Hey there, you, shattered in a thousand pieces
Weeping in the darkest nights
Hey there, you, try to stand up on your own two feet
And stumble into the sky
When the lights go out and you’re on your own
How’re you gonna make it through till the morning sun’
Sing to the moon and the stars will shine
Over you, lead you to the other side
Sing to the moon and the stars will shine
Over you, heaven’s gonna turn the time1
These are the lyrics to the gorgeous song “Sing to the Moon” by Laura Mvulla. If music has the power to heal, then hers can resurrect the dead.
Waxing and Waning: With Darkness Comes Light
The first mitzvah given to the Jews is to sanctify the New Moon (kiddush hachodesh), as we read this week:
הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה
“This month will be for you the head of the months. It will be for you the first month of the year”2
Rashi explains that Moshe wasn’t able to fully understand the mystery of the New Moon until Hashem showed him visually how it happened. Rashi explains that because Moshe, the greatest tzaddik, had difficulty understanding it, Hashem showed him the exact moment of the moon’s renewal. It’s taught that Moshe learned the deeper reason for the moon’s waxing and waning, one of the mysteries behind Creation, similar to the process of Tzimtzum– the contraction of God’s infinitude into our finitude– which led to the co-existence of light and darkness, revelation and concealment.3
As we know, each mitzvah a person performs rectifies his soul a bit more and brings the person closer to Hashem. This is the cycle of teshuva, our repentance and return to God. Every person experiences ups and downs throughout their journey, and it’s the power of return that keeps each of us going. This is mirrored in the waxing and waning of the moon and its spiritual rectification and illumination. There are periods when the moon is in complete darkness, when we don’t have that light in our darkness, and these are inevitably followed by periods when the moon is brighter and makes everything shine.
We saw this with Avraham, who couldn’t go straight to Canaan (Israel). Instead, he was instructed to go down to Egypt first. But, as we know, he came out with greater wealth and on a higher level, which was a foreshadowing of the Children of Israel’s exodus. The whole nation ultimately needed the yeridah (descent) in order to have the aliyah (ascent), because the height and light come from the falls and the darkness. And since everything physical is a reflection of its spiritual counterpart, there is no ascent without a prior descent. So, we have to stay faithful and focus on the light or we get consumed by darkness.
When Darkness Becomes Palpable
The plague of darkness also takes place in this parashah. Rashi explains that the darkness was a tangible thing. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov explains that within the dichotomies of existence– body/soul, matter/form, darkness/light, death/life– each side is connected as one. So, for example, those who pursue the pleasures of the body are pursuing matter, darkness, and death, and those who pursue matters of the soul merit form and light and life.4 So, the plague of darkness enveloped the Egyptians who were steeped in physical lust and materialism– to them, it was palpable darkness. And it was the same with the Jews who fell to those lowly levels of being enslaved by physicality, one’s body and one’s desires, all concepts related to death. They chose not to leave Egypt and so were also swallowed up by the darkness. The flip side of this is spirituality and light, and so the Jews who awaited salvation merited the light in their homes, as spirituality is synonymous with light and life. This light is a small piece and taste of the light of the world to come and the light of Creation that brought life into the universe.5
The dark forces of anger and hatred bring death. What we learn from the plague of darkness and the light of the new moon is that life and light are equal to love, and these can only manifest by ridding oneself of the shell of anger in order to reveal the goodness of the soul. In other words, being judgmental (i.e. acting like a court), even with oneself, is the source of anger. The lesson of Azamra, which is at the core of Breslov teaching, is to rectify judgment by finding the “good point” in yourself and others and to judge it favorably, bringing merit to yourself and others.
New Moons, New Selves
As we read in this pasuk, “This month will be for you the head of the months. It will be for you the first month of the year.”6 The Jewish people and calendar revolve around the moon and its many phases, and the holidays follow suit. To give some perspective, we are now in the year 5782 according to the Jewish lunar calendar. Each month, the new Moon first appears in the sky and has no more than a small point of light. R’ Natan of Breslov explains that sanctifying even just a tiny bit of the moon’s light elevates it. It’s said that when the moon was created, it was created with a blemish. But our ritual of Rosh Chodesh spiritually rectifies and restores it to its original intended glory. When we rejoice over just a mere speck of that light — that good point that we merit to find, despite it being infinitesimally small and concealed in darkness – we ourselves are rectified and genuinely become deserving of God’s seeing and revealing light in us.7
Prior to the permanent establishment of the Jewish calendar, which happened circa 358 C.E., a new month was deemed to have begun only after the Sanhedrin declared it, based on the testimony of two reliable witnesses who had seen the new moon themselves. When the witnesses saw a sliver of the moon, they would come before the court, and say, “Mekudash, Mekudash” (“sanctified, sanctified”). The court would then declare the new moon official.8 Then and still today, we as a community give thanks for the reappearance of the moon and commemorate the tradition by reciting the Kiddush Halevanah (Sanctification of the Moon) blessings.
It’s interesting that the Egyptians served the sun, one of their gods, a static, unchanging element. But the Jewish practice is to see the potential of constant rebirth and that that cycle brings holiness. Therefore, all of our festivals and rituals revolve around that practice and around the new moon. The expanding and contracting of the moon is just our perception, as the moon actually remains whole. It’s just our perception that changes, and in our own lives so much of the “bad” and good are our own perceptions and reactions to what is around us and within ourselves. We remain whole, even when we feel broken.
As we know, the moon is a reflection of the sun, a lesson in ego. We are always reflecting God’s light even when we think it’s “our own”. Once you tap into that Godly energy and recognize that all your strengths and goodness come from this Godly source, we can also begin to recognize how truly powerful and capable we are, not because of our own doing, but simply because we are created by God. Which is a powerful thought when trying to renew yourself or trying something new– if you think it’s just you, alone, it may seem insurmountable, but realizing that we are part of an eternal Oneness and a reflection of God, it becomes less challenging. Realizing you are reflecting the power of God serves as a catalyst for immense change.9
This restoration of our spiritual selves is also central to the rituals of the Festivals. The High Holiday Festivals fall on either the 30th or 31st day from the previous new moon. So the exact timing is determined by us, as part of the living Torah, unlike Shabbat, which has been set since the beginning and will be consistent until the days of kulo Shabbat (entirely Shabbat). Our Sages refer to that time as the Messianic era, when darkness will fully be transformed to light. Just as it’s written in Isaiah when the moon will attain a full rectification of its blemish and “shine like the sun.”10
We sanctify the moon as a way to connect with its nature and realize that the sanctification is done at the point that it is in its most diminished state. We are meant to be mindful that when we feel depleted and diminished, it’s the moment before the greatest salvation, the greatest light. As they say, the brighter the light, the darker the shadow, and with the moon, we continuously see the cycle of the darker the shadow, the brighter the coming light will be.
This practice is central to us as a nation, but must be internalized within us for our own well being. As Hashem tells Moshe right before His revelation at Sinai, “… observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all peoples… You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”11
Feeling connected to Hashem and being kadosh (holy) at all times is the truest joy attainable, but it’s also the hardest to achieve. Often, the things one wants the most in life are the things one struggles with the most and require the most discipline: exercise, eating healthily, bringing joy and selflessness into every day. But it’s those exact things that when you push yourself and attain them, they’re that much sweeter because you’ve earned them. The laws and rituals we read about in the Torah are designed to help us build spiritual discipline and they require spiritual discipline. They show us how to sacrifice for the deeper connection we want, and, when we fall, how to rise and strive again. How to transcend our physical constraints of Egypt (Mitzrayim) and reach our own Promised Land.
You see this on a person to person basis when, in a fight, you can start to build walls with your words, judgments towards another person that change the way you exist together. But if both people put aside their egos and speak peace into existence, being compassionate, and humanizing the other, then they can reunite and coexist in peace. Light is created, love is created and it dispels the darkness.
The word for month in Hebrew is ChoDeSh (חודש), which is related to the word hitChaDShut (התחדשות), which means ‘renewal.’ We count time according to the lunar cycle, starting with the month of Nissan, reminding us that time is a cycle of opportunities for renewal, so long as we take advantage as soon as we can, and before it runs out on us.12
Beginnings are always Beginnings
The month of Nissan being chosen to be the first of the months is perplexing, since neither Creation nor the giving of the Torah took place in Nissan. It’s important to note that the preparation for the giving of the Torah is the exodus we are now in that took place in Nissan, and that without the preparation to receive the Torah, the Torah would not have been revealed and Creation would have been unfulfilled. We sanctify the new moon when it is not yet full and only beginning to renew itself and head toward revelation. So, too, the first of the months for us are not marked by our receiving the Torah but by our preparation for it.13 Nissan being the month of the plagues and Exodus as the first month is also to stress the ongoing involvement of Hashem in our universe, renewing Creation at every moment.
One thing that remains consistent throughout Judaism is that faith alone is never sufficient. We are now at the part of the Torah when we are to make another covenant with Hashem, transcending our physical constraints of Mitzrayim. As we read:
וְהָיָה֩ הַדָּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם לְאֹ֗ת עַ֤ל הַבָּתִּים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַתֶּ֣ם שָׁ֔ם וְרָאִ֙יתִי֙ אֶת־הַדָּ֔ם וּפָסַחְתִּ֖י עֲלֵכֶ֑ם וְלֹֽא־יִֽהְיֶ֨ה בָכֶ֥ם נֶ֙גֶף֙ לְמַשְׁחִ֔ית בְּהַכֹּתִ֖י בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם
And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.14
To be amongst the Jewish slaves to be redeemed from Egypt, each must be circumcised, taking an action, an outward covenant with Hashem. But even further than that was the Pesach offering, the blood from the sacrificed sheep. Sheep were seen as gods for the Egyptians, so to sacrifice one and put the blood on one’s doorpost, each person was demonstrating to Hashem and to themselves that their faith and bitachon (trust) were fully intact. It was a revolutionary action that could have had severe consequences, but in that time we needed to demonstrate our faith in the immanent redemption. The Chizkuni takes it a step further, saying that not only was it a sign that we had to physically demonstrate to Hashem, but also to the Egyptians that they had spilled our blood and that we were now slaughtering their gods, commemorating our spiritual and physical freedom from their enslavement. It was a sign of the ultimate disobedience to Egypt and to Pharaoh and ultimate devotion and unification with Hashem. It’s not enough to think, intellectualize or to pledge oneself, action is what shows dveykut (attaching oneself to God). Love isn’t intellectual, it’s a feeling, and one that must be followed by actions or it fades. To pledge love or faith without action is the beginning of a desire for a thing, but it is not a unification with the thing itself.
The Jews couldn’t only free themselves spiritually and stay in Egypt under Pharaoh while focused on serving Hashem. They needed to take action toward freeing themselves not only spiritually but physically from the space that had enslaved them and crushed their spirits. The first step is realizing that it is never too late to overcome one’s circumstances and reach redemption, but to stay far from that which has enslaved us, it requires more than just the inspired epiphany. For each of us to actually be our true selves, we need to strip away the parts of us that are represented by Mitzrayim and cling to the parts of us that usher in redemption and our Promised Land.
There’s an old Chassidic story of a businessman who encroached on his neighbor’s lease and business interests in a way that would take over his income and put him out of business. This businessman was rebuked by Reb Chaim Zanz and tried to defend himself, saying, “But that other fellow is nothing less than a wicked sinner. It would be a veritable mitzvah to bury him!” Reb Chaim was surprised how he was trying to justify it and replied, “Who told you that it’s a mitzvah to bury the wicked? I can prove to you from evidence in the Torah that it’s not a mitzvah at all. Regarding the ninth plague, the Midrash says that Hashem inflicted darkness upon the Egyptians in order that they shouldn’t be able to see the B’nei Yisrael (Children of Israel) burying those of their own brethren who died for their sins during those three days, and conclude from there that the B’nei Yisrael were also smitten by the Plagues. From this we see that the Israelites did bury their wicked brethren, but that it is not to say that it is a mitzvah to do so. In fact, Rashi comments elsewhere that the time had come for Hashem to fulfill His promise which He had made to Avraham, that he would redeem his descendants – except that they did not have mitzvot with which to occupy themselves, and which would make them worthy of being redeemed. It is to this lack of mitzvot that the prophet Yechezkel refers when he says of B’nei Yisrael: ‘And you were naked and bare.’ He forgave them with two mitzvot: the blood of the Pesach sacrifice and the blood of circumcision. Now, in light of Rashi’s comment, it is clear that burying the wicked is not a mitzvah. If it were, then our forefathers would not have been lacking in mitzvot, since they had buried so many sinners. And Reb Chaim of Zanz looked into his eyes and said, “That being the case, go right home and restore the lease to that other fellow, or you will live to regret it.”15
The New Moon represents renewal, the Pesach Offering represents an action before the Redemption, the New Month is marked by the action and preparation towards the revelation that will bring the final redemption. All of these are the elements of the covenant and free us and each other from constriction to usher in the redemption. And just like the moon that waxes and wanes, we can choose when we are stuck and feel constricted to contract, or we could choose to expand. Instead of fear, anger and hatred, we could choose to open ourselves up to seeing all sides, to judging favorably, ourselves and each other, to becoming more aware, more compassionate, more loving and more empathetic toward ourselves and toward each other. That is the only way to bring the clarity and freedom that we all crave, because spirituality is synonymous with light, and light will soon fully dispel the darkness, when the moon will forever illuminate, as Isaiah writes, and “shine like the sun.”16
And with that, I will leave you with the lyrics to Bob Marley’s song “Sun is Shining” on which he sings about the rainbow, the visual reminder of Hashem’s covenant with us that we will never be fully lost again, only ever fully found, and that we will renew, never enslaved by the past, only ever tapping in to teshuva – fully free from “bad”. That is true renewal. And when we realize the that truth and its potential, we will sing the song of redemption and maybe even this one by Marley:
Sun is shining
Weather is sweet
Make you want to move
Your dancing feet, now
When the morning
Gather the rainbows, yeah
Want you to know I’m a rainbow too (I’m a rainbow too)17
Notes & Sources
- “Sing to the Moon” song by Laura Mvulla
- Exodus 12:2
- Likutey Halachot II, p. 374
- Likutey Moharan I, 37:2
- Likutey Halachot V, p. 149a
- Exodus 12:2
- Likutei Halachot 1:12a
- Talmud Rosh Hashanah 24a
- text with Rivka Golding
- Isaiah 30:256
- Exodus 19:3-6
- Likutey Halachot I, p. 136
- Darash Moshe, p. 108
- Exodus 12:13
- A Treasury of Chassidic Tales on the Torah p. 201, 202
- Isaiah 30:26
- “Sun is Shining”, song by Bob Marley