THIS IS WHY WE NEED TO LOOK AT THE MOON
BY ANDY TEIRSTEIN
When I was a kid, I remember walking down the street, peering up at the full moon, and feeling a secret connection. It woke something in me, a kind of truth in nature, a relationship. Years later, sleeping on a mountain in Maine or in canyons out west, I would watch the moon and reconnect. The Jewish fascination with the moon goes to our roots. The first commandment given to the Jews emerging from Egypt was Rosh Chodesh, the sanctification of the new moon—a deliverance from darkness to light. We are like the moon, both as individuals and as a people; we keep renewing ourselves. At least the moon shows us that this is possible; we have the potential to start again. Judaism asks us to sensitize ourselves to the moon’s reappearance each month, to align ourselves with the lunar cycle through a way of seeing that places each of us at the vortex of time.
The LABA artist fellows are looking at some core texts that codify the act of observing the moon. In what follows, I offer a little commentary on that text, with some insights on the moon from poet/visual artist William Blake (1757-1827—my long-deceased artistic collaborator on a new music theater piece called “The Vagabonds”), and a short video on the subject, set to my music.
In the Talmud, Rosh HaShanah Chapter 2, we see a gorgeous rabbinical balancing act at play: the rabbis wish to verify the exact appearance of the new moon. For this they need eydim –witnesses. On one hand, they demand precise details and a level of standard from each witness, in order for the testimony to be accepted as reliable. The text tells us that gamblers and pigeon breeders were not acceptable. At the same time, they don’t want to insult anyone who gets it wrong.
I see them like the old men down on 6th street who are trying to get a minyan for minchah, the afternoon service. One of them stands on the corner of First Ave., and if a Jewish-looking man passes by, he gently engages him in conversation. But just a few blocks away there are other guys on corners selling pot. One has to be delicate. And when they get a real taker, he is king for an hour. “Come, my friend, down these steps. Can I get you maybe a cup tea? A bissel schnops?” The Talmud describes a similar scene 2000 years ago in the court in Jerusalem where the lunar witnesses were examined.
….Great feasts were made for them there, in order to induce them to come often.
Similarly, the Talmud tells us that, after they had found their witnesses and verified their observations:
….The remaining pairs of witnesses were then superficially examined, not because there was any necessity for their evidence, but only not to disappoint them, and also to encourage them to come another time.”
One gets the sense that people had other things to do.
Let’s take a step back. Why did they need witnesses at all? If the moon was in the sky, couldn’t the rabbis have seen it themselves? When the moon reappeared each month, a glimmering sliver in the night sky, the rabbis seem to have felt that this particular mitzvah was something precious to build on. They knew the moon’s moment of arrival. But they wanted to present their little play; a special night court with witnesses who are meticulously examined. The rabbis must have appeared, to the actual witnesses, like the wise men of Chelm (an imaginary city of fools in Yiddish folklore, popularized by author I.B. Singer). “What, you can’t see it?” they might have asked.
Indeed, we learn that the rabbis were avid astronomers.
Rabban Gamaliel had, on a tablet, and on the walls of his room, various delineations of the figure and aspect of the moon.
This goes against the modern stereotype of a dusty, museum-like religion where study is divorced from other realms of learning. The rabbis hung out with the Romans, wrote in Arabic, juggled and did acrobatics at the Sukkot ceremonies, and skinny-dipped in rivers.
But this lunar analysis, or rabbinical lunacy, was not just a scientific modality. There was a tenderness here, which we can discern in the rabbis’ questions. Note the feminine pronoun.
Tell us in what form you saw the moon; was it with her horns turned towards the sun or away from it? To the North or the South…Toward which side was her inclination? What was the width of her disk?
From the text, we learn that the act of lunar observance was a kind of performance; it was a “happening,” something the rabbis wanted to get folks excited about. Of the natural time cycles that nature offers us, the day, the month, the year, the month is the only one that can easily go unnoticed, especially in urban environments. Cycles, circles, wheels within wheels…The Talmud is telling us that this is not something to be accepted by rote. We almost feel that the rabbis, again like the wise men of Chelm, are afraid that the moon might not reappear. When “she” does, we on earth must show our appreciation. At one point in history, it seems, signal fires were lighted on mountaintops to mark the moment.
…They went to the top of the mountain, and lighted them, and kept waving them to and fro, upward and downward, till they could perceive the same repeated by another person on the next mountain, and thus on the third mountain.
This is not just a personal relationship, an individual and the moon. It’s about people connecting, with the moon as connector. One of the sweetest and funniest moments in Jewish ritual is when, after services on the night of a new moon, the congregation goes outside to daven the short new moon liturgy. You’re suddenly out on the sidewalk—buses, cabs and pedestrians passing by, and at one point, everyone starts turning to the nearest person to say, “Shalom Aleichem,” and to respond, “Aleychem Shalom,” as if you had just this moment noticed the person, when you had really been sitting next to him for a half hour inside.
When I was in fifth grade, my father bought a telescope, a big white thing on a stand. One night, smoking his pipe, he centered the moon in it, and beckoned me with a glint in his eye to peer through the lens. I couldn’t believe I was seeing the craters, plains, and mountains written on this big ball hanging in the sky 250,000 miles away.
During the summer, I live in the Catskills. A few years ago I was saying kaddish for my Dad, and when I found that there was a summer bungalow colony of Orthodox kids from the Staten Island Yeshiva very close to my house, I started davenning over there. One evening there was a bright moon, so I brought my telescope to show the boys the moon up close. I set it up in a field, and one by one they crowded around to look through the little eyepiece and see the moon’s craters. To do so, they had to hold their earlocks aside.
The questions started coming. One asked, “How old is the moon?” I told them that scientists think the moon is the same age as the earth, about four and a half billion years old. I knew this might pose a problem to them, as the Jewish calendar put us in the year five thousand seven hundred and seventy one (now seventy five). But to this, one of them had an answer. “When God created the world, he also created its history simultaneously. So all the fossils and the geology were created at the same moment.”
As I packed the telescope into the car, I found myself thinking, yes, in a funny way that makes sense, to have time unfold telescopically into the past. But why start there, five thousand years ago, why not have the past be created today, at this moment? The idea of time unfolding would then have an equilibrium, moving from the same point both forward into the future, and backward into the past. And as the concept of a past as fleeting as the present washed over me, I felt a dizzying vertigo, like standing on the edge of a precipice. The old, deep sadness returns: we are as far from owning a place in time as we are from the moon in the night sky.
Last night, here in Tel Aviv, I watched an episode of “True Detective.” At one point the character of Rust tells police investigators: “In eternity, where there is no time, nothing can grow, nothing can become, nothing changes. So death created time to grow the things that it would kill.”
We can envision a character who creates time, whether it be Death, God, Krishna, or “a still small voice” in a cave (I Kings I, 19:12–13). It could even be the moon, as in the following passage from William Blake’s poem, “Jerusalem” (Note the tears in it, a precondition, perhaps, for the creative process of unfolding time.)
With awful hands she took A Moment of Time,
drawing it out with many tears & afflictions
And many sorrows: oblique across the Atlantic Vale
Which is the Vale of Rephaim dreadful from East to West,
Where the Human Harvest waves abundant in the beams of Eden
(From “Jerusalem,” by William Blake)
Blake’s idea of time is, indeed, of something unfolding in all directions. Each of us is at the vortex. But infinity is “not apparent to the weak traveller confin’d beneath the moony shade.” However, it is accessible via what he called the “poetic genius,” or more simply put, the power of the imagination within each of us.
The nature of infinity is this: That every thing has its
Own Vortex; and when once a traveller thro Eternity.
Has passd that Vortex, he perceives it roll backward behind
His path, into a globe itself infolding; like a sun:
Or like a moon, or like a universe of starry majesty,
Thus is the earth one infinite plane, and not as apparent
To the weak traveller confin’d beneath the moony shade.
Thus is the heaven a vortex passd already, and the earth
A vortex not yet pass’d by the traveller thro’ Eternity. (From “Milton” by William Blake)
We are here, eydim—witnesses in the center of the telescope, receiving and reflecting the moon. But Blake, like the rabbis, asks us to take note. The moment of observing time’s natural cycles is a touchstone of reality, it shows us that we stand in a relationship to circles that turn, and the observance of that relationship puts us in touch, not just with the present moment, but with our place in each cycle going backwards and forwards.
In the accompanying video clip (3 and ½ minutes), you will see William Blake illuminations relating to these thoughts, set to music I composed a long time ago…or was it now?
Tel Aviv, Feb 20, 2015 (Rosh Chodesh Adar)