Hope Undying

This week culminates in Shabbat HaChodesh, the New Moon of the first month (March 16–17), which means Passover will be only two weeks away, at the full moon of the first month. Now, New Moon might sound like an esoteric topic in our high-tech urban world, but we’ll see that it’s actually most relevant—not just to the simple agricultural life of our ancestors, but today as well.

New Moon observance was definitely relevant to the imperial authorities who ruled over Israel in the time of the Maccabees. To consolidate power and tighten his rule, Emperor Antiochus sought to force the Jews into the mold of the dominant Hellenistic culture. The emperor probably had the help of Jewish advisors who agreed with his goal, for whatever reasons, because his strategy of coercion reflects an understanding of Jewish values. Just ban three essential mitzvot: circumcision, Shabbat, and blessing the New Moon– Now, the first two mitzvot are pretty obvious Jewish identity markers, and are even termed “signs” (otot) in Torah (Gen 17:11; Exod 31:13, 17). But why a ban on observing and blessing the New Moon? Because on this mitzvah the entire Jewish calendar depended. Without an official notice of the New Moon, the rest of the calendar would be in chaos, and the defining cycle of holy days weakened or dismantled altogether. Without the sanctification of the New Moon, Passover and the rest of the holy days would soon be lost.

There’s an additional reason for the ban, which Antiochus might not have been aware of, but the evil spiritual forces behind his strategy were. In addition to providing for the annual calendar, New Moon is also a sign of renewal, of the unquenchable resiliency of the Jewish people.

Just as the moon disappears at the end of each month, but returns and grows in fullness, so Israel may suffer exile and decline, but it always renews itself [better: is always renewed by God]—until the coming of Messiah, when the promise of the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai will be fulfilled, never to be dimmed again. (Artscroll Chumash on Exod 12:2)

The New Moon is a sign of renewal and hope. In our Haftarah reading for this week, Ezekiel portrays the renewed temple of the Age to Come, and the “prince” who serves within it.

It shall be the prince’s duty to furnish the burnt offerings, grain offerings, and drink offerings, at the feasts, the new moons, and the Sabbaths, all the appointed feasts of the house of Israel. . . . Thus says the Lord God: In the first month, on the first day of the month [the New Moon], you shall take a bull from the herd without blemish, and purify the sanctuary. (Ezek 45:17a, 18)

The New Moon will continue to be marked and sanctified, even in the Age to Come. Its importance is underscored in the genealogy of Messiah as Matthew summarizes it: “Thus there were fourteen generations from Avraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the Babylonian Exile, and fourteen generations from the Babylonian Exile to the Messiah” (Matt 1:17 CJB). Fourteen doesn’t represent the literal number of generations in each segment; rather, it is the numerical equivalent of “David” spelled dalet, vav, dalet in Hebrew. Dalet is the sign for four and vav for six, so dalet vav dalet, David, equals fourteen, underlining Yeshua’s descent from King David.

Moreover, fourteen is the number of days between the new moon on day one and the full moon on day fifteen. Matthew is framing his genealogy within the cyclical renewal of the moon. Abraham is like the new moon, bringing the first light of revelation, which finally shines forth in fullness with the arrival of David (Matt 1:2–6). From David’s reign, the kingdom declines until the moon disappears with the Babylonian Exile (Matt 1:6–11), and then is renewed and grows great again from the Exile to the full light of Messiah’s coming (Matt 1:12–17). (I first heard this interpretation in a seminar by Dr. Mark Kinzer.)

Messiah’s story doesn’t end with his coming, of course, but with his resurrection, the first installment of the great resurrection to come. Just as the moon rises again out of the darkness to renew the lunar cycle, so Messiah rises again from death to bring light to the world. The New Moon of the first month begins the two-week countdown to Passover, the festival of past redemption that anticipates redemption to come, the resurrection at the end of the age, as we say, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Our haftarah imagines the future observance of Passover in the eschatological temple, as the Lord instructs the prince: “On the fourteenth day of the first month you are to have the Pesach, a feast seven days long; matzah will be eaten” (Ezek 45:21). Hope, symbolized by the waxing moon, is so central to life with God that the prophet envisions the annual cycle of New Moon and Passover continuing on in the Age to Come. The hope of resurrection, which this cycle points to, is also central to our faith. One of the daily morning prayers, Yigdal, based on Maimonides’ summation of thirteen essentials of Jewish faith,  concludes,

God will revive the dead in His great loving-kindness.

Blessed for evermore is His glorious name!

Later, the second blessing of the daily Amidah mentions the resurrection five times, ending,

Faithful are You to revive the dead.

Blessed are You, Lord, who revives the dead. (Both prayers are from the Koren Siddur.)

In Messianic faith, resurrection is even more central. Rav Sha’ul reminds us of the Good News “which you received, and on which you have taken your stand . . . namely this: the Messiah died for our sins, in accordance with what the Tanakh says; and he was buried; and he was raised on the third day, in accordance with what the Tanakh says” (1 Cor 15:1, 3–4).

Hope, renewal, resurrection are all as inherent to the life of faith as the waxing moon is to the cycle of the year. Resurrection isn’t just a bullet-point in our list of beliefs, but a hope that permeates our lives. Belief in the resurrection is essential not only because it gives individual consolation in the face of death. It’s even more essential as it frames the entire story of humankind and God in hope, hope that is undying because it transcends death itself. This resurrection hope provides purpose to human life and history, the kind of purpose that people despair of finding without it. This is what makes the sibling religions of Judaism and Christianity unique among the beliefs and dogmas of humankind. They have displayed their sibling rivalry throughout history, but they are united in sharing not just hope in some abstract sense, but the undying hope of resurrection to come.

Here’s the on-the-ground relevance of the esoteric talk about the New Moon: Even amid the pains and perplexities that seem unavoidable in this life, each New Moon reminds us that in Messiah we always have hope. This is radical: amid the chaos and cynicism that surround us, we can have lives of meaning and purpose. We don’t have a guarantee that our lives are going to be smoother, more prosperous, more trouble-free than the lives of others. And yet somehow, undergirding our demanding and sometimes disappointing lives, is a hope that doesn’t depend on ourselves, but on the one who was raised from the dead during Passover long ago.

Praised be God, Father of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah, who, in keeping with his great mercy, has caused us, through the resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah from the dead, to be born again to a living hope. 1 Peter 1:3

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