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CRISIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY

Thursday, 23 March, 2017 - 10:29 pm

A man sat a bar staring at his drink. After half an hour, a burly truck driver grabbed his glass and swallowed the contents. The poor man started to cry. The driver said, “C'mon, I was joking. Here, I’ll buy you another drink. I can’t stand seeing a man cry.”

“No, it’s not that. This is the worst day of my life. First, I slept in and got to the office late. My boss, outraged, fired me. When I exited the building, I found my car was stolen, and the police said they couldn't help. I took a cab home, and when it left, I realized I had left my wallet and cards there. I went inside my house and saw my wife drinking coffee with another guy. I came to this bar. Just when I was thinking about putting an end to my life, you showed up and drank my poison.”

On July 20, 1969, the world witnessed one of the greatest technological achievements in history when a human being first set foot on another celestial body. Six hours after the initial landing, at 4:17 PM EDT, Neil Armstrong took the “Small Step” off the Lunar Module and onto the surface of the moon. Upon setting foot on the moon, Armstrong famously said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The Jewish fascination and preoccupation with the moon long predates NASA’s landing. In fact, it began with the first Mitzvah given to the Jews, read in this week’s second Torah reading, Parshat HaChodesh.

It was a dark night in Egypt, just two weeks before the Hebrew slaves would leave their bondage forever. G-d spoke to Moses and Aaron, and of all the pressing matters, He chose to discuss the setup of the Jewish calendar and its monthly rhythm, based on the moon's cycle—the first commandment we received. Unlike other calendars which define a year based on the sun's orbit, our calendar is based on the moon’s revolution around the earth.

Before the Jews left Egypt, on the first day of the month of Nissan, G-d told Moses and Aaron: “This month (new moon) shall be to you the head of months.”

Given the inherent challenges of a lunar-based calendar (including the fact that it needs to be synchronized with the seasons), why did the Torah choose to set up the calendar and base Jewish life around the moon?

It is strange that with so much going on, G-d decided, at this precise moment, to discuss the Jewish calendar! The end is near; liberation is about to happen. Why are we now concerned with the calendar?

This is the secret of the moon. The month has its progress marked by the moon’s phases, as it grows from crescent to fullness, only to dwindle back to oblivion and disappear. For many of us, this is the story of life. Like the moon, at some point in the month, we are well-rounded, wholesome and marvelous to look at. We generate light and warmth to our environment. At other times we are half-lit, half-inspired, half-involved in life. There are times when our light is thin and miniscule, barely seen and appreciated... and there are times when we enter a "dark haze," disappearing from the horizon completely, offering not a trace of light, not a glimmer of hope. We feel like we are all but paralyzed.

This is true both individually and collectively—as a people. We have had periods of peace and tranquility, and we have known the dark times of persecution. We have reached the heights of spiritual splendor and we have also stumbled to the depths of the abyss. Jewish history is not a sun. It is a moon.

Kiddush Ha-Chodesh, the Mitzvah of sanctifying the new month, is the first commandment we received as a people, moments before liberation, because it symbolizes our journey and destiny as a nation and as individuals. No matter what, where, when—we will always renew our energies. No matter how dark, we will always come bouncing back with ever renewed vigor and force. Our people always felt that even as their moon seemed to have disappeared completely, it really meant that it was facing the sun, in the closest position ever, and would soon be “reborn.

The Chinese ideogram for “crisis” also means “opportunity.” Any civilization that can see the blessing within the curse, the fragment of light within the heart of darkness, has within it the capacity to endure. Hebrew goes one step deeper. The word for crisis, mashber, also means “a child-birth chair.” Written into the semantics of Jewish consciousness is the idea that the pain of hard times is a collective form of the contractions of a woman giving birth. Something new is being born. That is the mindset of a people of whom it can be said that “the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread.”

Where did it come from, this Jewish ability to turn weakness into strength, adversity into advantage, darkness into light?

It started at this moment, days before their freedom, when G-d told Moses and Aaron that the Jewish people would forever internalize in their lives the majestic, dramatic, painful and inspiring message of the moon: When it is invisible, it is really in “close intimacy” with the sun, and on a path of rebirth.

That is how Jews, encountering the Negev, found ways of making the desert bloom. Seeing a barren, neglected landscape elsewhere, they planted trees and forests. Faced with hostile enemies at every border, they developed military technologies they then turned to peaceful use. War and terror forced them to develop medical expertise and world-leading skills in dealing with the aftermath of trauma. They found ways of turning every curse into a blessing.

Thomas Edison (1847–1931) was one of the most important inventors in history (he developed many devices that greatly influenced life around the world, including the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the long-lasting, practical electric light bulb). Once when he came home from school, he gave his mother a note from his teacher. He told her, “My teacher gave this paper to me and told me to only give it to my mother.”

His mother’s eyes were tearful as she read the letter out loud to her child: “Your son is a genius. This school is too small for him and doesn’t have enough good teachers for training him. Please teach him yourself.”

After many, many years, after Edison’s mother died and he was known as one of the greatest inventors of the century, he was looking through old family things. He saw a folded paper in the corner of desk drawer and opened it up. On the paper was written: “Your son is addled [mentally ill]. We won’t let him come to school anymore.”

Edison cried for hours, and then he wrote in his diary: “Thomas Alva Edison was an addled child that, by a hero mother, became the genius of the century.”

This is the story of the moon. As we face a moment when everything seems to be crashing down upon us, we can say to ourselves and to others: This shall be a moment of rebirth!

Shabbat Shalom and happy Rosh Chodesh,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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