. During the same period Israel, with a population of approximately 5 million, registered some 7,700 patents. Fifty percent of Pulitzer Prize winners identify themselves as Jewish, despite representing less than two percent of the population of the United States. What do people who produce patents and earn Pulitzer Prizes share in common? At the least, they share the ability to be inventive, to look at the world every month, every day, with a new, fresh vision. They each possess the capacity for renewal.
As part of the Kiddush Levana prayer recited during the beginning of the month, we also say, “Just as I cannot touch you oh moon, so, too, shall none of my enemies be able to touch me. Just as I dance in front of you and cannot reach you, so, too, shall they prance around me and not be able to reach me.”
Reaching for the new takes courage. New ideas often get beaten down. The spirit of renewal requires the courage to face the unknown. In these difficult times, when we face an economy that is uncertain and frightening and so many of us have experienced financial setbacks; when so many of us have lost jobs and seen years of work wiped out, this message is alive and well.
A nation that follows a lunar calendar is one that is imbued with the spirit of renewal, of rejuvenation, of looking for new ideas, an entrepreneurial spirit with the courage to face the unknown. Oh Lord let that spirit seep into my bones and give me the spirit to look for new solutions and for a new tomorrow. Let us live the lunar calendar.