Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What does the midrash about the shrinking moon mean?

A few words about the famous moon midrash in which God is said to have shrunk the moon down to size after it complained about having to share its domain with the sun.

In my opinion this midrash (found in its entirety on Chulin 60b) is meant to be taken as an explanation for Israels status in the world. Originally Esau and Jacob were twins. So why is Esau now dominant while Jacob is so diminished?

The answer is: Jacob complained. He went to his father with deception and demanded more.

Now it's important to pause for a second to recall how (some of) the Sages understood the drama in Isaac's bedroom. They believed that Isaac planned for the Jewish people to have two rulers: an Esau who looked after the material and a Jacob who managed the spiritual. Jacobs insight was that this would not work. The world can't have two rulers. The sky isn't big enough for two great lights.

In the eyes of those Sages, Jacobs attempt to deliver this message backfired, causing Esau to cry the bitter tears that destroyed two temples. But in the moon midrash they are recasting the error and framing it in more hopeful terms.

As the midrash on Chulin 60b continues, God repents, and compensates the moon for being diminished. The moon is given stars*, and much more. Key among the compensations  is a connection to Jacob. "Just as you are called small", God offers in consolation, "Jacob is called small"

The reference is to a passage in Amos that doesn't speak of Jacob the man, but of Jacob the nation; moreover the passage tells us God repented after being reminded by the prophet that "Jacob is small". This parallel with the moon midrash, in which God repents because the moons is small is, I believe, is the key that unlocks the midrash.

The Amos Passage
כֹּ֤ה הִרְאַ֙נִי֙ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֔ה וְהִנֵּה֙ יוֹצֵ֣ר גֹּבַ֔י בִּתְחִלַּ֖ת עֲל֣וֹת הַלָּ֑קֶשׁ וְהִ֨נֵּה־לֶ֔קֶשׁ אַחַ֖ר גִּזֵּ֥י הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃
2 וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־כִּלָּה֙ לֶֽאֱכוֹל֙ אֶת־עֵ֣שֶׂב הָאָ֔רֶץ וָאֹמַ֗ר אֲדֹנָ֤י יְהוִה֙ סְֽלַֽח־נָ֔א מִ֥י יָק֖וּם יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב כִּ֥י קָטֹ֖ן הֽוּא׃
3 נִחַ֥ם יְהוָ֖ה עַל־זֹ֑את לֹ֥א תִהְיֶ֖ה אָמַ֥ר יְהוָֽה׃
4 כֹּ֤ה הִרְאַ֙נִי֙ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֔ה וְהִנֵּ֥ה קֹרֵ֛א לָרִ֥ב בָּאֵ֖שׁ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֑ה וַתֹּ֙אכַל֙ אֶת־תְּה֣וֹם רַבָּ֔ה וְאָכְלָ֖ה אֶת־הַחֵֽלֶק׃
5 וָאֹמַ֗ר אֲדֹנָ֤י יְהוִה֙ חֲדַל־נָ֔א מִ֥י יָק֖וּם יַעֲקֹ֑ב כִּ֥י קָטֹ֖ן הֽוּא׃
6 נִחַ֥ם יְהוָ֖ה עַל־זֹ֑את גַּם־הִיא֙ לֹ֣א תִֽהְיֶ֔ה אָמַ֖ר אֲדֹנָ֥י יְהוִֽה׃ ס

* "...and his descendants shall be as numerous as the stars." - Avi Goldenberg on Facebook

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