By Rabbi Jay Yaacov Schwartz
Ramat Beit Shemesh
Since their inception, the Jewish people have been intrinsically linked to our closest heavenly body, the moon. The first mitzvah we received as a nation was kiddush ha’chodesh (Sh’mot 12:1), the obligation to identify and declare the beginning of each new lunar cycle and to thereby determine the times for celebration of all our Jewish holidays and observances.
Moon-related Jewish themes abound, such as Jewish resilience, renewal, the sacred role of Jewish women, the monthly cycle of family intimacy, the Davidic monarchy, the twelve tribes represented by 12 lunar months, and the concept of sanctity in both time and space. These themes form an inextricably intertwined message of unique and ongoing relevance. It seems as if the moon is more than just a metaphor, but a deeply important symbol for the Jewish people to help us understand and contemplate our greater purpose. Dramatic events that involve the moon may therefore merit our collective attention.
This past week’s incredible achievement of SpaceIL, of sending a tiny spacecraft named Beresheet (Genesis) by the Israeli public to the moon can hardly be underestimated. In contrast to the gargantuan expenditures and staffing of other nations’ moon projects, Israel’s Beresheet was privately financed for a fraction of the cost of other lunar landers and was managed only by a small team of 50 scientists and engineers. It made it to lunar orbit, making Israel the seventh nation to do so, and also to the lunar surface (only the fourth nation to reach there). Sadly, it crashed there and could not complete the tasks it was supposed to perform. The now iconic final selfie that Beresheet took proudly showed the declaration of Jewish survival amidst oppression, Am Yisrael Chai, and a picture of the flag of the State of Israel shining brightly over the moon’s crater-pocked surface. Beresheet proudly carried a digital “space-capsule,” which contained the entire Torah, Jewish music, images, and information about Israel.
The picture of Beresheet was inspirational, especially because of the moon-like rise and rebirth of Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael in the century prior to Beresheet’s journey. The selfie image attested to the fact that the Jewish nation has thrived despite ravages and exiles of WWI and the unthinkable Holocaust that incinerated one-third of our people and traumatized millions more. Like the moon, the Jewish State continues to wax greater and greater in seemingly daily fashion.
In addition, there were a number of other “moon-umental” Jewish events that occurred simultaneously with the Beresheet’s dramatic journey. These include the formal recognition by President Donald Trump of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and the dramatic return, after 37 years of captivity in Syria, of the remains of Sgt. Zachary Baumel, courtesy of the intervention of Russian President Putin.
Another event of incredible importance was the resounding reelection of Bibi Netanyahu and religious and right-wing parties that are likely to help him form his cabinet. Bibi, as part of his campaign, included “promises” of extending Israeli sovereignty to Yehuda and Shomron, a statement that, under any administration until President Trump’s, would have seemed utterly impossible. Remarkably, Secretary of State Pompeo has already openly declared that the annexation of Yehuda and Shomron is not incongruous with the vision of the long-awaited Trump peace plan, backed by several Arab nations, which will emerge once the Israeli government under Netanyahu has formed. All these remarkable events point towards the strengthening of Jewish sovereignty, or Malchut Yisrael, symbolized by the moon. We should be both encouraged and optimistic that more good news is on the way.
However, there were several “crashes” and negative experiences also. There were disturbing aspects to Israel’s election. Defamatory language on all sides of the spectrum, declared winners and popular leaders and parties that crashed and failed to cross the electoral threshold when the actual results of the elections emerged. In addition, the immediate reaction of the Reform and Conservative movements and other political bodies to Bibi’s campaign promise was to openly condemn the very notion of the annexation of any of the areas adjacent to our holiest biblical sites: Hevron, Shechem, Yerushalayim.
Perhaps the takeaway is this: Hashem’s colossal project of the renewal of the Jewish people as a sovereign nation is well under way. However, we have not reached the final stage of our Beresheet journey just yet. Rashi’s comments on the first word of the Torah, Bereishit, are “bishvil Yisrael she’nikra reishit” but also “bishvil Torah shenikra reishit” — that the creation of the cosmos is unfulfilled without Torah’s connection to the Jewish people. Similarly, at the end of Pirkei Avot (Chapter 6, Mishnah 10), we are taught that there are five precious kinyanim, or acquisitions, that Hashem has in this world: the heavens and the earth, Avraham Avinu, the Jewish people as a whole, and the Beit HaMikdash. But the first item on this list that precedes everything is the Torah itself, as the pasuk says, “Hashem kanani reishit darko, kedem mifalo me’az” (Mishlei 8:22).
Rabbi J.D. Solveitchik, in the name of his illustrious father, Reb Moshe, and his grandfather, taught that the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon was performed outside the Land of Israel by the great prophets, at the time of Israel’s first exile. The great prophets, such as Jeremiah, via prophecy carried the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael and sanctified the moon even in exile (as it is said about many of the greatest tzaddikim that their places of burial, wherever they are on the globe, brought with them a measure of Eretz Yisrael), but, subsequently, there were renewed attempts to make the declaration of the new moon on actual Jewish soil—if not in Jerusalem, then Haifa or elsewhere.
Rav Soloveitchik explained that there are two aspects, one of which is the notion of shem Eretz Yisrael, any identifiable part of our homeland. This is a requirement for kiddush ha’chodesh, challah, and other mitzvos (Moadei HaRav, Appendix). There is an second ideal dimension called kedushat Eretz Yisrael, which mandates a higher level of mitzvah observance only when individual Jews or the nation as a whole are sovereign over their land, such as with terumah and ma’aser.
Perhaps the time has come to really publicly engage the identified American Jewish community in a soul-searching debate of just how much Israel and its inevitable journey towards kedushah is antithetical and problematic to many of their current philosophical and religious assumptions regarding Eretz Yisrael.
The real reishit, or precursor, to all of the destiny of the Jewish people’s dramatic return and ever-growing strength in Israel is the Torah itself, the blueprint of creation, that identifies our journey as not only a national one based on will, determination, innovation, and genius, but a journey predicated on sanctity, Jewish identity, and performance of G-d’s will. Perhaps the underlying lesson of the Beresheet “almost” moment is that the next stage of our development will be neither political nor scientific but soulful in nature. In order for us to reach our full magnitude, many more Jews need to accept and adopt as their goal not only to address the issue of our sovereignty but of our sanctity.