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Parashat 01/05/2010

Parashat Bo

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

This month shall be for you the first of the months (12:2)

Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and by its own nature, flows uniformly on, without regard to anything external. (Newton)

Time is on my side.  (Mick Jagger)

Our Parashah records the first commandment given to the Jewish people: the commandment to sanctify the new month, and to establish a calendar based on Nisan’s being the first month.  The calendar is to be a lunar calendar; our civil calendar is a solar calendar, but its divisions, the “months,” retain a flavor of the older way of measuring time by noting the phases of the moon.  In fact, Rashi comments on the verse cited above, that the expression “this” month (haChodesh haZeh) uses an expression that indicates that someone is pointing something out to someone else – and our tradition tells us that Gd showed Moshe Rabbeinu the conformation of the New Moon in the heavens to give him a picture of the criteria we are to use in determining the time of the New Moon, and consequently of the new month.  A picture is worth 1000 words, and since the Torah is quite sparing of words, the details of the tradition were passed down orally from Moshe to Yehoshua etc. (Avot 1:1).

Now the moon’s appearance cycles from full (100% of the disk visible) to “new” (none of the disk visible except in the light of the sun that is reflected from earth to moon and then back again – this is called “earthshine” and is most visible as the grey disk that fills out the sliver of the crescent moon either just before sunrise before the new moon or just after sunset after the new moon, and is sometimes called “the new moon in the old moon’s arms”) and back to full again.  Alternatively, since this is a cycle, one can start at the new moon and view the cycle as being from new (dark) to full and back to new again.

The usual interpretation of the significance of the lunar cycle in Jewish history and thought is that it is a symbol of constant renewal.  We have, in our long history, gone through periods of glorious flowering, only to see the flowers fade and communities die or disperse under the pressures of persecution or assimilation (see the discussion under Parashat Vayigash of a few weeks ago).  However our Jewish spirit has never been crushed and our community has never been totally destroyed.  After a period of apparent eclipse, in another place and another time we have reconstituted ourselves and flowered again, enriching the world anew with a higher level of creativity and knowledge of Gd.  And, in accord with Gd’s promise to our forebear Avraham, those host communities that have chosen to bless us (Egypt, Babylonia, the Arab countries, Europe, North Africa, North America) have been blessed.  When they have decided to turn their backs on us and persecute us or drive us out, they have been cursed (Egypt, Babylonia, the Arab countries, Europe, North Africa, ???).  This is, so to speak, the new => full => new perspective, and it has always been a source of great hope and comfort to us even in our darkest hours.

I’d like to look at the other perspective: full => new => full.  This I believe is a mirror of the process of creation, and inspires us as to the direction our lives can take, both individually and communally.  We learn in the very first verses of Torah that Creation begins with Gd, Who is unbounded and eternal.  Our esoteric tradition tells us that in order for a finite creation to exist, Gd had to contract Himself as it were to leave space for the finite.  This may be symbolized by the diminution of the moon from full to new – it is as if the moon contracts itself day by day until there is nothing left but a dark, empty space where once there was fullness and light.  What is the movement from darkness back to light?

Our tradition tells us that Gd had a purpose in creating – that purpose is so that we human beings, of our own free will, can overcome our finite, material nature and emerge as purely spiritual beings, capable of reflecting perfectly our unbounded, inner essence.  When a whole community is living life at this level, all interpersonal interactions become ideal and the community as a whole reflects the perfectly integrated nature of its Source.  And as a tiny grain can nucleate the formation of a large crystal, so an individual or a small community can radiate harmony into its surroundings, progressively expanding the domain of integration until, eventually, it encompasses everything.  The entire Creation can become integrated in a way that it reflects perfectly the Unity of the Creator.  The new moon can become full again.

There are two ways to view history – cyclic and progressive.  The cyclic view is summarized by the phrase “There is nothing new under the sun.”  The progressive view sees humankind growing and progressing, if not monotonically then at least with an overall upward trend.  I would suggest that the Jewish view is that history is helical – it goes through cycles of growth and decay, but each such cycle leaves us fuller than before.  Each month we see the moon contract itself from fullness to emptiness, but we recognize that that emptiness, like a seed, contains the germ of fullness.  That germ of fullness resides in the hidden center of our own awareness, waiting for the opportunity to burst forth in full flower.  Our job is to make sure that every month, every day, every minute, we are engaged in bringing fullness out of emptiness, in our individual lives and in our lives as members of our communities.  Then we will move closer to the day when H” shall be One and His Name shall be One.