D’var Torah: R’eih: Rosh Chodesh Elul
Parashat R’eih concludes with details concerning our sacred calendar (Deuteronomy 16). While other books tell of how to keep the holy days, here we see the reasons why. A rationale is given to the timing and rituals of our holy days.
The traditional calendar indicates two days of Rosh Chodesh Elul: the thirtieth day of Av and the first day of Elul. Therefore, this Shabbat some of our Reform congregations will read the special haftarah designated for Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, which concludes: “And from new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath-says the Eternal One-all flesh shall come to worship Me” (Isaiah 66:23). The Reform Jewish calendar, however, designates only the first day of the month as Rosh Chodesh. Therefore, some of our Reform congregations will read the special haftarah for Machar Chodesh, which announces: “Tomorrow is the New Moon” (I Samuel 20:18). Reform congregations may also read the third haftarah of consolation (Isaiah 54:11-55:5).
No matter what our practice is, all Jewish eyes are on the moon. To ensure that the holy days are observed according to the times assigned in the Torah, great care has always been taken to observe the lunar cycle (in context with the solar calendar) and maintain the Hebrew calendar accordingly. So much so, that Rabbi Yochanan taught: “Whoever blesses the new moon at the proper time is considered as having welcomed the Presence of the Shechinah” (Babylonian Talmud, Sandhedrin 42a). Sanctifying time, which is infinite, is an expression of sanctifying God, who is Eternal.
According to our calendar, a month is the time from the first appearance of the moon, its waxing, waning, and disappearance until the next reappearance. The mean lunar month is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3 1/3 seconds. In biblical and early rabbinic times, however, the new month was not fixed by astronomical calculations. The High Court in Jerusalem would receive the testimonies of witnesses who claimed to have sighted the molad , the “birth” of the moon, the immergence of its first light. Questions about its shape and location would be investigated; and when the court was satisfied with the evidence, it was declared and sanctified as the new moon.
The ritual is described in Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 2:2-7. The head of the court would call out: M’kudash! “[The New Moon] is consecrated!“ And the people assembled in the Temple court would respond, not once, but twice: M’kudash! M’kudash! “It is consecrated! It is consecrated!” The shofar would be blown, and the festivities of sacrifices and feasting would begin. A bonfire would be lit as a beacon atop Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. From hilltop to hilltop, in concentric circles radiating out across the Land of Israel and into parts of the Diaspora, bonfires would be lit to signal the beginning of the month.
One might think the lunar celebrations would come when the moon was full and round, illuminating the night sky and the earth beneath it. But no, the real celebration, according to Numbers 10 and 28, comes when the sky is mostly shrouded in darkness. Why? When the first sliver of light is noticeable to the human eye, fears are replaced with newfound hope. This is the moment worthy of celebration. This is the moment when potential-within and without-is revealed and must be sanctified.
The Mishnah’s description of the intricate ritual for declaring the new moon comes to teach that we must always be on the lookout for new light and for potential growth. The mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon instructs us to be optimistic, to anticipate that renewed light will come our way. We are to expect it, to yearn for it, to trust that it will come-sooner or later. And when it does, we are to praise God who is with us in the darkness as in light.
The Jewish People is likened to the moon in that the People Israel waxes and wanes; not monthly, but throughout our long history. There are times when we prosper; there are centuries of expansion and enlightenment. And there are times when we are in darkness, when we wane in numbers and in Torah-wisdom. In such times of fear and anxiety, we could point to the new moon and say: “Behold! There is potential even in the darkness. And just as God renews the moon each month, so will God renew our people.”
This theme of restoration is only magnified on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the month during which we prepare ourselves for the New Year. The stakes are higher now. The work of renewal is intensified. The potential for growth is even greater. An elaborate Yiddish prayer was composed for exactly this moment. “Tkhine of the Matriarchs for the New Moon of Elul” was written in 1874 by the Rebetzin Seril of Vilna. Her innovative prayer was intended to be recited by women each day throughout the month of Elul, in preparation for Rosh HaShanah.
Riboyne shel Oylem, You have given us one day every month, Rosh Choydesh, as a day of expiation and forgiveness of our sins, so that we may repent every Erev Rosh Choydesh, and on Rosh Choydesh our sins will be forgiven. Although we did not repent all year long, …we still have time…
We are brokenhearted, dear merciful Father. Accept our repentance…for now, we are all of one mind. Together we call upon your Holy Name with our broken hearts. Our repentance is that of a multitude, as it is written in Your holy Toyre: “There is a difference between the repentance of an individual and the repentance of a multitude” (Psalms 55:19 and Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 8a). The repentance of an individual helps only before the judgment is passed, …but collective repentance can help, even if the judgment has already been passed. Therefore, we beseech our Matriarchs to pray for us and to bring before the Throne of Glory our repentance which we offer now and every day…
(For Rebetzin Seril’s full prayer, see Tracy Guren Klirs, The Merit of Our Mothers, [Cincinnati, Ohio, HUC Press, 1992], pp. 46-75)
The moon has no light of its own, of course. Its only power is in its ability to reflect the sun. Its own glory is earned by how well it reflects the sun’s light. So, it is taught, the People Israel is like the moon. Our only light is the reflection of God’s light. Our only glory is earned by how we bring God’s light to shine in the world. This is our prayer for the year ahead. May we behold more light, so we may reflect more light.