וַיַּ֣עַשׂ אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֶת־שְׁנֵ֥י הַמְּאֹרֹ֖ת הַגְּדֹלִ֑ים אֶת־הַמָּא֤וֹר הַגָּדֹל֙ לְמֶמְשֶׁ֣לֶת הַיּ֔וֹם וְאֶת־הַמָּא֤וֹר הַקָּטֹן֙ לְמֶמְשֶׁ֣לֶת הַלַּ֔יְלָה וְאֵ֖ת הַכּוֹכָבִֽים׃

God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule by day and the lesser light to rule by night, and the stars.

Genesis 1:16

The Torah depicts Sun and Moon being created together on the Fourth Day of Creation. But the Midrash, an ancient genre that includes imaginative “back stories” of the Torah, depicts a legendary struggle for dominance in which the moon wanted to have a greater role.

Rabbi Shimon b. Pazzi pointed out a contradiction [between verses]. One verse says: And God made the two great lights, and immediately the verse continues: The greater light … and the lesser light.

The moon said unto the Holy Blessed One, “Sovereign of the Universe! Is it possible for two kings to wear one crown?” God answered: “Go then and make yourself smaller.” “Sovereign of the Universe!” cried the moon, “Because I have suggested that which is proper must I then make myself smaller?” God replied: “Go and you will rule by day and by night.” “But what is the value of this?” cried the moon. “Of what use is a lamp in broad daylight?” God replied: “Go, Israel will reckon by you the days and the years.” “But it is impossible,” said the moon, “to do without the sun for the reckoning of the seasons, as it is written: And let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years”? [God responded:] “Go, the righteous will be named after you: Jacob the Small, Samuel the Small, David the Small.”

On seeing that the Moon would not be consoled the Holy Blessed One said: “Bring an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller.” This is what Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish meant when he said: “What distinguishes the he-goat offered on the New Moon so that the Torah specifies it is “unto the Eternal?” Because the Holy Blessed One, said: ‘Let this he-goat be an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller!'”

Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 60b

This Midrash or Aggadah (Talmudic legend) shows the moon being diminished because she suggested that one of the heavenly lights must be greater. It is interesting to note that although the word “Yare’ach,” grammatically masculine, is used here for the Moon, it is with a feminine verb, clearly choosing a feminine persona for the moon. (Another Hebrew word for moon, “Levana” is always feminine.)  But the Holy One immediately begins to compensate the disappointed moon: she can shine day and night, the Jewish calendar will be reckoned by her, righteous people will be named for her. And when none of this consoles the moon, God “makes atonement,” as it were, by commanding a special offering be made for the divine sake on each New Moon!

Melila Hellner-Eshed of Jerusalem’s Hartman Institute has explored this legend and its variants in a fascinating article. The Midrash of the Moon changed over time. New versions appeared, showing new concerns. In Jewish mysticism, the moon came to represent the feminine aspect of divinity, the Shechinah. In the version of the story shared in the Zohar, a great work of Kabbalah, the moon willingly separates from her partner, the sun, in order to reflect its light so that she can help and guide humanity. Ultimately, her desire is to reflect the divine light, and the kabbalists hint that the feminine principle, like the moon, will someday be restored to full splendor.

The original Talmudic myth, abounding with misunderstanding and mis-communication, is now immersed in love, mutual appreciation, concord and willful action. The Almighty acknowledges the moon, her heart and her wish. The moon also acknowledges God, and can lay out her troubles before Him. And the problem has a solution. The moon is not at all punished in this story. She embarks on her journey with God’s blessing.

Melila Hellner-Eshed

Featured Image: sun moon earth mars by goddard studio 13 via Flickr

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