Ever wonder why Jewish holidays are on the same day of the Jewish calendar but on different days of the Gregorian calendar each year? The short answer is, this week’s Torah portion. In it, we learn for the first time, that the Jewish people will live in sync with the moon, and we have lived by the lunar calendar ever since.
Since the lunar calendar has fewer days per month than the Gregorian, seven out of every nineteen years we add a thirteenth month we call Adar I, and the regular Adar becomes Adar II. This occasional leap month keeps the Jewish calendar and the Gregorian calendar more or less aligned.
Other than Shabbat, most Jewish holidays begin either on the new or the full moon. Nearly every month there is a special set of Psalms and prayers we recite to welcome the new moon and the new month. These prayers are always hopeful, especially in one part, when we rise up on our toes while gazing at the moon and recite, “Just as I dance toward You but cannot touch You, so may none of my enemies be able to touch me for evil.” At the end of our new moon prayers, we turn to one another and say “Shalom aleichem – peace be with you.”
After a little research, I learned “A new moon occurs when the moon finds itself in between the earth and the sun, meaning it's impossible to observe in the sky because the illuminated side shines away from us. During this stage, the sun, and the moon are next to each other, on the same degree of the zodiac, forming a sun conjunct moon composition.” After reading this I immediately started wondering about a debate in the Talmud regarding whether or not we can bless the new moon if it is hidden by clouds. The answer is a quintessentially Jewish, “it depends.” Is it partly cloudy or totally overcast? Are the clouds thin and wispy or heavy and thick? Is it temporarily clear but obvious that clouds are going to drift over and obscure the moon before the prayer would conclude?
As silly as it sounds, this weather report is actually asking a very real and deep spiritual question. Must one, can one, bless what one cannot see? To force the issue, the rabbis go on to ask whether or not a blind person is obligated to bless the new moon. Again, they answer with ambiguity, then determine that since the obligation is uncertain, the blind person should stand next to the Chazzan chanting the blessing and inform him of their blindness, thus fulfilling the obligation (if one actually exists).
The rabbis understood that much like the moon, we too are caught between earth and heaven; sometimes turned away from the light of laughter, love, and hope; our spirits just a slim crescent against a vast, dark universe. Other times, our spirits soar; we feel light and warmth in ways luminous and full. Our souls are rarely static, our hearts and minds are rarely still. Our spirits wax and wane.
How beautiful that we have each other; that we can turn to someone nearby and say, “I am down right now, empty, moody, dark. Yet you are on your tiptoes, dancing toward God and the new month with such hope. May I stand next to you? Will you help me affirm what I cannot see?” How beautiful that we can turn to someone nearby and say, “I see that you cannot see. Let me carry and comfort you, take you by the hand and remind you we are a people of the moon and the moon is never still. It sometimes wanes, but slowly and surely shines again.”