Fly me to the moon, Let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars
In other words, hold my hand, In other words, baby, kiss me
When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
Age of Aquarius, Aquarius, Aquarius
Well, it’s a marvelous night for a moondance
With the stars up above in your eyes
A fantabulous night to make romance
‘Neath the cover of October skies
And all the leaves on the trees are falling
To the sound of the breezes that blow
And I’m trying to please to the calling
Of your heart-strings that play soft and low
And all the night’s magic seems to whisper and hush
And all the soft moonlight seems to shine in your blush
My summer soundtrack has been the NASA Moon Tunes Playlist on Spotify. Along with a whole lot of folks, apparently, I have a nasty case of moon fever. This summer marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Both have been very much on my mind and in my ears for the past few months. Along with millions, I watched the moon landing on television, likely at my grandparents’ home in the Catskills. Just a few weeks later, and just a few miles away, the Woodstock Festival – “an Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” – unfolded.
In July of 1969 the Eagle landed on the moon’s surface and Neil Armstrong famously took ‘one small step for man’ and ‘one giant leap for mankind.’ In August, 400,000 plus folk converged at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, NY for what is now seen as the iconic rock music festival. Mr. Yasgur’s words to the crowd camped in his backyard bear repeating: “I’m a farmer. I don’t know how to speak to twenty people at one time, let alone a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something to the world — not only to the Town of Bethel, or Sullivan County, or New York State; you’ve proven something to the world.” Some time later, Yasgur reflected that “If we join them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of America today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future.”
Woodstock, by the way, took place on the new moon, in the first days of the month of Elul in 5729.
The moon, whether observed from the Lunar Module, or spotted from a muddy field in upstate NY, has been the object of intense fascination and curiosity since antiquity, perhaps since the beginning of time. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8a) depicts the first human being, Adam ha-Rishon, as a sky watcher, minutely attuned to the shortening and lengthening of days, to the patterns of darkening and brightening skies. Charting the longer nights and shorter days of autumn for the first time, the first human worries out loud – אוי לי שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו – “Woe is me; perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark around me and will ultimately return to the primordial state of chaos and disorder.” We’ve been focused – intensely and inquisitively – on the moon (and the sun and the stars) ever since.
A beautiful exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC highlights some of that fascination in more recent centuries. The exhibit begins with Galileo’s great and revolutionary book Siderium Nuncius ‘Starry Messenger.’ It’s the first work of modern astronomy based on observations made with a telescope, and Galileo’s hand drawn pictures of the surface of the moon are stunning. For 19 nights running in 1609, Galileo trained his telescope on the moon and discovered that the lunar surface, much like that of the earth, was marked by hills, valleys, craters, mountains, and more. Hardly the smooth, perfect orb imagined by the ancients. Four hundred years later, courtesy of Apollo 11 and the missions that came after it, we have ample photographic evidence of what Galileo first saw in the early years of the 17th century.
[Galileo Galilei, Sidereus Nuncius, 1610]
Four hundred years before him, Moses Maimonides, knew, and wrote, much the same about the moon. Maimonides inherited his fascination with all things lunar from the rabbinic tradition; the moon – its pattern of waxing and waning in particular – shapes the rhythm of Jewish life in its entirety. We bless the arrival of each new moon, and sanctify it with song and dance once it arrives. Our major festivals – Sukkot and Pesah most notably – fall on the full moon exactly half a year apart from one another. Maimonides also inherited the scientific and mathematical traditions of the ancient Greeks and of medieval Islamic civilization. Brilliantly, Maimonides presents both sets of understandings side by side in his major work of Jewish law and practice. In Jewish life, the moon serves as both timekeeper and signpost. For Maimonides, and for us to this day, the moon and its regular movement really matters.
Rabbinic thought presents a claim, a prohibition of sorts, that delegitimizes our very human tendency to engage in speculation about what might exist outside of our felt and experienced reality. כָּל הַמִּסְתַּכֵּל בְּאַרְבָּעָה דְּבָרִים, רָאוּי לוֹ כְּאִלּוּ לֹא בָּא לָעוֹלָם, says the Mishnah – Whoever speculates upon four things, it would have been better had s/he not come into the world. And those four things are? – מַה לְּמַעְלָה, מַה לְּמַטָּה, מַה לְּפָנִים, וּמַה לְּאָחוֹר – what is above, what is beneath, what came before, and what came after.
Beginning with the Talmud itself, Jews have long ignored the Mishnah’s advice. Says the Gemara – OK, fine with regard to what’s above, what’s beneath, and what will come after; but with regard to what has come before, מה דהוה הוה – what has happened has already happened! Thus, Maimonides, and many others besides, could speculate about what’s above.
The Mishnah’s rule may make sense in a settled, calm time. But these are truly not normal times, and in times like these, I suggest, we actually need to extend beyond our normal limits and to ask ourselves what’s above and what’s below, what came before this difficult moment, and what might tomorrow look like.
מַה לְּמַעְלָה – what is above? In this moment we need to broaden our perspective.
מַה לְּמַטָּה – what is beneath? In this moment we need to examine what lies beneath more deeply and with greater honesty.
Next week, on Yom Kippur, we’ll venture underground together. Today I wish to keep our eyes up, our focus on what is above, our gaze on the moon, and on what it has to teach us at the start of this new year.
The moon has many lessons to teach. This morning I wish to focus on four of them.
Today is the first day of the month of Tishrei – the new moon that also marks the beginning of a new year. Our practice is to announce each new month on the prior Shabbat with a prayer called birkat ha-hodesh. Every month, that is, except this one. Rosh Hodesh Tishrei, aka Rosh Hashanah, never gets announced. Why? A well known legend explains that the reason is to confound Satan – ha-Satan in Hebrew – the demonic force that means to do us harm, especially at this moment of judgement and introspection. If Tishrei isn’t announced, then Satan doesn’t know that Rosh Hashanah is here.
A new moon is a hidden moon; we get to see only a sliver of it. Most of the moon, most of the time, isn’t visible; it’s dark. If you have Pink Floyd’s great album, particularly side 2 (yes, I’m that old!!!) running through your mind right now I forgive you; it’s running through my head too. ‘I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon…’ But recall that record’s closing words – “There is no dark side of the moon really. Matter of fact it’s all dark.” The moon comes to teach us that so much of our experience, so much of our world, is actually hidden, not in plain view, not right before our eyes. And what’s dark isn’t to be feared; to the contrary, it’s there to be sought out, to be explored. Physicists now believe that 85% of the universe consists of dark matter. To really understand more, to really grow, we need to recognize how much we don’t know, how much we don’t get to see. The power and importance of hiddenness; that’s lunar lesson number one.
The moon teaches us perspective. The late, great Robert Hunter catches it with these lovely lines: “Standing on the moon I see a shadow on the sun; Standing on the moon the stars go fading one by one; I hear a cry of victory and another of defeat; A scrap of age old lullaby down some forgotten street…””Standing on the moon where talk is cheap and vision true; Standing on the moon but I would rather be with you; Somewhere in San Francisco on a back porch in July; Just looking up to heaven at this crescent in the sky…” Think of the famous photograph of the earth taken from Apollo 8 as it orbited the moon for a moment. Seeing our planet from afar – its beauty and fragility – shifted the perspective of many, among other things giving rise to the modern environmental movement.
Lea Goldberg, the great mid-century Israeli poet, captures it in a few elegant lines –
אני היחוד במרום, אני הריבוי במצולה תשקיף מן הנחל אלי דמותי, דמותי הכפולה
אני האמת במרום, אני הבדיה במצולה, תשקיף מן הנחל אלי דמותי בכזב גורלה
למעלה – עוטה דומיות, הומה, מזמר במצולה אני במרום – האל, בנחל אני התפילה
‘The Moon Sings to the Stream’ – I am the unity on high, I am multiple in the pond, looking up to me from the stream, my image, my double…Above I am wrapped in silence, whispering, singing in the pond. On high I am divine, in the stream, I am the prayer…
And that broader perspective, hopefully, gives rise to humility and a sense of appreciation and wonder for the universe’s grandeur. Maimonides put it best. At the end of a long chapter (Guide for the Perplexed 2:24) explaining the intricacies of the heavenly bodies and their movements, a passage in which he declares Aristotle to have gotten it right, Rambam offers these words: “However, regarding all that is in the heavens, man grasps nothing but a small measure of what is mathematical…the deity alone fully knows the true reality, the nature, the substance, the form, the motions, and the causes of the heavens…this is the truth.”
The moon bespeaks connectedness. Our tradition preserves a not so widely observed ritual called Kiddush Levana/Sanctifying the Moon which takes place a week or so into the month. It’s a brief service – a few blessings, a couple of psalms – accompanied by singing and dancing, including reaching and jumping up toward the moon. The Talmud’s description of Kiddush Levana (Bavli Sanhedrin 42a) likens blessing the new moon to welcoming pnei ha-shekhina – the Divine Presence – and reports that two of the greatest Babylonian sages, Maremar and Mar Zutra would hug one another while they recited the blessing. Fly me to the moon really does mean hold my hand!
מה למעלה? – – What lies above? What moves and inspires us this Rosh Hashanah? What are our aspirations? Seek out the hidden darkness; Develop perspective; Appreciate grandeur and majesty and beauty with humility and gratitude and joy; Get and stay connected with one another and with God. Undertake renewal.
Two more songs – one you may not know; one you almost certainly do:
Julie Gold’s ‘From a Distance’ – join me:
From a distance the world looks blue and green
And the snow capped mountains white
From a distance the ocean meets the stream
And the eagle takes to flight
From a distance there is harmony
And it echoes thru the land
It’s the voice of hope
It’s the voice of peace
It’s the voice of every man
From a distance we all have enough
And no one is in need
There are no guns, no bombs, no diseases
No hungry mouths to feed
From a distance we are instruments
Marching in a common band
Playing songs of hope
Playing songs of peace
They’re the songs of every man
God is watching us
God is watching us
God is watching us, from a distance
And finally Shlomo Artzi’s beautiful love song called simply ‘Yareah‘ (Moon). Listen well. Here’s the punch line:
אתמול היה טוב ויהיה גם מחר… !Yesterday was good; tomorrow will be too
The moon, after all is said and done, bespeaks hope.
We can dream, we can connect, we can renew, we can keep hope alive. That’s what this new moon of Tishrei and this new year of 5780 come to teach us. Today, this week, this month, this year, let’s heed the lessons of the moon. Yesterday was good; tomorrow will be too! L’shana tova tikateivu v’tekhateimu; May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.