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CAN CRISIS ALSO MEAN OPPORTUNITY?

Friday, 5 April, 2019 - 9:14 am

There was this guy at a bar, just looking at his drink. He stays like that for half of an hour.

Then, this big trouble-making truck driver steps next to him take the drink from the guy and just drinks it all down. The poor man starts crying. The truck driver says, “Come on man, I was just joking. Here, I’ll buy you another drink. I just can’t stand to see a man cry.”

“No, it’s not that. This day is the worst of my life. First, I fall asleep, and I go late to my office. My boss, outrageous, fires me. When I leave the building, to my car, I found out it was stolen. The police said that they can do nothing. I get a cab to return home, and when I leave it, I remember I left my wallet and credit cards there. The cab driver just drives away.”

“I go home, and when I get there, I find my wife drinking coffee with another guy. I leave home and come to this bar. And just when I was thinking about putting an end to my life, you show up and drink my poison.”

This Shabbat we read three Torah portions from three different Torah scrolls. In the first scroll, we read the weekly portion, Tazria. Because tomorrow Shabbat is also Rosh Chodesh- New Month of Nissan, we read the Rosh Chodesh portion. Because this is the fourth of the special Shabbats in preparation for Purim and Pesach, we read Parshat Hachodesh, which discusses Rosh Chodesh Nissan that is the first month of the year and Pesach.

The Jewish fascination and preoccupation with the Moon, in fact, it begins with the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people at the birth of our people—recorded in this week’s third Torah reading.

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, on the setup of the Jewish calendar.

Let us see the words of the Torah:

And G-d spoke to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: “This new moon shall be for you the head of months, the first of the month of the year for you…” With these words, we are first taught about the mitzvah to organize and maintain the Hebrew calendar and its monthly rhythm based on the birth of the new moon.

Unlike other calendars which define a year based on the orbit of the sun, our calendar works based on the moon’s revolution around the earth.

From biblical times through the Second Temple period, the Central Rabbinical court fixed each new month strictly through observations reported by eyewitnesses.

But then, it all came to a halt.

In the 4th century CE, the sage Hillel II foresaw the dispersion of the Jews around the world. He understood that we would no longer have a central court in the Holy Land who could accept witnesses each month and establish a new month. Hillel did something very drastic.

He and his rabbinical court established a fixed calendar, based on mathematical and astronomical calculations. This calendar, still in use to this very day among all Jews, standardized the length of months and thus determined the exact day of Rosh Chodesh – New Month and all of the holidays for thousands of years. Hillel and his court sanctified the first day of each month—for the next few millennia until Moshiach comes when we will return to the establishing the new month based on witnesses.

Yet there is a question here.

Given the inherent challenges of a lunar-based calendar, why did the Torah choose to set up the calendar and base Jewish life around the moon?

The Rebbe offered a majestic explanation.

The waxing and waning moon reflect the ups and downs of life and history. The waning moon represents difficult times; periods that get darker and darker, like the fading moon. But just as the moon disappears, when all seems bleak and lost, we experience a rebirth, newfound life – a new moon has been born.

This is the secret of the moon. Like the moon, at some point in the month, we are well-rounded, wholesome and marvelous to look at. At other times we are half-lit, half-inspired, half-involved in life.

It is true both individually and collectively—as people. We have had periods of peace and tranquility, and we have known the dark times of persecution. To sanctify 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. 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.”

Jewish history is not merely a story of Jews enduring catastrophes that might have spelled the end to less tenacious groups. It is that after every disaster, Jews renewed themselves. They discovered some hitherto hidden reservoir of spirit that fueled new forms of collective self-expression as the carriers of G-d’s message to the world.

Every tragedy began a new creativity. After the division of the kingdom following the death of Solomon came the great literary prophets, Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Out of the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile came the renewal of Torah in the life of the nation, beginning with Ezekiel and culminating in the vast educational program brought back to Israel by Ezra and Nehemiah and the Men of Great Assembly. From the destruction of the Second Temple came the immense literature of rabbinic Judaism, until then preserved mostly in the form of an oral tradition: Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmud. The greatest literature of Judaism emerged.

From the Crusades came the Hassidei Ashkenaz, the North European school of piety and spirituality, and the explosion of new Talmudic scholarship from the house of Rashi and Tosefot. Following the Spanish expulsion came the mystic circle of Tzefat: Lurianic Kabbalah and all it inspired by way of poetry and prayer. From East European persecution and poverty came the Chassidic movement and its revival of grass-roots Judaism through revealing a new depth to Judaism and a seemingly endless flow of story and song. And from the worst tragedy of all in human terms, the Holocaust came the rebirth of the Jewish people and Israel.

It is well known that 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 in Hebrew, 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 the more they spread.”

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

When G-d told Moses and Aaron—that forever, Jewish people will 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 it is on a path of rebirth.

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). As a young child, he came home one day from school and gave a paper to his mother. 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 now one of the greatest inventors of the century, one day he was looking through old family things. Suddenly he saw a folded paper in the corner of a drawer in a desk. He took it 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 all things seem to come crashing down on us, we can say to ourselves and to others: This shall be a moment of rebirth!

This is our story. We have often been given a sour plate. And we turned it into a “seder plate.”

So every month, as the new moon becomes sufficiently visible for us to benefit from its soft light, we go outside and recite the kiddush levanah prayer. The heart of this prayer is a blessing wherein we praise Gā€‘d: "And He directed the moon to renew herself as a crown of glory to [the Jewish nation], who likewise are destined to be renewed like her..."

Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Rosh Chodesh,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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