Saturday 2nd October 2021 26th Tishrei 5782
The Jewish nation is commonly referred to as the “People of the Book.” This designation, which originated in Islam’s characterization of Jews, aptly captures the essence of the connection between the Jewish people and the Torah.
The tradition of reading the Torah began when Moses instituted public Torah readings three times every week: Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat. Moses chose those days so that the Jewish people would not go three days without Torah. Ezra the Scribe and the Men of the Great Assembly (4th century BCE) expanded the weekly reading on Mondays and Thursdays by requiring the reading to be no less than ten verses.
In ancient Israel the tradition was to complete the entire Torah once every three years. The current custom of completing the entire Torah every year originated in Babylon and became the accepted standard of observance. (Interestingly enough, Catholics maintain a three-year completion cycle of their readings – this may be related to the fact that Christianity originated in ancient Israel.)
Professor Harry Austryn Wolfson, who received a scholarship to Harvard in 1908 and joined the faculty there in 1915 (he was also the first chair of a Judaic Studies program in the US), was once asked by a colleague why the Jewish people feel that they are so special and why they are known as the People of the Book. He answered, “As far as I know we are the only people who, when a (holy) book falls on the ground, we pick it up and kiss it.”
Having completed the Torah on Simchat Torah (this year September 29th) we immediately begin the Torah again starting from Genesis. Thus, this week’s Torah reading starts with Genesis 1:1, which describes the seven days of creation.
And God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night and the stars (Genesis 1:16).
On the fourth day of creation God placed the sun and the moon into their proper positions. The famous medieval Biblical commentator known as Rashi relates the passage in the Talmud (Chullin 60b) that describes the incident that caused the moon to become a “lesser light.”
Rabbi Shimon son of Pazzi pointed out a contradiction: The verse says, “And God made the two great lights,” but then continues with “the greater light [...] and the lesser light.” The Torah begins by describing them as equal “great lights” and yet the end of the verse indicates that one was “greater” and one was “lesser.”
Rabbi Shimon explains that the moon said unto the Holy One, blessed be He, “Sovereign of the Universe! Is it possible for two kings to wear one crown?” Whereupon God commanded: “Go then and make yourself smaller.” “Sovereign of the Universe!” cried the moon, “Because I have suggested that which is proper must I then make myself smaller?”
Replied the Almighty: “Go and you will rule by day and by night.” (This refers to the fact that the moon can be seen during both the day and the night). “But what is the value of this?” cried the moon. “Of what use is a lamp in broad daylight?” He replied: “Go, Israel shall reckon by you the days and the years.”
The Almighty continues to try and placate the moon by extolling the virtues of being smaller and the Talmud gives examples of famous Jewish luminaries who had the appellation “small” attached to them (including our forefather Jacob and also King David). Still the moon was not happy.
On seeing that it would not be consoled, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to the Jewish people: “Bring an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller.” This “atonement” is the special sacrifice that is brought on the first day of every month (rosh chodesh in Hebrew).
In Judaism, the holidays are based on the monthly lunar calendar (which gets adjusted to align with the yearly solar calendar, which is 11 days longer). The Hebrew word for year is shana – which has a numerical value of 355 – this corresponds to the fact a lunar year is 354 days 8 hours and 28 minutes.
Every month the moon is “renewed” and here again the Hebrew language faithfully expresses just that. The Hebrew word for month is chodesh – which is the same as the Hebrew word for “new – chadash.”
Returning to Rabbi Shimon’s teaching, how are we to understand God’s conversation with the moon? If the moon had a valid complaint (i.e. “two kings cannot wear one crown”) then why did the Almighty originally create them equally? If the complaint wasn’t valid, why does God try so hard to placate the moon, eventually ending with the Almighty asking the Jewish people to bring a sacrifice for His “transgression”?
What the moon failed to recognize is that Hashem had created a perfect system of time, the sun would control days, weeks, and years, while the moon would control months and all the times of holidays. This wasn’t “two kings sharing one crown.” Hashem had created the perfect union, and the original intent was that the sun and moon would work in unison, much like a marriage.
The modern view of marriage is that it is a partnership. This is a mistake. A partnership is when two individuals team up for synergetic purposes: 1+1=3. In other words, the basis of all partnerships is the presumption that working together the partners can achieve more than what they could manage individually.
But each partner is in the partnership for their own reasons. The main issue with partnerships is that as soon as the partners’ individual needs or visions no longer align the partnership is dissolved. Sadly, this also explains the extraordinarily high divorce rate in Western society.
In truth, marriage is really supposed to be a merger – together man and woman become an indivisible entity. This week’s Torah reading expresses this sentiment beautifully; “A man shall leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
In a marriage there are different roles, each person with the responsibility for their part of the whole. Marriage isn’t a partnership between two kings; it’s a union of two individuals for the greater whole. Partnerships are not that hard to dissolve. In fact, a prenup, like any good partnership agreement, outlines the terms and conditions of that dissolution. On the other hand, a merger is almost impossible to unwind.
My father, who has brilliant insight into people and conflict resolution as well as five decades of experience with marriage and couples counselling, once made the following observation: “Over ninety percent of issues in marriage are about control.” In other words, when couples complain “He’s too religious for me” or “She spends too much money” – it’s almost never about religion or about finances; they are really just fighting over control.
This issue stems from an incomplete understanding of what marriage is supposed to be. Comedians are quick to point out a real truth: “Marriage is when a man and woman become as one. The trouble starts when they try to decide which one.” In other words, instead of understanding that they are in a merger with two equal managers over separate domains of responsibility, they start fighting over who’s in charge.
The sun and moon were supposed to represent the ultimate man-woman relationship (“the two great lights”). But the moon didn’t see the union for what it was; the moon felt that it needed its own identity. The Almighty tells the moon that if you don’t see the value of the unified whole then you have to take a smaller role because you are absolutely right “two kings cannot wear one crown.” The moon’s reduced role was really a function of its refusal to join an indivisible union with the sun.
Ultimately, the moon gets the last laugh, so to speak. Much like in a marriage, when the woman feels wronged, it doesn’t make a difference if the husband is right or wrong – he’s always wrong. That’s why the Talmud ends as it does; when God saw that the moon would not be consoled, he asked the Jewish people to bring a sacrifice as an atonement for Him.
This was a recognition (and a lasting lesson for mankind) that, at the end of the day, being right doesn’t really matter. What really matters in a healthy union is recognizing the other person’s pain and accepting responsibility for their feelings; and of course, doing what it takes to rectify it.