Thursday, December 15, 2016

Gazing at the Moon in the Age of Trump

We instituted a new practice at Shelter Rock the other Saturday night, one I’ve toyed with introducing for a long time without actually taking any too decisive steps towards actually implementing. And then, suddenly, the ducks were all lined up—the right time of the month, the right time of evening, the right number of people, and the right shul president urging me forward—and so forward we went…in a new direction for, I think, all involved including myself. The ritual, called Kiddush Levanah (literally, “The Sanctification of the Moon”), can only be recited when the moon is visible in the nighttime sky and when it is still waxing (i.e., in the first half of any lunar month). There are other rules that pertain too, but the basic principle is that the congregation steps outside, takes note of the moon, then recites an ancient blessing preserved in the Talmud. The assembled then bless each other with peace, recite a few verses heralding the future redemption of the world and a famous psalm…and then, if ten are present, they finish with Kaddish. That’s it!

It is possibly the least popular of all communal Jewish rituals. I grew up without even hearing of it, let alone participating in it. I don’t believe it’s part of the prayer life of many congregations, and certainly not many non-Orthodox ones. There was every reason to find this whole idea burdensome—it meant Shabbat was over and we still weren’t going home, plus it was dinnertime and many of us had post-Shabbat plans for the evening to embark upon. So it was an unlikely venture at best…but there turned out to be something remarkable about the experience, something that more than made up for the time spent and the effort undertaken, something intensely alluring about the juxtaposition of the disparate elements involved: the cold evening air, the luminescent crescent moon clearly visible through the bare branches of the trees just outside the chapel door, the mysterious blessing with its clear/unclear references to the interpenetration of time and space in the context of history and destiny, the unmistakable messianism underlying the biblical verses pressed into liturgical service, and the strange feelings engendered by the psalmist’s ancient promise that “the sun shall not smite you by day nor the moon by night.” I really was unsure how the whole thing was going to feel. But, in the end, it felt magical. I’d like to do it again and we will. But why the whole experience was so arresting is not the easiest question to answer.

Perhaps it had to do with the historical moment. For me personally, things have been feeling just a bit unmoored in the last little while. The sudden coming-into-prominence of the so-called alt-right has left me feeling, not quite afraid, but nonetheless ill at ease and anxious. The aftermath of the presidential election, which left our country basically riven into two giant camps that can barely see each other, let alone respect each other in the way that could possible lead to learning to live and work peaceably and productively together, has left me feeling apprehensive and fretful about our nation’s path into the future. And then, of course, there is the future itself—an unnerving exercise in iffiness in its own right—with its unresolved issues related to climate change, health care, globalization, race relations, reproductive rights, public education, trade and foreign affairs, LGBT issues, and dozens of other issues facing our nation that just a year ago felt more or less resolved and the rancor they once engendered behind us—the future itself is filled with uncertainty that only makes me feel even more nervous and more apprehensive. Regardless of where any of readers might find themselves on the political spectrum, surely we can all agree that we are about to enter almost wholly uncharted waters. And that the man who will be at the helm, whether history ultimately judges his election a stroke of national genius or an act of national insanity, has never held public office before and is facing a gigantic learning curve if he is to govern wisely and well…or effectively at all.

And then, in the midst of all that existential and political angst…there we were, letting it all fall away as we stood there looking up at the moon, thinking (or at least I was) that the same moon, looking exactly as it did the other night, has been hanging in the night sky since before recorded history even began, since before the first pharaohs ruled Egypt, since before any nation that now exists was born, since before God called Abraham forth from his father’s house and told him that kings would come forth from his loins.

The gorgeous painting by Polish artist Wacław Koniuszko (1843-1900) reproduced just above captures some of the otherworldly feeling I’m trying to describe.  The moon waxes and wanes, month after month. The liturgy pronounces it beyond our reach, something we can admire from afar without ever actually being able ever to attain, something just beyond our grasp but somehow not beyond our gaze. Participants in Kiddush Levanah actually say those words aloud too, addressing the moon as an object of intense but unattainable longing, but also as a heavenly friend and guide. The whole thing is both mysterious and romantic, just as the moon itself is somehow far off and close by at the same time. It strikes me that it is precisely in that paradox—the conjunction of opposites—that lies the key to the ritual.

The ancients looked to the heavens and found in the fixed permanence they saw on high a kind of symbol of God’s enduring presence on earth. But instead of making them feel insignificant and meaningless in comparison to the unchanging cosmos, it ennobled them and made them feel part of something vast and unchartable, something they could barely fathom. The nighttime sky filled them with wonder and made them awestruck at the thought that they too were part of a universe that appeared to exist as the conjunction of opposites: dynamic yet static, changing yet permanent, unfathomable yet familiar, material yet immaterial, temporal yet eternal, understandable yet incomprehensible, anchored in time yet somehow outside the endless parade of moments that characterizes life as we all know it and live it.  That sense of awe is something we moderns have jettisoned entirely too casually, I think, because in the ability truly to be awestruck by the inconceivable vastness of creation— and to do so while remaining fully anchored in reality, fully in the world and not merely part of it—lies the ability to transcend the moment, to ignore the bullies, to turn away from the cruelties and petty injustices of daily life, and to step into an existential framework possessed in equal parts of nobility, majesty, destiny, and eternity.  It was that specific idea that Kiddush Levanah awakened in me.

They say that the Romans forbade the Jews from fixing the new month in the traditional way in the times of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch. The latter, not one to abandon his ways merely because some surly foreigner ordered him to, merely undertook to act discreetly rather than overtly and sent the rabbinic court to a tiny village called Ein Tov to declare the new month in an out-of-the-way place the Romans rarely, if ever, visited. But even clandestine messages ran the risk of being intercepted, so Rabbi Judah sent one of his pupils, the man later known to talmudists as Rabbi Ḥiyya, to follow along and then to send back the mysterious words, “David, king of Israel, yet lives” as a private signal that the new month had been duly declared.

Those words—david melekh yisrael ḥai v’kayyam—are known to us all, but their original context has long since been forgotten. But that the permanence of the moon in all its silvery splendor in the nighttime sky was deemed evocative of the permanent link between the line of King David and the House of Israel is not something any of us should step past too quickly.  And, indeed, those words suggest the basic theme of Kiddush Levanah by suggesting—subtly, but also clearly—that Jewishness is a road that leads through history to destiny…and that road is as little affected by the incidents that take place along its route as the moon itself is by the various theories people have evolved and continue to evolve to explain its place in the heaven and its role in the drama of the cosmos.

And what’s true for the House of Israel is also true for our nation. One way or the other, the republic will move through the next months and years and manage to navigate whatever straits through which we find ourselves obliged to pass. We will remain who we are even as we evolve into what our subsequent national iteration will be…and find the strength to persevere precisely by holding fast to our national values as we morph forward into the future. As our contribution to that future, we at Shelter Rock will continue to say Kiddush Levanah. And, as we take monthly note of the way the moon both wanes and waxes—always on its way somewhere but never quite getting there—and of its luminescent intensity in the nighttime sky, we will pray for a bright future. When viewed in this light—or rather, in its own silvery light—the moon stands both for tradition and for change, for permanence and dynamism, for evolution and for durability. That it is possible to embrace both and to be the stronger for having done so is the underlying message of Kiddush Levanah to the House of Israel. And it could and should be the message our community offers our nation as we move forward into whatever the future brings. The moon shines on, month after month after month, no matter what…and so do the virtues and profound principles upon which our republic rests. 

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