Barbara Ellison Rosenblit, Midrash on the Moon: In a Different Light

MIDRASH ON THE MOON: IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT *
 
Barbara Ellison Rosenblit
The Traditional Sources
In a Different Light
The Traditional Sources
Consider this puzzling verse, Genesis 1:16:
God made the two great lights: the great light for ruling the day and the small light for ruling the night, as well as the stars.
The puzzlement comes from the sudden switch in adjectives modifying light. In the first
statement God makes two great lights; suddenly, without explanation, these two
great lights become one great light–for ruling the day–and one small light–for
ruling the night. What transpired between the making of the lights and the
appointment of their sovereignties? Why did one become small? And why the great
one set to rule the day and the small one made ruler of the night? Three traditional
sources, the Talmud, Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, and Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer,
proffer explanations for this seeming textual inconsistency. Consider the three texts,
which follow. Then consider the fourth, from a less traditional source.
First, from the Talmud:
R. Simeon 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 One,
blessed be He, “Sovereign of the Universe! Is it possible for two kings to wear one
crown?” He answered, “Go then and make thyself smaller”. “Sovereign of the
Universe!” cried the moon, “because I have suggested that which is proper must I then
make myself smaller?” He replied, “Go, and thou wilt 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?”
He replied. “Go. Israel shall reckon by thee 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 for
years.” “Go.The righteous shall be named after thee as we find, Jacob the Small,
Samuel the Small, David the Small.” On seeing that it would not be consoled, the
Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Bring an atonement for Me for making the moon
smaller.” This is what was meant by R. Simeon b. Lakish when he declared, “Why is it
that the he-goat offered on the new moon is distinguished in that there is written
concerning it unto the Lord? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Let this
he-goat be an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller.”[1]
In this passage, the moon’s seemingly innocent question provokes God’s strong
overresponse (“Go then and make thyself smaller”). Recognizing the undue severity of
the response, God attempts to soften the initial reply in several ways, but none
consoles the moon. In this remarkable interpretation, God repents for this insensitive
rebuke. The Talmud employs this verse to justify why the he-goat sacrifice offered at
the time of the new moon is the only festive sacrifice which includes the phrase “unto
the Lord” (Nu.28:15), for this is God’s own atonement for this harsh action.
The second interpretation:
The fourth day of creation produced the sun, the moon, and the stars. These heavenly
spheres were not actually fashioned on this day; they were created on the first day,
and merely assigned their places in the heavens on the fourth. At first the sun and the
moon enjoyed equal powers and prerogatives. The moon spoke to God, and said: “O
Lord, why didst Thou create the world with the letter Bet?” God replied: “That it might
be known unto my creatures that there are two worlds.” The moon: “O Lord, which of
the two worlds is the larger, this world or the world to come?” God: “The world to come
is the larger.” The moon: “O Lord, Thou didst create two worlds, a greater and a lesser
world; Thou didst create fire and water, the water stronger than the fire, because it can
quench the fire; and now thou hast created the sun and the moon, and it is becoming
that one of them should be greater than the other.” Then spake God to the moon: “I
know well, thou wouldst have Me make Thee greater than the sun. As a punishment I
decree that thou mayest keep but one-sixtieth of thy light.” The moon made
supplication: “Shall I be punished so severely for having spoken a single word?” God
relented: “In the future world I will restore thy light, so that thy light may again be as the
light of the sun.” The moon was not yet satisfied. “O Lord,” she said, “and the light of
the sun, how great will it be in that day?” Then the wrath of God was once more
enkindled: “What, thou still plottest against the sun? As thou livest, in the world to
come his light shall be sevenfold that light he now sheds.” [2]
While similar to the Talmudic account of the moon’s initial query, Ginzberg’s
explanation of greater and lesser employs a different tone. Here the moon, trying to
build her case, establishes lawyer-like precedents for her request before pressing
home her point (“…it is becoming that one of them should be greater than the other….”).
God, angered by this tactic, and further enraged by the moon’s refusal to be pacified,
punishes the moon by diminishing her light henceforth and forevermore.
The third interpretation:

On the fourth day He connected together the two luminaries, of which one was not
greater (in size) than the other. They were equal as regards their height, qualities, and
illuminating powers, as it is said, “And God made the two great lights” (Gen 1:16).
Rivalry ensued between them, one said to the other, I am bigger than thou art. The
other rejoined, I am bigger than thou art. What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do, so
that there should be peace between them? He made the one larger and the other
smaller, as it is said, “The greater to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the
night and the stars He also made.” [3]
Here is a case of sibling rivalry at its most recognizable. God, as frustrated parent to
these two jealous children, simply removes the issue of contention that caused the
carping. It is neither the subtlest nor the most sophisticated of parenting techniques,
but it is familiar.
While these accounts all differ in tone and temperament, all three picture the moon as
manipulative and complaining, punished for not being satisfied, and possessed by the
accompanying bad judgment to continue questioning long after a more quiescent
figure would have had the sense to stop.
In these three accounts, too, greatness and importance are equated with size, power,
and domination, and it is the moon’s desire for size, power, and control that ultimately
leads to her downfall. Because of her immodest request for dominance, she is made
smaller, and this diminution, this weakening, is her punishment.
Interpreted through a less domination-oriented lens, could this punishment be,
instead, a reward? Could the seemingly greater be, in fact, the lesser? The midrash
which follows reinterprets greatness and skews the standard equation of power to
importance. This midrash reconsiders the verse from Genesis and views the moon in a
considerably different light.
Is this a feminist interpretation? It is an unusual view of power, to be sure. It gives
voice to those qualities of being that are often silent, ignored, or even disparaged. In
the sense that these qualities are often associated with the feminine side of us, so be
it. I offer this midrash on the moon for the reader’s reflection.
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 In a Different Light
God made the two great lights: the great light for ruling the day and the
small light for ruling the night, as well as the stars.
All that God created in this world He created male and female. So too were the twin
spheres that He created on the fourth day. The male sphere approached God and
regaled, “I am the male and so should dominate my sister. Let me be greater than she
is, larger in size and more powerful in strength.”
God then saw the seeds of rivalry in Her creation and, in Her wisdom, answered, “Sun,
you shall be larger and more powerful than your sister. Your size and strength shall
dominate hers.”
The sun luxuriated in his easy victory, and he shone.
“But,” God continued, “you have shown poor judgment in your request. For great
power contains within it the seeds of damage and destruction.
“You, my sun, now so great and glorious, will be blamed for famine, for your piercing
and endless heat will parch the earth. Your fiery rays will burn the skin of those
exposed, and you will cause cancers to erupt on human flesh. Your strong rays will
burn out the eyes of those who stare at you. No one will ever gaze at you…no one will
look at you.”
The sun gulped, but his rays already had begun to grow longer and stronger.
“Your sister, the moon, will be smaller and less powerful, as you requested, but she
will comfort all who gaze upon her. Hounds will bay in song as she lights the
darkness. Poets and lovers will be moved to rapture by her hazy afterglow.
Moonstruck will become a synonym for dazzled by the wonders of love, while
sunstroke will come to mean dehydration, followed by death.
“She will be ever-changing, ever-watched, ever-admired, ever mysterious. No one will
pierce her poetic potential. Composers will be inspired by her; artists will be moved to
capture her essence on canvas. Writers will glorify her powers. The comforting
womblike waters which surround the globe, filled with the rich life of the sea, will be
controlled by her. The rhythmic ebb and flow of the tides, whose sounds comfort those
nearby and create the pulse of the earth, will be hers to control.
“No two days will find her the same; rather, every night will reveal her subtle changes.
Her every movement will be studied and glorified. Time will be measured by her.
Cycles will be calculated through her. The calendar will be fixed using her. And each
month, she will be blessed.”
The sun thought to interrupt God and so stop this panoply of gifts his sister now had
acquired as a result of his ill-conceived play for power. But God’s voice grew sterner
with each statement. And as God glorified the moon, the sun’s bulk and radiance
continued to increase, and his firm rays reached out far beyond his initial grasp. He
tried to speak, but he could not find his voice.
“Yes, sun, you shall rule over your sister,” God continued. “Your greed shall be
tempered, however, because now you shall know fully the burdens of power; the
forces of which you now have possession shall make you both feared and unloved.
“Your name shall be ShemeshSham Esh—for there, in you, will be the symbol of
fire and destruction. And I will call your sister YA-Ray-ah, for contained in her will be
God’s perfume, My sweet ineffable fragrance, made visible.”
Sensing the silken shimmer of blue-gray light dancing across the waves, the two
stopped their interchange; their attention was drawn skyward to watch the graceful
ascent of the moon into the starry night.
And God set them in the expanse of the heaven to give light upon the
earth.
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* This appeared in Response, Winter 1995, 101-105.
[1] Talmud, Hulin 60b.
[2] Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication
Society, 1992), p.12.
[3] Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, trans. Gerald Friedlander (New York: Herman Press, 1965)
p.31.

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