Parshat Bamidbar-Mahar Hodesh
(1 Samuel 20:18-42)
May 11, 2002
The Talmud (Megillah 31a) records that when Rosh Hodesh (the New Month) occurs on the first day of the week (Sunday), the haftarah reading on the previous day (Shabbat) is “When Jonathan said to him [David]: ‘Tomorrow will be Rosh Hodesh.” This sentence, found in the haftarah, serves as the impetus for the choice of this haftarah for this Shabbat. The haftarah also serves as one of the major historical sources of our knowledge of how Rosh Hodesh was observed in Biblical times. We learn that Rosh Hodesh was observed with a festive meal (verse 18) and by refraining from work (verse 19 – see Targum).
The plot of the haftarah, however, centers around the struggle between David and King Saul. David’s military successes led Saul to perceive that David’s popularity among the people had overtaken his own. Saul’s overwhelming jealously caused him to threaten David’s life since he saw David as a rival to the throne. This trait ultimately became one of the reasons for Saul’s fall from the power.
Jealousy also serves as the theme of the following midrash found in the Babylonian Talmud (Hullin 60b): “Rabbi Shimon ben Pazzi pointed out a contradiction [between two verses]. One verse says: ‘And God made the two great lights’ (Genesis 1:16) and immediately the verse continues: ‘The greater light and the lesser light’ (Ibid.). The moon said to the Holy one Blessed be He: ‘Master of the universe, is it possible for two kings to wear one crown?’ [God responded:] ‘Go then and make yourself smaller.’ The moon answered: ‘Because I have made a suggestion must I make myself smaller.’ [God tried to appease the moon saying:] ‘Go and you will rule both the day and the night.’ The moon cried out: ‘What is the value of this when a lamp is useless during daylight hours.’ God replied: ‘Go, Israel shall set its days and years according to you [the moon].’ The moon [again disappointed] said: ‘This is not possible for the seasons cannot be reckoned without the sun.’ … God responded: ‘Go, the righteous will be called by your name – ‘the small’: ‘Jacob, the small; Samuel, the small and David, the small.’ When God saw that the moon would not be appeased, he declared that on Rosh Hodesh a special offering would be brought to atone for God’s treatment of the moon.”
This etiological story [intended to explain why the moon is smaller than the sun] explores the link between Rosh Hodesh and the vice of jealousy. God, who presupposes that the reason for the moon’s comments was its jealousy of the sun, punishes the moon accordingly. The subsequent debate finds God trying to appease the moon’s hurt. Finally God takes upon Himself responsibility for the pain caused to the moon. The special sacrifice offered on Rosh Hodesh is a constant reminder of God’s atonement. God’s willingness to diminish His own honor by taking responsibility for the moon’s pain serves as a divine model of behavior for alleviating the vice of jealousy. This model of leadership ultimately might have helped save the kingship of Saul. It is also a worthy message for the leadership so direly needed in this difficult hour.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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