It was forty-three years ago this past July 20th when Neil Armstrong became the first human being to walk on the moon. As you well know now, this past Shabbat morning Neil Armstrong died.
As I sadly learned of his passing, I reflected on how as Jews, we are uniquely suited to having an emotional relationship with space, and in particular the moon. After all, the Jewish calendar is rooted in the cycles of the moon. The greatest expression of this is that each month of our Jewish year begins on the new moon and ends on the occasion when the moon becomes dark. To the end of celebrating a lunar month, we Jews in fact celebrate each first day of the new moon as the minor holiday of Rosh Chodesh. Furthermore, during the last week of the moon cycle, on Shabbat morning, we announce the name and date of the coming month in an effort to enthusiastically welcome the next cycle.
The Hebrew word for the moon’s cycle is chodesh, which is in fact directly related to the concept of renewal. Chadash, which sounds just like chodesh, is new or newness. The traditional Jewish blessing over the waxing moon, which is the process of the brightening of the moon and therein the beginning of the month reads: “You are a crown of glory for those who are borne in the womb, for they, like you, are destined to be renewed.” Jewish tradition sees the cycles of the moon as a metaphor for the renewal of life. When the moon darkens we contemplate our own mortality, and at the birth of the new moon we celebrate our own potential for rebirth.
For example, in the Talmud we read: Rabbi Yochanan said: “Those who recite the blessing over the new moon in its time is as if they greeted the presence of the Shekhinah [or in-dwelling of God].” The new moon, as a symbol of rebirth, is a messenger of God, reminding us that we hold change within us.
Shavuot, the holiday of the revelation of the Torah and spring harvest, incidentally falls at the time of the growing moon—reflecting the values in fact of rebirth and renewal. Yom Kippur, the holiday of personal growth, also falls at this time.
Interestingly, but perhaps also unexpectedly, Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the Temple’s destruction falls at this time of the month as well. One explanation for this is that perhaps even destruction can be a time of growth.
Many festivals of freedom and abundance, such as Sukkot, Tu B’Shevat, Purim, and Passover, conversely fall on the full moon—that occasion is the fifteenth of the month.
Holidays that fall during the waning, or darkening, of the moon include Chanukah, our holiday celebrating victory after near defeat, and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, our holiday that marks the end of the Torah and its beginning. These are holidays of descent and ascent—of gateways from loss to life.
By way of summarizing our tradition’s moon cycles and their corresponding meaning: the new moon is a symbol of eternal renewal, the full moon is focused on the present, and the last weeks of the month are focused on hopes for the future. We, this week, find ourselves moving toward the last weeks of the month, and therefore are within a time of hope.
May this New Year be hope-filled. L’shanah Tovah.
And, Zichrono Livracha, may Neil Armstrong’s memory be a blessing.