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The Meaning of a Lunar Calendar Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Which of the 613 commandments of the Torah is the most important? I don’t think you will be surprised to learn that there is some disagreement on this topic.

The Torah seems to be telling us that the Ten Commandments are especially important. They certainly get a lot of attention when they are given on Mt Sinai. The Ten Commandments come before the more extensive law codes of Exodus and Deuteronomy and give us general principles to guide our lives.

Many of the Biblical prophets made their own suggestions for which are the most important commandments. Isaiah proclaimed that all the other commandments were based on two: “Keep Justice and righteousness,” and Micah taught that the core teaching of the Torah is, “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”

Later the rabbis of the Talmud made their own suggestions. Akibah taught that the most important principle of the Torah was, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” while Ben Azzai argued that the core teaching of the Torah was, “ This is the story of humanity- when God created us, God made us in the divine image.”

This morning I’d like to talk about another suggestion made for the most important commandment in the Torah, because I found it really surprising.

Rabbi Shalom Noach, drawing on the statements of the rabbis of the Talmud, argues that the most important commandment in the Torah is to establish a lunar calendar. In that he is continuing the traditional teaching of Rashi, who said: “The Torah should have begun with the words, “This month shall be for you the first of months. “And Rabbi Shalom Noach goes further to say that it is particularly important that our celebration of the lunar month, rosh hodesh, comes at the time of the new moon, when the moon is barely visible, as you will see if you look out at the clear sky tonight.

The commandment, “This month shall be for you the first of months, “ which gives the Jewish people the responsibility of establishing the Jewish calendar is the first commandment given to the people by Moses. This takes place just before the tenth plague. It is almost as if, before they achieved their physical freedom, they were declaring their spiritual freedom by establishing what Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb called, their own sovereignty in time. Having your own calendar, whether that is a system of months and years, as the Israelites proclaimed just before the Exodus, or your own personal calendar, as happens as adolescents mature and become less dependent on their parents to tell them what to do each day, is a declaration of independence.

But what is it that is special about the lunar calendar, which makes it so significant? The moon as we know has its own cycle in our sky. We see a sliver, then a quarter, and then finally two weeks into the month, the full moon, which then of course begins its disappearing act, until it will disappear and then re-appear again. Our lunar calendar begins the month at a time of darkness but with full confidence that the moon’s cycle will continue. We bless the moon with the appearance of that first sliver – we don’t wait for its fulfillment.

For the Jewish people in times of trouble, this basic confidence, that light will follow darkness, fullness follow emptiness, that renewal is assured, was critical to our endurance. Measuring time by the moon was a constant reminder of this promise.

Further the sun is only visible during the day, but the moon can be visible both in the night and in the day. This was a reminder to the Jewish people, that God’s presence with them was constant. Having faith through difficult times that this was also part of God’s plan was a source of strength to our people, both as a nation and as individuals.

Finally Rabbi Shalom Noach notes that the moon is a reminder, that even when people are in complete darkness, are sunk in bondage or in sinfulness, God recognizes our future potential, our ability like the moon to move into a more positive phase. This confidence in us is like the confidence of a loving teacher or parent. Sin and failure can generate feelings of unworthiness, of self- deprecation. When we do not feel worthy, we do not have confidence in our ability to grow. One of the most important messages a parent or teacher can give to a young person in the dark phase of their life, is according to Rabbi Sholomo Noach, the following: “I believe in you, I know that you are able to do better, and I will maintain my relationship with you as you strive to do so.” This is not a generic, “all children are good”, but a very personal faith, trust and confidence which is as solid as the expectation that after the new moon, the days of the full moon will come.

On this Rosh Hodesh let us connect to the inherit optimism and confidence of our people. Measuring time by the moon, we express our belief that even at the deepest darkness, we know that light will shine once again as before. As God gave the Jewish people the power and responsibility to make the calendar by declaring the new moon, so do we hand over to a younger generation the power and responsibility of shaping their own lives, confident that they too will fulfill the promise that has been implanted within them.

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