Parashat: Bereshit

Parashat Bereshit
October 2, 2021, 26 Tishrei 5782 

Torah: Genesis 1:1-6:8; Triennial 5:1-6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5-43:10 (Ashkenazim); Sephardim Isaiah 42:5-42:21 

The Moon is Always Female
Ilana Kurshan 

Is true equality possible? Can husband and wife—or man and woman—aspire to be genuine equals? The rabbis hint at an answer to these questions while musing on a verse from this week’s parashah: “God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day, and the lesser light to dominate the night” (1:16). The rabbis point to a discrepancy in this verse – were there two great lights, equal in size and luminosity, as the first half of the verse suggests; or was there a greater and a lesser one, as per the second half of the verse? To account for this discrepancy, the Talmud tells a mythic story that speaks to the pitfalls and possibilities for gender equality, and what it takes for everyone to shine. 

According to Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi, both halves of the verse are true, but they refer to two different stages of creation. At first God created the sun and moon equally bright – these were the “two great lights.” But then the moon, discontent with the status quo, complained to God, “Is it possible for two kings to serve with one crown?” (Hullin 60b). Presumably the moon wished to outshine the sun, aspiring to be not just a great light but the greater light. After all, there is only one God in the heavens – why shouldn’t there only be one great light as well? God grew angry at such impudence and told the moon, “Go and diminish yourself.” The Talmud uses gendered language in recounting this myth—the moon speaks in the feminine, as in Marge Piercy’s poetry collection The Moon Is Always Female. Given these gendered roles, we might note that God does not diminish the moon but tells the moon to diminish herself – that is, the female is not suppressed or subordinated, but she nonetheless receives the message to make herself smaller and to shine less bright. 

Presumably this is not the solution the moon had in mind, because she complains to God, “Master of the Universe, since I said a correct observation before You, must I diminish myself?” The moon truly believes that it is impossible for two equals to rule side by side, and she resents being punished for speaking this truth. God responds by trying to appease the moon and detract from the severity of her punishment. He tells her that she may rule not just at night, but also alongside the sun in the daytime – presumably in an attempt to restore some semblance of egalitarianism. Unlike the sun, which never shines at night, the moon can be found in the sky at various hours of both night and day, depending on the time of the month. The moon is thus granted more “sky-time,” in spite of her diminished size. But the moon remains disgruntled. As a lesser light, she will always be eclipsed by the sun’s radiance. “What use is a candle in the middle of the day?” she asks. 

God responds with a second attempt to appease the moon. Perhaps the solution is that even if one light must be greater and one lesser, they can at least have distinct roles. And so God tells the moon, “Go, let the Jewish people count the days and years with you.” The Jewish people—smaller in size than most other nations—will reckon time by the lunar calendar, unlike much of the rest of the world. But the moon is once again unsatisfied, because she knows that although the people will count the months with her, they will count the seasons with the sun. And so God makes one final offer, telling the moon that although she is the Meor HaKattan, the lesser light, righteous men will be named for her—such as Jacob HaKattan, as the patriarch Jacob is occasionally called (Genesis 27:15, Amos 7:5), and David HaKattan, as King David is once called (I Samuel 17:14), and Shmuel HaKattan, presumably a reference to the Talmudic sage who went by this name. God is telling the moon that being the lesser light is not necessarily a demotion; by virtue of being lesser—the second-born and weaker twin, the youngest son of Yishai, the humble sage who yielded to his colleagues—these men became great. 

In the continuation of the midrash, God sees that the moon is not comforted by her retinue of male namesakes. And so God commands, “Bring atonement for me, since I diminished the moon.” How can anyone atone for God? The Talmud explains that this is a reference to the goat sacrificed on the New Moon. This goat offered by the priests in the Temple each month serves to atone for God’s behavior. God regrets diminishing the moon, which was not a part of the original divine plan. 

According to the original plan for creation, two equal celestial bodies were supposed to rule alongside one another, like Adam and Eve created simultaneously as one being in Genesis chapter 1: “And God created Adam in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them” (1:27). But then in the second creation story in Genesis chapter 2, God creates Eve from Adam’s rib and subsequently renders her subordinate: “Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you” (3:16). 

In these words from Eve’s curse, the Torah uses a similar word for “rule” (yimshol) as is used to describe the rule of the sun and moon (memshelet). These words share a common root, mashal, which is also the Hebrew word for “parable,” perhaps implying that both of these stories are also parables for how the world was meant to be, and how the world became. In the beginning, according to God’s original plan, there were two who ruled alongside one another. And someday this egalitarian ideal will be restored, as per Isaiah’s prophetic vision of a time when “the light of the moon shall become like the light of the sun” (30:26). As we traditionally recite each month in the Kabbalistic prayer known as Kiddush Levana, “May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my father, to readjust the deficiency of the moon, so it may no longer be reduced in size; may the light of the moon be again like the light of the sun.” 

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