Profound as always, Henry David Thoreau noted that “the youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.”
‘Bridge-to-the-moon’ aspirations are precisely what echo in the Chinese lunar calendar new year celebration, which was earlier this week. The new year greeting in Cantonese is Kung Hei Fat Choi, which is a wish for happiness and financial prosperity. Would that this aspiration be achieved!
Interestingly, both the Jewish and Chinese calendars add an extra month during 7 out of every 19 years. These adjustments in the lunar calendar keep the months in synch with the solar calendar. The Islamic lunar calendar, for example, does not make this adjustment, and so you may have noted that the month of Ramadan can occur at any season of the year. The intercalation between the lunar months and the solar year in the Jewish calendar keeps Passover in the spring and Sukkot in the autumn.
Because of the similar systems, the Chinese new year always coincides with the start of the Hebrew month of either Shevat (like this year) or Adar. [The variation is due to differences between the two calendars over which 7 years in every 19 year cycle are the ones that have the extra months.]
If the new moon was not already in mind this week due to the Chinese new year or to Rosh Chodesh, the new month of Shevat which was on Sunday night, then this week’s Torah portion would have us looking up: This week’s portion, Bo, establishes the Jewish calendar as a lunar calendar. Each new moon marks the start of a new month. Our tradition considered each new month, with the reappearance of the new moon, as an opportunity to make a fresh start. Sort of like those of us who tend to make ‘New Year’s resolutions’.
As noted though, the monthly lunar cycle is some ten days shorter than our solar year. And please note that January isn’t quite over yet – we are not even through one month of the new year 2023: Are you still maintaining your resolutions? If so – good for you! How about the resolutions you made at Rosh HaShana (a mere five months ago)? Have your ‘bridge-to-the moon’ aspirations come down to earth as a mere woodshed? Your Kung Hei Fat Choi fantasies of extravagant celebration and uncountable riches making due with simple pleasures and gratitude for enough?
No worries: The calendar is compassionate. Like the new moon, each new month can be a new chance to realign yourself with who you are striving to become. Maybe some of us need refreshing more frequently than annually. A month is manageable. Perhaps making “New Month resolutions” would work better for you than ‘New Year’ resolutions.
A focus on the lunar cycle of new months in the Hebrew calendar might be helpful in another way as well. We know that in art, as in life, sometimes attention to the little details ends up influencing the really big picture:
The Torah in this portion gives us the very first commandment to the entire Jewish People. It seems trifling actually: We were still slaves in Egypt, even though the first nine plagues were already visited on the Egyptians. For 430 years we had not been free. Who could imagine what this promise of ‘freedom’ was all about beyond the cessation of abuse and exhaustion we suffered as slaves? Just before the 10th and final plague we get our first instruction on how to be free: ‘Let this month of Nissan be the first month of the calendar’.
Really?! This is an instruction in how to be free?! Yes, really.
What this suggests is that your freedom begins with making time your own. You’re not truly free when you’re “on the clock”, or when you look up from your video game or social media or news feed to see that hours have evaporated, or simply when you are too distracted, stressed, and rushed to find a moment of consciousness, presence, and mindfulness in which to be yourself. Time and freedom are symbiotically related, and we are called on to manage both for the purpose of making our lives a fulfilling blessing in this world.
May it be so!
Rabbi Michael Schwartz