“Men on the Moon” Parashat Tazria – HaChodesh 5779

Last week we discussed the Torah’s introduction of the kosher animals with the word “this” [Vayikra 11:2]: “This (zot) is the set of creatures that you may eat among all the animals on earth:” This week we will continue down that path and see where it takes us.

On the Shabbat before the first day (Rosh Chodesh) of the month of Nissan[1], it is customary to take two Torah scrolls from the ark. From the first scroll, we read the weekly parasha, this year Parashat Tazria, and from the second scroll, we read “Parashat HaChodesh” – “The Portion of the New Month”. The reading is named after its first verse [Shemot 12:2]: “This month (HaChodesh HaZeh) shall be for you the first of months”. The reading discusses the sanctification of the new moon and serves as the backbone of the Jewish lunar calendar.

Last week we showed how our Sages are extremely sensitive to the word “this (zeh / zot)” and they typically have something to say whenever it appears in the Torah. Regarding the list of kosher animals, the Talmud in Tractate Hullin [42a] learns from the word “This [is the set of creatures]” that G-d brought each and every kosher creature before Moses so that he could see precisely what it looked like. This one, right here. Regarding the new moon, the
Talmud in Tractate Menachot [29a] teaches that it was so conceptually difficult for Moses to understand that G-d had to show it to him with His finger, as it were. What would happen were we to reflect our Sages’ explanation of the “this set of creatures” onto “this month shall be for you”?

The sanctification of the new moon was the first commandment given to the Jewish People as a nation. All prior commandments[2] were given to individuals. According to Rashi, the great medieval commentator, the Torah should have begun with the words “HaChodesh HaZeh”. Everything before these words is a preface. What is so important about the sanctification of the new moon that it was chosen as the first commandment? The explanation that has, until now, made the most sense to me is that of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik, the leader of American Jewry during the second half of the twentieth century. Rabbi Soloveichik explains that a slave has no concept of time. Everything he does belongs to his master. Not even is his time his own. The dimension of time is meaningless to him – no slice of time holds any special importance. As time is a critical parameter of the testimony of a witness, teaches Rabbi Soloveichik, a slave cannot testify in a Jewish Court. By commanding Jewish slaves to sanctify the new moon, G-d was telling them that after He had broken the bonds of their slavery, they would be responsible not only for themselves, but for their time, as well.

This past Shabbat, I was a guest in a home with a most eclectic set of books. Along with a grand collection of Jewish books, the owners also had a number of books on Behavioural Economics, including my favourite “Freakonomics”, by Steven Levitt and Steven Dubner. One of these books, “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone”, by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach, caught my eye. The “Knowledge Illusion” tries to understand why people do stupid things. Its main premise is that we humans know a whole lot less than we think we do. Most people have no idea how common things like a zipper, a coffee maker, or a toilet work. That is not the problem. The problem is that we think we know how they work, so that when they break, we do more damage than help by trying to repair them[3]. Sloman and Fernbach suggest that human knowledge benefits less from the knowledge of the individual than from the knowledge shared by a group of individuals. One example that comes to mind is a missile. A missile contains a number of highly intricate subsystems. It has a seeker that enables it to see the target. It has an aerodynamic shape and moving fins that enable it to fly through the air in the desired direction towards the target. It has a rocket motor that gives it the velocity to reach the target. It has a warhead that enables it to destroy the target. It has an on-board computer that performs millions of calculations each second that enable it to get where it wants to go and to do what it wants to do, all at the right place and at the right time. Each of these subsystems is designed by an expert from a different discipline: A radar expert is responsible for the seeker. An electronics engineer and an aeronautical engineer are responsible for the fins. A propulsion expert is responsible for the rocket motor while a pyrotechnic expert owns the warhead. Experts in navigation, flight control, electronics, and computer science design the missile’s computer and the software that it runs. System engineers must ensure that everything fits together and works seamlessly. There is no single person who understands how everything in the missile functions[4]. It is the combined knowledge of a group of experts that enables a missile to fly through the sky and to intercept a rocket heading for a town square.

The Torah begins its first commandment to the Jewish People with the words “This month shall be for you the first of months”. The word “you” – “lachem” – appears in the plural. The most obvious reason that the plural is used is that G-d is speaking to both Moses and Aharon[5]. But perhaps there is another reason. How would we interpret the verse if the “this” of “this month” was telling us the same thing as the “this” of “this set of creatures”? This one, right here. Which one? Right where? Perhaps the concept that Moses had so much trouble getting his head around was not the new moon, but word that immediately follows the word “this” – the plural “you”. Why did G-d command the two of us and not me alone, like He usually does?

Not only does a slave not understand the concept of time, he does not understand the concept of community. While a slave may work together with other slaves to perform difficult tasks, such as building pyramids, he uses the other slaves merely as tools. He is not interested in their individuality and he is not interested in building together with them something greater than himself. According to Rabbi Soloveichik, “The community in Judaism is not… just an assembly of people who work together for their mutual benefit, but a metaphysical identity… it is not a conglomerate – it is an autonomous entity with a life of its own”. When G-d gives the Jewish People their first commandment as a nation, He is telling them that in order for them to reach their goal, they must forge themselves into one unified nation. Jews face their destiny not as an amalgam of individual “you’s” but as one plural “you”.

To date, only three nations have succeeded in landing on the moon: the US, Russia, and China. In another few days, barring unforeseen circumstances, Israel will join that select group. The unmanned lunar lander “Beresheet (Beginning)” will land on the moon, where it will send video images back to earth until it overheats and ceases functioning about two days later[6]. Beresheet was conceived for one purpose: to respond to an international challenge presented by Google Lunar XPRIZE to build, launch and land an unmanned spacecraft on the Moon. Beresheet was designed and built by an organization called “SpaceIL”. According to its website, “Since its establishment, SpaceIL has scaled into a national movement comprised of nearly thirty full-time staff, dozens of enthusiastic volunteers (mostly in the education field), and a network of hundreds of renowned academics, business leaders, and industry experts”. SpaceIL is a community of knowledge assembled to reach an impossible goal. I find it especially fitting that Beresheet will land on the moon on the first day of Nissan, the day in which the Jewish People were given the commandment to sanctify not only the new moon, but with it the concepts of time and community.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] In years like 5779, when Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbat, we read Parashat HaChodesh on the first day of Nissan.

[2] Procreation (given to Adam), circumcision (given to Abraham) and the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve (given to Jacob).

[3] Guilty as charged.

[4] I like to say “There is no ‘I’ in ‘Iron Dome’”

[5] See [Shemot 12:1] “G-d said to Moses and Aharon…”

[6] Beresheet has no thermal control. It added unnecessary weight to the lander.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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